I just returned from a month-long trip to Italy. I’m here to report back that the Mediterranean lifestyle is nowhere as healthy as people say it is.
Many Europeans still chain-smoke cigarettes, sometimes desperate enough to light up in train cars, even though it’s forbidden. Breakfast might as well be an IV-injection of sugar: a piece of cake or croissant or white bread with jam, a coffee or two—the norm is cappuccino or espresso--with a pack or two of white sugar, and of course, a cigarette or two.
When I coach people on what to eat for breakfast, I advise eating 10 grams of protein by 10 a.m. to get the metabolism fired up. I also suggest eating some natural fat, such as avocado in an omelet, to feel full longer and have steady-burning energy for at least three to four hours.
Italian breakfasts certainly don’t provide steady energy for a substantial time; breakfast is a heart defibrillator, meant to shock you back to life after begrudgingly getting out of bed and struggling to face the day’s bleak prospects like either having to go to a job you don’t want to go to, or, because of the dire state of the Italian economy, having no job. (Yet somehow, Italians, even those with weak or no job prospects are still are willing to spend a euro a pop on 27 espressos a day!)
After eating a typical continental breakfast, two hours later, I would feel hungry and mentally fuzzy, or fuzzier, than I normally do anyway.
Italians need to sip at least a few espressos (they are tiny portions) to keep their systems running until lunch. Here in the U.S., those in natural wellness are taught, and teach, that a high amount of caffeine consumption drains the adrenal glands and could thus lead to multi-systemic problems (not burning body fat as efficiently, for example).
Do the Italians, by and large, suffer from adrenal exhaustion? The way they vociferously and dramatically communicate with each other, you’d think they have plenty of adrenaline surging through their system. Could it be a case of being exhausted on the inside while appearing energetic?
Whether or not Italians drain their ever-so-important adrenal glands, I can’t say for sure. But I’m banking that several espressos a day isn’t the healthiest thing.
Now it’s time for the carb heavy lunch. Yes, most Italians do eat pasta every day, often twice a day. In the U.S. we’ve been told by every diet guru and health coach (me included) to stay away from starchy carbs as much as possible to keep the belly flat.
Many Italian shopkeepers (how nice it was to not see any chain stores for a month) close down from 1 until 4 in the afternoon. No wonder they need to take such a long reposo with all those carbs and oils digesting.
Dinner is roughly the same as lunch, yet drawn out for an even longer period of time than lunch. This allows for the healthy European lifestyle of smoking more cigarettes and drinking more wine.
Of course the Italian experience is healthy in many ways: dining with close friends and family most likely lowers blood pressure and wards off depression. Taking time to appreciate the important things in life (again, food, family and friends), economic downturn be damned.
The quality of the food, overall is much better in Italy (though I did manage to pick a restaurant that had the worst spaghetti in all of Italy, it was way overcooked and stuck together). Tomatoes aren’t grown by agricultural monolithic corporations. Here in the U.S., we are victim to having to purchase tomatoes that are genetically-engineered to look pretty but completely devoid in taste.
Even though I ate pasta and pizza and gelato every day (When in Rome), I didn’t gain weight. I walked several miles nearly every day. Besides the obvious factor of burning calories for my lack of weight gain, there’s something about Italian food that didn’t trigger allergic symptoms I often get when eating pizza and pasta back in the U.S.
Maybe it’s the quality of the wheat or difference in the gluten or flour. Not once did I get congested or watery, itchy eyes after eating in Italy. Perhaps the amazing quality of the olive oils and Balsamic vinegar helps to burn up the pasta and coat and expedite the digestive system.
I didn’t have amazing food every day in Italy; many meals consisted of bowling-alley quality pizza. Yet I never felt any food allergy symptoms. Even average Italian food lacks the contaminants, pesticides, GMO’s (genetically modified foods) and additives that U.S. food is riddled with. (The exception in Italy: supermarket salami and cured meats often contain nitrates and/or nitrites; buying from a local specialty meat shop is better.)
I don’t think Italians are vastly healthier than Americans. It’s just that far too many Americans are so ill and dis-eased from eating junk food and not walking more than 10 steps to the bathroom all day. All Italians seem as healthy as Dr. Oz by comparison.
It was rare to see a significantly overweight Italian. Hopefully one day, it will also be rare to find an Italian smoker.