Eat Like an Italian

by Anne Bennett on June 26, 2017

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 anywhere in the world.

We have so many to choose from — Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, Slim-for-Life and 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.

My vote for best overall diet is the one that Time Magazine reported on in February, 2012. 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 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.

However, 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 processed 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.

Of all the currently available commercial diet plans, Weight Watchers comes closest to the way Southern Italians once ate. Today when you become a Weight Watcher, you don’t “go on a diet.” Rather, you choose to make permanent changes in the quality and quantity of the foods you eat. This is not a have-to thing. It has to be a want-to choice to live longer, healthier, thinner.

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. Please pass the olive oil and the crusty whole grain bread.

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Mike June 27, 2017 at 11:00 pm

HI Anne– I am trying to do just this, eat like the Italians. I’m part way there anyway, 95% of the oil I use is California Olive Oil and whole grain bread. I only eat white bread when I buy it at the Italian grocery store in Des Moines when I’m up there. So not very often. I started buying the Trader Joe’s Multigrain Mix you had in one of your recipes. quite good.

Sugar is my problem. Like many others.

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