With its combination of pasta, pizza and cheese, the Italian diet might not seem the healthiest. But how do Italians manage to live longer? American writer Rick Zullo tries to get to the bottom of it.
If you’re like me, you’ve often asked yourself, “Why do Italians live longer and stay so trim while consuming daily portions of pasta?”
Perhaps you even read the recent article below debunking the notion that pasta makes you fat.
Yes, for me, it’s comforting to see occasional examples of common sense and good science triumphing over fads and false hype. And yet it seems so challenging for logic to gain any traction when up against superior marketing.
The big consumer food brands must absolutely love it when a new fad diet comes along.
Too much fat raises our cholesterol, say the scientists. Great, let’s launch a brand of low-fat frozen turkey burgers. But wait, sugar is the real culprit! No problem, we’ll just replace the sucrose in our biscuits with Splenda (a no calorie sweetener) and put the good-tasting fat back in. Well, no, natural sugar is OK, it’s the gluten that’s making me feel bloated. We’ve got you covered there, too – we’ve re-engineered breakfast cereals to conform to your imaginary needs. You’re welcome!
Photo: Francois Guillot/AFP
Italians seem immune to all this, preferring mamma’s kitchen to anything dreamed up by the food scientist-come-marketer at a food manufacturer. Things are changing in Italy, for sure, but there’s still a huge gap in food attitudes between Italians and Americans (or other non-Mediterranean cultures).
I made my own tiny contribution to this crusade by writing a book a few years ago entitled, “Eat Like an Italian.” It’s a not recipe book or a “blue print” for a healthy diet (as you can no doubt tell by now, I dismiss this notion outright). Rather, it’s much like this post—a thoughtful analysis of two divergent cultural attitudes towards food.
So why do Italians live longer?
To gain some real-life insights, it would be instructive to simultaneously eavesdrop on two random social events; one in Italy and one in the U.S. Notice something in common? Yes—sooner or later, both conversations turn to eating.
Now notice the difference. In the U.S., they’re all discussing saturated fats, anti-oxidants, carbs, proteins, and various micro-nutrients. The latest bogus buzz words are flung into the fray for good measure: detoxifying, probiotic, and metabolically-optimized. In other words, they’re discussing diets.
Now listen to the Italian version of this conversation. Even if you don’t speak the language you can hardly miss the sentiments: “Ho mangiato una mozzarella celestiale; una pizza buona da morire; un dolce paradisiaco! Un sogno! Un miracolo!” (I ate some divine mozzarella; a pizza to die for; a heavenly cake! A dream! A miracle!)
In contrast to their American counterparts, they’re actually talking about food.
What’s more, every adjective describes the miraculous nature of pleasurable eating, as if the food itself is a conduit to the divine. The excitement is over the exceptional taste and quality of the foods, not whether they conform to the latest fad diet prescription. Indeed, they couldn’t care less about that, it would seem.
Population studies offer more truth than lab tests
Centenarians in the Sicilian town of Montemaggiore Belsito. Photo: Antonio Parinello
So if they’re indulging in all of this incredible food while ignoring their “diets,” why do Italians live longer than Americans? According to the World Health Organization, Italians have the fifth highest life expectancy in the world while Americans are languishing at number 40, just behind Cuba and Taiwan.
The statistics further show that the U.S. spends much more money on healthcare than any developed country in the world at $8,000 (€7,096) per capita, or 17.6 percent of G.D.P., while Italy spends only $3,000 (€2,662) per capita, or nine percent of G.D.P. Furthermore, the U.S. spends more money on prescription drugs than the rest of the countries in the world. Combined! And we’re still not very healthy.
The question remains: How can we explain these apparent contradictions?
Well, don’t bother asking an Italian because they can’t explain it to you. It’s not that they wouldn’t like to, but this knowledge is so innate that most Italians aren’t even aware that they possess it. The instincts are buried deep within their DNA, the evolutionary result of generations of discriminating eaters who could tell at a glance if a particular food was appealing or not.
The point is this: the time-tested traditions of the Italian kitchen contain more wisdom than any scientific study ever could. Doctors and scientists are very good at reductionist experiments, but ultimately these details add little, if anything, to our understanding of what it truly means to eat healthy—or more importantly, to be healthy.
Conclusions reached in the laboratory seldom translate to real-life benefits; indeed they often have the opposite effect. Even scientists themselves are starting to realize this. (NPR article: Scientist Debunks The “Magic” Of Vitamins) Nutrients can’t be accurately studied independent of the foods in which they’re found—our metabolic systems are much too intricate to be subjected to such easy analysis and explanation.
Fast food versus slow food