LET FOOD BE THY medicine and medicine be thy food.
Want to know the secret behind how Italians stay so thin and happy? It’s a secret I uncovered during my trip to Italy, where I wrote this blog. Sitting in the Umbrian countryside, enjoying a home-cooked meal prepared by Simonetta, a local chef, the answer is clear to me. Family, friends, and fresh, whole food are all part of the pleasure of being alive. And these pleasures help keep you healthy and thin. It’s that simple!
The food I’ve eaten in Italy is real food, meant to savored, not just used as fuel. The meal was served on a long wooden table, set with beautiful ceramic plates painted with sunflowers. Simonetta made light chicken meatballs with a fresh tomato sauce, accompanied by a fresh arugula and radicchio salad, and a side salad of vine-ripened, freshly-picked garden tomatoes, fresh basil, roasted peppers, and grilled eggplant, drizzled with fresh extra-virgin olive oil made from the olive trees surrounding the old stone farmhouse.
That’s a long way from typical American cuisine — fast and processed foods. Coming from a place where 2 out of every 3 people are overweight, I found the sheer lack of obesity and girth startling!
Looking for foods with labels in Umbria? They’re hard to find in this ancient countryside. In fact, a meal from a box or a can is a strange notion in these hills. Not only that, but here food is a source of pleasure, not anxiety. Even more shocking? No one here is on a diet!
Why? Well, the Italians here are eating reasonable portions of healthy foods — they don’t gain weight, so there’s no need to lose it.
Here’s an example of what I am talking about. We went out to a local family restaurant in Umbria where families and friends all sat and relaxed and on a stone terrace under a trellis. We waited for perhaps 20 minutes before the waiter came over. Once he did, we learned that there was no menu and there were no special dishes — just home-cooked, local foods. The food came out slowly as we talked and enjoyed the evening. And what food it was!
To start with we had grilled radicchio lettuce, dark greens with olive oil, and grilled eggplant with pine nuts. Next came homemade pasta cooked al dente, almost hard by American standards (which makes it more slowly absorbed with less impact on blood sugar), and served with local black truffles, garlic, and local extra-virgin olive oil. And it was just a small serving of pasta — not the mounds of soggy noodles served in most American restaurants.
Then a simple roasted chicken arrived, served on big platter and shared by all of us. We washed it all down with a bottle of local red wine without any sulfites, followed by a tiny cup of decaf espresso as the evening came to a close. The food was pleasantly satisfying and the portions were of reasonable sizes. Life is lived on a human scale here, at a sane pace. There’s no rush.
In fact, we sat and ate for 3 hours — and the families and friends sitting around us also spent the whole evening eating and enjoying each other’s company. Stories, laughter, and pleasure filled the evening.
I looked around at the other patrons, there were no American tourists. And no wonder. This was a place off the grid, not in a tour book, known and used by locals, the food cooked by Irma, the matron and owner of the restaurant for decades. Most striking was the relaxed atmosphere, the slow pace, and the thinness and healthy glow of all the restaurant patrons.
Coming from a place where 2 out of every 3 people are overweight, I found the sheer lack of obesity and girth startling! If there’s one thing this trip has made clear to me, it’s that eating whole, fresh foods that are locally grown and lovingly prepared is essential to good health.
Unfortunately, this is a foreign experience to most Americans. Most of us don’t eat foods that come from the earth, but instead from a box or can or prepared by food scientists in a factory.
These foods are unrecognizable to our genes and our cells. When our body doesn’t recognize these processed foods, we get sick — and gain weight.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can make a different choice. You can choose to eat whole, unprocessed foods. Eating this way isn’t just good for your taste buds. It’s the answer to most of our chronic diseases and the obesity epidemic.
Once we change our way of eating (and hopefully our pace of life) to incorporate whole, fresh foods, and time and pleasure around meals, then many of our health and obesity problems will disappear. Though I know we all can’t live exactly like Italians in the countryside, we can bring a slice of their way of eating and living into our lives.
Try these tips:
- Try to choose only the freshest, most locally grown ingredients when shopping.
- Search out farmers’ markets in your area to find foods as they were meant to be consumed — right off the farm.
- Cook simply and enjoy the tastes of the best ingredients.
- Spend time with friends and family during meals. Make a beautiful dinner once or twice a week and plan on having a slow, languishing meal with no other plans for the evening.
I hope you’ll take my message to heart by incorporating the secrets of good Italian health into your own life. Your cells, your genes and your soul will thank you.
Now I’d like to hear from you.
Have you started eating more whole, fresh foods? Have you noticed any effects on your health and weight?
Are you incorporating any Italian eating practices into your own lifestyle?
What are some of your most memorable meals? What made them so special?
Have you visited any other countries or cultures and noticed any differences between how they eat vs. us in the U.S.?
Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below—but remember, we can’t offer personal medical advice online, so be sure to limit your comments to those about taking back our health!
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD