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.
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.