So why do pasta-loving Italians live such long lives?

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Photo: Dana McMahan/Flickr
12:42 CEST+02:00
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.

Eat away: Italian study shows pasta doesn't make 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

Story continues below…

Photo: Peter Reed/Flickr

Fast might be a good thing for race cars and root canals, but it does us no good when it comes to eating. Sadly, we’re seeing more and more fast food options these days, even in Italy. The marketers are very good at what they do and none of us are completely immune to their allure. Even if we outwardly renounce the food itself, the little jingles and slogans get stuck in our heads, so the subliminal message is our constant companion.

Thankfully there’s a group of Italian crusaders that refuse to back down from this fight against the Global Industrial (read: American) Diet. The group, appropriately enough, is called Slow Food (as opposed to fast food—get it?) and since its establishment in 1986, the movement has found support in over 150 countries.

The founder’s name is Carlo Petrini and he hails from the city of Bra, near Turin. His outrage was sparked by the opening of a McDonald’s in Piazza di Spagna in Rome. That particular battle was lost, but the war rages on in Italy, as well as in the U.S. where there are now over 225 local chapters who have taken up the cause.

Admittedly, we also run into some contradictions on this subject. As the name implies, slow food takes more time to prepare — and often more money to purchase. Nowadays it seems that you have to be fairly wealthy to eat like a 19th century Sicilian peasant. Shop the organic food aisle in any given grocery store and you’ll likely pay double of what you’d spend on their standard produce.

This shift has occurred gradually over time as we have slowly (no irony intended) traded our time for more money in order to buy a higher “standard of living,” whatever that implies.

Now the middle class has access to designer clothes, giant screen T.V.s, and German automobiles. We have collectively decided that these things are more important than healthy meals and quality time spent with friends and family at the dinner table—and so our food distribution networks are set up to accommodate that choice. It’s going to take a considerable change in cultural mentality to reverse this trend. But one can always hope.

The above article was shared with The Local by Rick Zullo, the American author of Rick's Rome, a website which offers people advice and insight on all things Italian, podcaster and internet marketing consultant. 

His passion for Italy has its roots in his Italian-American heritage, which keeps him grounded with one foot firmly planted in both countries. When he’s not wandering through the Bel Paese or writing for his blog, he’s improving his Italian language skills with help from his three year-old daughter Demetra.

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