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Seven reasons why living in Italy can be bad for your health

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Seven reasons why living in Italy can be bad for your health
Tiramisu: not the healthiest breakfast. Photo: Depositphotos
10:38 CEST+02:00
Italy is often said to be one of the healthiest places to live in the world. But is it really?

Italy regularly tops "healthy living" charts including one that recently found it was the second-healthiest country in the world.

And when we asked readers what makes life here so healthy, responses poured in telling us of the wonders of locally-grown vegetables, walking, and lots of fresh air.

But some living in the country disagreed, saying that while it might seem like the land of virtue to outsiders and visitors, it's not always such a healthy place to live. 

You told us that Italians have their share of vices - whether it's sugar, cigarettes, or dangerous habits behind the wheel.

Here's why Italy might not be such a haven of good health and clean living after all.

Smoking

According to almost everyone who wrote in, one of the unhealthiest things about life in Italy is the high number of people who smoke.

“You can’t go anywhere where people aren’t smoking,” says Dawn Encian in Lazio. “I didn’t like it before I had asthma and it’s worse now that I have it.”

Smoking is still popular in Italy. Photo: Depositphotos

Smoking is not allowed in bars and restaurants here, but there are no restrictions on smoking in enclosed terraces, doorways and any kind of outdoor seating.

Sugar overload

“The breakfasts and snacks the children eat leave a lot to be desired,” writes Anne Johnson in Rome.

“Feeding kids chocolate biscuits and milk for breakfast is seen as normal here,” agrees Laura Mercer, who lives in Abruzzo.

One thing's for sure, that healthy Mediterranean diet is nowhere to be seen at the Italian breakfast table.

And it's not just the kids who eat badly in the morning. My Italian husband thinks chocolate is a breakfast food. At his parents' house in Puglia, breakfast is cake, biscotti, or tiramisu - or all three.

Photo: Depositphotos

At any cafe, breakfast is always coffee and a cornetto (not an ice cream, but a croissant-like pastry).

And it's not just breakfast; Italians famously think nothing of eating pasta at 9pm and gelato at midnight.

“The carbs!” complains Stephanie Reid in Veneto, “I eat a ketogenic diet by choice and a gluten free diet due to celiac disease. Carbs are FULL of sugar and sugar is the most addictive substance in the world.”

It's still possible to cut sugar out of your diet if you live in Italy, of course. But if you live or work with Italians, you can expect a daily battle.

Dietary downfalls

Many Italians believe that drenching your food in olive oil and covering it in parmesan is not just acceptable – it's good for your health. But ideas like this are hard to swallow for some of us moving here from the US or northern Europe.

And there are lots of other local eating habits that readers aren't convinced can be healthy at all.

“Although it’s extremely delicious, it’s the fat from the cold cuts that is the most unhealthy,” says Jamilah Sayed in Turin.

Parma ham, parmesan cheese and bread are Italian diet staples. But how healthy are they? Photo: Depositphotos

Some of you said there was too much meat and “pig fat” in Italian food, while Peter Luntz in Milan warned that it's “easy to overdo it on cheese and pizza if you don’t branch out and educate yourself.”

Eating late at night is another thing many cited as the unhealthiest thing about life in Italy.

And you can forget about eating in moderation. “Restaurant portion sizes are almost as big here as in the US.” says New York-born Katie Bucci, who now lives near Salento. 

“And my mother in law pushes huge portions on us - of course she thinks eating multiple plates of cheesy pasta is healthy.”

Perhaps the biggest danger of all is the fact that everything is so delicious.

“Because food tastes so good it is easy to overeat,” said Ed Foley, in Abruzzo, who also cautioned: “since good wine is so cheap most foreigners drink too much when they first arrive.”

Cakes at an Italian pasticceria. Could you resist? Photo: AFP

Driving

“The unhealthiest thing has to be the crazy drivers,” says Amanda Diletti, an American citizen living in Florence with her family. “Every time you cross a street you take your life into your hands. And I'm aware that it's worse in other cities.”

Pretty much everyone who's driven in Italy has a variation on a story about almost crashing into someone on a scooter who was smoking and talking on the phone at the same time. And they're probably not exaggerating.

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There is hope that road safety could improve: incoming laws threaten to slap Italy's speeding, texting motorists with much heavier penalties.

And it's not just the driving style that could be bad for your health. Much of the pollution in Italy iscaused by exhaust fumes. With little public transportation outside of big towns and cities, the country is heavily reliant on cars as the primary mode of transportation.

Pollution

High levels of pollution might just be the unhealthiest thing of all about life in Italy.

More so than smoking, stress or distracted drivers, pollution is a major concern for many of our readers. And with good reason.

Air pollution is a problem in much of the country, but it's particularly serious in areas like the Po Valley, and Taranto, where the air is so polluted by a steel plant that cancer rates are 30 percent higher than the national average.

Meanwhile, almost half of all water samples taken from Italy's coastline were found to be polluted last year, and researchers say the problem is only getting worse. The Italian government is yet to do anything about it.

The Ilva steel plant in Taranto, which the M5S promised to turn into a clean energy park. Photo: Alfonzo Di Vincenzo/AFP

Stress

Finally, life in Italy can be much more stressful than many people imagine.

A lot of you told us that the most stressful thing of all about life in Italy was the bureaucracy.

"Nothing works like it should,” laments one anonymous contributor, who also identified “the in laws” as another major source of stress.

Traffic, noise and pollution bother some of you, while one reader pointed out that Italy's high levels of poverty cause misery for many.

Stress, a struggling economy, the lack of work, hopelessness in the young people. People having to leave their family homes and move north or to other counties to find work - that's the number one health issue I see in the southern part of Italy,” says John Rizzo in Calabria.

Although he points out that high stress levels are often countered by “the ability of the Italians, at least in Calabria, to put the problems in their daily lives aside and enjoy the moment.”

“Here's an example: I have a dear friend who has diabetes, high blood pressure, a carotid artery that is 50 percent blocked, his doctor tells him he is a timebomb waiting to explode," he tells us. "But he forgets about all of that by spending time in his garden, with his magnificent vegetables, his rabbits and chickens.”

Of course, Italy isn't perfect. But despite the downsides most of you told us that the healthy positives of life in Italy still far outweigh the unhealthy negatives.

And, despite all these issues, Italians still rank among the healthiest people in Europe. Italy must be doing something right.

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Anne Rose - 20 Aug 2019 17:52
I loved your pun, "But ideas like this are hard to swallow for some of us..." in talking about food. Clever!

Don't get me started on Italian bureaucracy, but other than that, we do find that it's a healthier lifestyle here. The proof is that my husband has cut down his hypertensive meds by 75%, and I'm off them entirely! That says a lot right there.

We seldom go out to eat, partly because of the cost, but mostly because I like to cook and can cook the foods we want. I am vegan, so no worries about too much cheese, meat, cold cuts, etc. My husband mostly eats vegan (because I'm the cook! haha), but he does ration out the cheese he eats.

We've both lost weight since moving here, too. We previously had sedentary lives back in the US but because we own no car here in Italy, we have to walk everywhere. Walking 2-3 miles every day has definitely made us healthier, and I know our stamina has improved!

Oh, and I think the ability to take an afternoon nap now and then is also healthy instead of dragging around exhausted bodies constantly in the US. If I'm awakened during the night, it's because of celebratory fireworks (yaaay!!!) not sirens and cars blaring their horns.

All right. I confess we're one of those who will go out for a gelato at 10pm. But after having walked a couple of miles in the day, we feel we've earned it. :-)
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