NATURAL healing

Eat like an Italian

| July/August 2001

  • Moderate weight training a few times a week can help build strength and bone mass.

Eat well, live long, and die happy,” so the saying goes. If that’s true, Italians will live longer and die happier than the rest of us. Landmark studies in the 1960s found that residents of southern Italy attained the highest adult life expectancy and the lowest incidence of cancer and heart disease in the world. Decades later, that’s still the case.

But in the United States, where heart disease is a significant concern, the picture is not as rosy. Data from the World Health Organization shows that 243 men and 132 women per 100,000 Americans die each year from coronary heart disease. This contrasts starkly with 139 men and sixty-four women per 100,000 dying of heart disease in Italy per year.

Clearly, the Italians are doing something right. For centuries, Italians have eaten a diet based on whole grains and pastas, olives and olive oil, green vegetables, seasonal fruits, legumes, and wine; a diet that we now know is heart-protective and cancer-fighting. Eat like Italians, and Americans might become as healthy as Italians. Except that we don’t—and we haven’t.

The Mediterranean diet

Americans may chant “low fat, high fiber” as a mantra, but when it comes down to what we’re actually eating, it doesn’t look pretty. For the past decade, the nation has bought into the idea of healthy consumption. Olive oil has been on everyone’s lips (figuratively, if not literally), and pasta touted as the new manna. Salads and fish have been the stars of health and women’s magazines, although we are still not eating as well as our Italian friends.

In 1993, experts on diet and health from around the world considered the traditional Mediterranean diet and its benefits. Within the year, the Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust (a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting healthy eating), the World Health Organization, and Harvard’s School of Public Health came up with the Mediterranean diet pyramid (at right), a graphical representation of what Italians eat, to encourage Americans to do the same.

The Mediterranean pyramid differs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food guide pyramid in several important ways. In the USDA model, fats and oils are at the top of the pyramid, with the admonition to “use sparingly.” In the Mediterranean pyramid, olive oil is the only fat, and it is used liberally. Italians may derive as much as 30 percent of their calories from olive oil. This translates to about 100 times more olive oil than the average American consumes, and it appears to be beneficial.

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