I just got back from a brief vacation in the Italian region of Emilia Romagna--the land of Parma ham, proscuitto, Pasta Bolognese and tasty hard cheeses. One of the regional specialties is a ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta covered in a butter sauce and sprinkled with parmesan cheese (Are your arteries choking yet?).    I was immediately struck by the lack of overweight people despite these wonderful foods that are high in fat and quite salty.   What is it about Italy that allows people to stay thin, yet eat these rich foods?

Now, I admit that this particular blog posting is not based on comparative research but rather a reflection on a brief vacation experience.   I really don't know if Italians have more heart attacks than Americans---but to the watchful eye, I was struck by all the healthy "looking" people who were strolling the piazzas who were significantly thinner than the people I see walking around the malls in America.  In fact, I saw almost NO overweight people.

Yes, they walk a lot, ride bicycles and spend time walking off their meals during their traditional passegiata (Lots of the men walk with their jackets thrown over their shoulders like a cape....molte elegante!).    But they also eat dinner very late (after 8 pm), close their shops for a 3 hour lunch break, and enjoy their  bread, wine and gelato.  On the other hand, not all meals are large, there are no fast food places in the small towns, and their cups of espresso hold about a tablespoon of caffe in those cute little cups.  Everything is freshly made and the small grocery stores are not lined with freezers filled with processed foods.

We spent some time with friends who lived in the community and learned that they have all their health care covered (even though taxes are high), work about 35 hours max. a week, and have 32 plus days vacation a year which they often spend in neighboring countries hiking and biking.  Many of the pharmacies provide basic health care services locally.    The school children play lots of sports and not everyone has a car.  Trains are plentiful between cities but, in the small towns,  the best way to get around is to walk.    Their houses and apartments are half the size of those in America but very adequate.   Their way of life seems more relaxed---everywhere you looked, people were gathered and simply enjoying each other----and talking to each other!    Cell phones were plentiful  but they didn't seem to replace face to face conversation.    I didn't see people eating at tables and talking on their phones as much as you see here.  They don't seem to watch nearly the amount of TV that Americans do.    I'm sure they have the usual worries about their jobs and families but they still have a quiet zest that permeates their everyday lives.   Overall, the stress level was definitely less apparent than it is in the U.S.    Maybe the word I am looking for is "content".   They seemed happy with their lives whether they were farmers, teachers or stay at home moms.

People say that traveling is educational.  On this trip, I learned that there are lifestyles that may be different---but perhaps better-- than ours.

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Comments

I think Gretchen is right, it's all about food quality. The thing about high quality food is that it gives you more energy so you exercise more. The benefits double. For processed food the opposite is true.

European people have a meal schedule,they take their time to eat properly. Americans are more individual and practical to eat, also more disorganized that is why they prefer fast food.

If we look at those Americans we know who are thin and fit, and healthy, I think we'll find that it is not what they go without that matters but rather what they enjoy - their hobbies, their activies, their social activites, and their indulgances. Active healthy people are out doing things, enjoying good, flavorful, whole foods, and living their life with gusto. Like Italians. It's where the rush to do, to get ahead, to be in the know, to save time and do more, grab something quick or cram as much in in the day, even just the whole multitask mentality - then we grab a quick bite (rather than 3 hour lunch breaks), run through the drive through (vs, go for a walk and sit and chat over a tiny, flavorful cup of expresso. I could go on. I ask myself this as I've been on both ends of the spectrum- fit and healthy and sick and morbidly obese. What was differnet before? It was about mindset, lifestyle, and actually taking the time to enjoy the relationships and world around us. my 2 cents anyway. Glad you enjoyed your trip!

it is strange that they eat food like that and are still not as overweight as Americans

I really think the key here is that they eat whole foods. Everything is home-grown and fresh. Having food allergies myself, I know the quickest way for me to get my health under control or to shed a few pounds is to stop eating processed foods. The weight comes off very quickly when I go back to whole foods and my energy level goes up.

That's a very good observation. I feel that Italians spend more time actively with their friends and family rather than just being a couch potato. Also they don't drive cars that often as the Americans. This active lifestyle must be the reason why Italians are slim in spite of having a diet rich in fats.

It's hard to make broad stroke comparisons of national populations any more than a series of travel observations, and an honest qualifier made at the outset. That being said, my observations were basically the same. Two months in Umbria, Toscana, and Firenze -- family-style, sit down meals, multiple courses, late-night dining. Food is a national passion and celebration. Obesity doesn't appear to be. I'm not sure if it's a difference in content or more of lifestyle and culture.

Great article, I recently read an article like this one called 8 reasons the french are slim. Apparently even though they have a high fat diet the French appear to have a lower rate of heart attacks as well as a lower rate of obesity compared to us. Here are the reasons Dr. Weil thinks this is so. 1. They eat smaller portions. 2. They avoid snacking and eat only at mealtimes. 3. They Eat a wide variety of food. 4. They Don't skip meals. 5. They enjoy their food and focus on dishes made from fresh, locally grown, quality ingredients. 6. They tend to stick to their internal cues. When you no longer feel hungry, stop eating. 7. They eat less sugar. The French eat less than half as much added sugar as do Americans. Recent research indicates that sugar, rather than saturated fat, may be a key dietary contributor to heart disease. 8. They eat meals with family and friends so that eating becomes a pleasurable experience as opposed to something to "fit into" a schedule or feel guilty about. Personally I think we eat way to many processed foods in this country. I recently lost a bunch of weight from changing the foods I eat and I never felt better. Hopefully are country will learn from some of these other countries.

What an interesting topic!! Most appropriate at a time when most Americans are seeking help to look and feel thinner and better. As you rightly mentioned in your post, freshly prepared, organic and unprocessed foods are the need of the hour. Sedentary job with little exercise is another factor that adds up the unwanted and ugly flab of fat at the wrong places.If we are determined to take the advice in this post seriously, I am sure something positive can be seen happening in America in terms of obesity. Thanks for the wonderful post. Cheers Yvonne

To be honest this is a question that has puzzled many of the health and nutritional experts. The food servings and tendency to offer "all you can eat" buffets actively encourages gluttony. Also food to be honest has been used as an emotional crutch for so many years, due to the chemicals, additives, sugars and associated "highs" that they give you; it is now a generational problem. Kids learn this behaviour from their parents and peers as well. What it does is then create an obesity epidemic, and that is what the western world is facing now. In the UK we are not far behind you. Other parts of Europe too, though the Italians and Spanish seem to have the healthy eating and quality life styles very well in hand. Thanks Alex

If you have a look at the grocery stores in North America or Canada, you'll quickly notice all foods are fatty and sugary, and they are also the least expensive. Healthy food is unaffordable for most people. But, even basic healthy food like traditional vegetables and fruits is way too expensive. An average American doesn't eat the officially recommended portions of daily fruit and vegetables, not because he or she doesn't want to, but simply because they can't afford it. Mediterranean diet means lots of olive oil and vinegar, plus the culture of eating, minus stress. That's what keeps their wait in check.

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