What can we learn from the Italians?
Posted September 28, 2017 by Matthew Romans
I just returned from a wonderful vacation to Italy. We spent time in Rome and throughout Tuscany. One thing that struck me as we spent time in Rome, Florence, Siena, Cortona and many smaller cities and towns was that there were very few overweight people. I did some research to check my observation and, in fact, the obesity rate in Italy is one of the lowest in the developed world, and less than one quarter the rate of the United States: Obesity Rates. How can this be? Bread is served at every meal. Pasta is a daily diet staple. The wine in Italy is not just for export; rather, it is consumed daily by many (at the central market in Florence, we sat next to two painters who were drinking a glass of red wine with lunch!). Many meals start with crusty bread, pecorino cheese, and various meats like salami and cappicola. In my entire time in Italy, I did not see one gym. I am sure gyms exist, but it is certainly not as prevalent as the mega-gym culture of the U.S. How is it that Italians are not bursting at the seams? Additionally, longevity rates in Italy are among the highest in the world: Longevity Rates.
While I do not have scientific evidence as to the exact causes of this low rate of obesity in Italy, I did observe several factors which I believe correlate strongly.
First, Italians walk a lot and sit less than most Americans. Many Italians walk to work, walk to lunch and dinner. Even those who drive or take public transportation (we rode the Train to Florence and used the public bus service in Rome), end up having to walk significant distances to get to their destinations. In many of the hilltop towns we visited, I witnessed many Italians walking up steep hills to get home or to a shop. They think nothing of it. In every shop, plaza, and town square, people were standing around, chatting, shopping, etc. Some people were sitting on steps to take breaks, but those were typically the only "seats" on offer anywhere we went, except a few park benches.
Second, the food portions and quality are different than the U.S. For example, while pasta is a staple of the Italian diet, it is mostly locally made, with only a few ingredients: water, salt, and unadulterated flour, (meaning no round up, no refining, no enriching with excess B Vitamins, no preservatives). In addition, portion size is typically the size of a fist. Even though there are typically two or three courses, the overall caloric intake of meals is very reasonable. Almost every meal we had, outside of the big cities, were made from locally raised or grown ingredients, very fresh and in season. When the season changes, so do the food choices.
A final observation was that Italy is very much a "Cafe culture". By that I mean, people sit together, often outside, to eat, drink espresso, have a glass of wine, etc. This is similar to the eating/socializing culture in France as well as other countries. I believe this benefits Italians in several ways. Spending time outside year round exposes Italians to regular, modest doses of Vitamin D from the sun. Healthy levels of Vitamin D promote significant benefits, including regulating Insulin levels and supporting a healthy immune system. The cafe also encourages socialization, but without the gluttony we see in the United States (Italians meet and eat or drink in groups either for a quick coffee or a longer, but reasonable sized meal savored over the course of an hour or two).
The observations I made of they Italian lifestyle seem to fit closely with what I recommend to clients and friends looking for improved health and vitality: move about more, sit less, eat natural food whenever possible, socialize often, and get outside every day. I would add lifting heavy things once in awhile (we accomplish that through our exercise protocol at Total Results, but many Italians I saw were accruing similar benefits by hiking up hundreds of feet of elevation each day, doing heavy farm work, etc). We can all benefit from incorporating some Italian lifestyle into our daily routines!