Italians have a healthier attitude about food than Americans do

By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Thursday, July 22, 2010; GZ12

American campaigns to address obesity typically emphasize tasks such as monitoring calories, keeping food journals and exercising 30 minutes a day.

But my recent 10-day trip to Italy inspired me to wonder whether, instead of regarding healthful eating as a skill set, we should nurture it as an art.

I'm not among those who believe Europeans do everything better than Americans. But statistics gathered by the World Health Organization suggest that when it comes to weight maintenance, the Italians may know something we don't.

In the United States this year, according to the WHO, 80.5 percent of adult men and 76.7 percent of women are overweight (as defined by having a body-mass index of 25 or higher); 44.2 percent of men and 48.3 percent of women are obese (BMI of 30 or higher). In Italy, 55 percent of men and 40 percent of women are overweight; 14.4 percent of men and 13.7 percent of women are obese.

Though you can't assume a cause-and-effect relationship, it's interesting to note that in 2004 (the newest data available on the WHO site), the mortality rate per 100,000 people from noncommunicable causes such as diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease was 450 in the United States and 372.3 in Italy.

Greater minds than mine have tried to tease out the likely causes of these gaps. Visiting a handful of Italian cities for just over a week doesn't make me an expert. But I did observe behaviors that struck me as more nutritionally and emotionally sound than those common in the States.

For instance, nowhere did I see anyone walking around with a super-size soda or big honkin' cup of joe from Starbucks. In fact, I embarrassed myself one morning by ordering coffee to go. The puzzled shopkeeper eventually prepared a shot-glass-size serving of espresso and delivered it to me in a flimsy plastic water cup.

Pasta came in fist-size portions, cooked al dente and lightly sauced with pesto or fresh tomato sauce. Roast chicken for lunch was a single, exquisite breast. The skin was sublime, and I ate every morsel. (By the way, despite being away from my regular staple foods and exercise routine, I didn't regain any of the weight I've lost during my Me Minus 10 campaign.)

Though McDonald's lurked in several cities, I saw only one group of kids eating the stuff. Instead, people feasted on single slices of fresh-baked, thin-crusted pizza topped with fresh vegetables, less cheese than we'd settle for at home and plenty of olive oil. I drank local wines with meals, sharing with fellow diners. And I enjoyed gelato daily, in small cups we'd consider kiddie size.

Even at the popular Autogrill chain of highway rest-stop restaurants, fresh, delicious salads were abundant and cheap; olive oil and balsamic vinegar were the only dressings available. A long coffee bar offered a chance to sip an espresso while communing with fellow travelers.

I'm far from the first to notice all this, of course. The Mediterranean diet championed most prominently by the Boston-based Oldways organization favors whole, locally grown foods, eaten with joy in the company of friends and family, preferably with a good glass of wine. Largely through that group's efforts, the proposed 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans embrace the Mediterranean approach.

But it's going to take more than a new set of dietary guidelines to demonstrate to Americans the true value of adopting such a way of eating.

If I had the wherewithal, I would create a haven where ordinary Americans, especially those without the resources to travel to Europe, could visit for a week or so to immerse themselves in the kind of culture and lifestyle I experienced in my brief sojourn. My retreat would help people understand the joys of slowing down, savoring a small portion of excellent food, and taking an afternoon stroll or siesta to close the deal. It would serve as an incubator for cooks and community activists who could hone their skills and then hit the road, helping people such as those described in a recent Post article about Manchester, Ky., develop a new way of viewing food.

Above all, though, my retreat would be gorgeous. I believe being surrounded by beauty -- passion as expressed through art, architecture and music -- may play a big role in the way Italians eat. How many of us are gorging on Big Macs or worse because those foods, cheap and readily available, are filling a hole that everyday access to stunning beauty might more amply fill?

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