Another Health Lesson from Italy

John’s recent post on his travels to Italy reminded me of a few things I noticed when I was over there. Italians are very different from Americans in some ways, and it’s definitely worth contrasting the two cultures when thinking about public health issues. If I had to guess why there is less obesity, I would agree with John’s points about fresh food and activity, and also add this: Italians have much lower stress than Americans.

Italy has a well-run national health system. Knowing that you are able to get health care, and that your family and friends will also, contributes immeasurably to your sense of security. Also, Italians are a bit less career-oriented. It is not unusual to meet an Italian for the first time and find out where they are from, where their family lives, what is their favorite bar, and what kind of music they like without ever finding out what their job is, and without being asked what you do. Italians don’t change jobs as much as Americans, and they often have their career laid out for them from a young age. This may seem inhibiting to Americans, but the upside is that they worry about the whole work thing much less, and they don’t feel judged by others because of their job. A good waiter, for instance, is a highly respected person in Italy, and they carry themselves with a lot of dignity.

Here’s another thing, although I’m not sure what the health affects are: it seems to me that they live a good deal closer together, to both their families and to strangers. Italian cities aren’t packed all that tightly, like say Manhattan, but still, Italians are used to being surrounded by people all the time. There is less cheap housing available, and it isn’t unusual or strange for adults to live with their parents, and for the parents to care for the grandparents in the home. Again, this might seem stressful to Americans, but in the long run I think Italians develop a lot of social skills that they can use to move through their society a bit more smoothly.

Rome
Rome / Russell Yarwood / CC BY 2.0

If one wants to live a bit like an Italian here in America, these are the easiest things I would recommend:

1. Cut back on breakfast, which, as John points out, is what they do. It’s usually just an espresso and a very small pastry that they eat standing up. Breakfast is just not a big meal for them. Isn’t it interesting how different this is from what we learn here from a very young age?

2. Walk and bike more. Italians love to walk, and it isn’t unusual to see very well-dressed middle-aged ladies zooming around the city on a bike (while holding a handbag, smoking a cigarette, and talking on a cellphone). Walking through your neighborhood is a great thing to do after a meal, in the early evening.

3. Eat whatever you like, just eat less of it. For example: Italians eat their prosciutto with lots of fat on it – that’s the sweet part! But it’s cut as thin as paper. DON’T confuse Italian American food with the Mediterranean Diet. Italian Americans don’t eat very well; it hurts me to say it, but it’s true. What you find at Amato’s would NOT be very popular in Italy. Eggs “Florentine” are not available in Florence. The pizza crust in Naples is paper-thin, and they use much less cheese than Americans
(sometimes, no cheese at all).

4. Be very critical about what you eat. Be a snob about good ingredients and preparation. When I was in Italy, I wouldn’t even touch bad food. It’s a bit harder to be that way in America, where fresh food is the exception, not the rule. Italians have a very high standard for fruit and vegetables and demand very good meat and fish. They can easily get those things from a local source every day. In Maine, we have a much rougher climate, so we don’t get the same local produce year round, but what we do have can be excellent. We should treasure our seafood, which is as good as it gets. We also have very good small-farm-raised meat (ever been to LP Bisson farm in Topsham? Well worth the trip). And I can assure everyone that we make much better beer than the Italians!

I don’t want to romanticize Italy any more than it already has been. They have their own problems, of course. It’s worth pointing out that in the south of Italy there is more obesity, which I suspect is related to poverty (diet alone doesn’t explain it – there is just as much fried food in Florence as in Naples!) Italy is changing, and there is fast food there now too. Overall, however, I still think we can learn a few things from the Italians.

Kavi Montanaro is a photographer/videographer living in Portland Maine. Kavi also enjoys writing and theater arts. At Guiding Stars, he helps to organize the work of a team of photographers across the United States and Canada, who gather images of the food products rated by the Guiding Stars system.

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Vicki Bensinger
10 years ago

I agree with you entirely about Italians. I spent a month there a
few years back with my daughter. At home, here in the U.S. we are
so conscious of everything we eat. When we were in Italy we ate
whatever we wanted, of course in moderation, and walked everywhere.
I lost 5 pounds without even trying. Life was so easy and relaxing.
Once I realized I made an error in booking my train to the next
destination and got so stressed. The concierge at the hotel told me
to relax, go shopping with my daughter, and when I came back it
would all be taken care of. Their attitude is so much better than
ours. Laid back and relaxed, I loved it. Too bad it’s not
contagious! I will say that Italian women have a better self image
as well, whether lean or heavy. We were taking a break one day
while on the Amalfi Coast and sat out at the swimming pool. A woman
who must have been 100 pounds overweight, no joke, stood under an
outdoor shower rinsing herself off, with a bikini on. As she stood
under the shower I made mention to my daughter how different their
self image is in Italy. You could just tell by the way she carried
herseslf that she felt as beautiful as anyone else at the pool.
Back in the states, it would never be the case. It was so very
refreshing even if I did feel like she needed to choose her foods
more wisely. Fresh fruit, veggies, meat and fish is all you see
there. It’s no wonder the majority of citizens are healthier. On
the flip side though, whether in Italy or the states, in order to
eat like that all the time you have to have the means to do so. Not
everyone can afford the costs. Maybe if we look into that and make
concessions more than just the weathly can afford the best foods.