Eat Like an Italian

by Anne Bennett on February 17, 2012

From "Food Rules, An Eater's Manual", by Michael Pollan, Illustrated by Maira Kalman

Here’s a classic irony: we Americans are fatter than ever; collectively we’re the fattest people on earth, yet we have access to more weight loss diets than you can shake a stick at.

In TV ads Jennifer Hudson sings that she “believes” in Weight Watchers. Mariah Carey lost 30 pounds on Jenny Craig. Janet Jackson swears that Nutrisystem did it for her.

I’ve heard a lot of talk lately about the Paleo diet, otherwise known as the Caveman diet. It proposes eating like we did back in the Paleolithic days (before MacDonalds). You consume meat and vegetables but no grains, legumes, dairy products or alcohol. Shoot me now.

Well, here’s my vote for best overall diet; it’s one that Time Magazine reported on in its February 20, 2012 issue. The title of the article: “Eat Like an Italian,” or specifically, like someone from the southern Italian town of Nicotera. Even more specifically, like someone who lived in Nicotera just after World War II.

In the early 1950’s, American doctor Ancel Keys traveled to Nicotera to learn why Southern Italians, unlike well-fed Americans, had such a low incidence of heart disease. He was responsible for gathering the very first data for a global comparison of eating habits. The results of his studies pointed for the first time to the Mediterranean diet as being the best, healthiest way to eat.

Keys and his fellow scientists studied the daily diets of the people of Nicotera and found that they ate simple meals of whole wheat bread baked in wood-fired ovens, beans cooked in clay pots, accompanied by an abundance of fresh vegetables, dried fruits, nuts and olive oil.

World War II had just ended and people throughout Europe were too poor to afford the luxuries of meat. Subsequently they were 30% to 40% less likely to suffer heart disease than more affluent Americans, who could afford copious quantities of red meat, milk and cheese.

Alas, here is another irony: if you travel to Nicotera today you’ll see almost as many obese people as you would in a typical American shopping mall. Why? Because the classic Mediterranean diet was one of privation, with farmers toiling under arduous circumstances to grow their own food. Today’s Italians don’t farm, they shop at supermarkets filled with the same packaged junk foods as we have. They also can afford meat and they demand it in their children’s school lunches, which is unfortunate because 36% of Italian children now are either overweight or obese.

I love meat as much as the next carnivore, but I am re-thinking its dominant role on my dinner plate. Thomas Jefferson may have gotten it right long before Dr. Keys when he stated that meat should be used sparingly as a condiment for vegetables.

By the way, Dr. Keys not only advocated the Mediterranean diet, he and his wife ate like poor Italians throughout their lives. When he died in 2004, he was 100 years old. Pass the olive oil cruet and the crusty bread.

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