Italians are admired for their healthy Mediterranean diet, but the pressures of modern society mean many are changing their ways. Yet studies show the benefits of eating à la Mediterranean.
The Mediterranean diet has for many years been considered the model of healthy eating. It's a diet rich in olive oil, legumes and vegetables, fruit and nuts, fibers and unrefined carbohydrates, and a moderate amount of fish and wine with few dairy products and very little meat.
As well as reducing the risk of heart disease and obesity, such a diet has also been found to lower blood sugar and promote weight loss in type 2 diabetics. A recently published study conducted by the University of Navarra in Spain found that the Mediterranean diet can boost brain power in the elderly and is better than a low-fat diet for people at risk of vascular dementia.
Naturally, one of the countries people most associate with the Mediterranean diet is Italy - with its highly admired and respected culinary reputation. But modern Italians appear to be no better than other industrialized nations when it comes to healthy eating.
Changing times, changing tables
Italy used to be the land of the three-hour lunch break. Mothers would cook up fresh, mouthwatering, nutritious feasts daily, and siestas would follow the sumptuous meals. Not any more, says Giulio Marchesini, professor of dietary science at Bologna University and head of the hospital's clinic for metabolic and dietary diseases. "It has changed because life has changed," he says, pointing to the pressures of modern society.
Professor Marchesini describes how today's Italians are constantly in a rush and no longer have time to go home for lunch. "Sometimes we eat standing and also playing or studying or doing something with the computer." He also says Italians use far more pre-packed and processed food than ever before.
No longer a role model
Contemporary Italy is suffering from an obesity epidemic and a massive increase in type 2 diabetes. "In Italy, we are at the top of the list for childhood obesity in Europe," Marchesini says, "and this is really worrying because an obese child has nearly a 100 percent possibility of becoming an obese adult."
While the majority of Italians eat plenty of olive oil, pasta and vegetables, many are unaware of the precise elements of a healthy Mediterranean diet. Easy-to-prepare foods like ham, salami and cheese are now eaten daily. In northern Italy in particular, the diet is very rich in pork, beef and animal fats.
Over the past decade, new studies continually emphasize the benefits of the Mediterranean diet for curbing a range of illnesses including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, coronary heart disease and attacks, and even cancer.
Earlier this year, Western Sussex Hospitals in England conducted a comparative review of results from 20 studies investigating the impact of seven popular diets on adults with type 2 diabetes. Mediterranean diets, low-carbohydrate diets, high-protein diets and low-glycaemic-index diets all lowered participants' blood sugar. But the big surprise was that the Mediterranean diet fared better than low-carb and low-fat diets in promoting weight loss.
Not just nutritional value
Professor Marchesini believes we should all be following the Mediterranean diet for another important reason: economic and ecological resources. "The non-Mediterranean diet as it is - meaning rich in meat - is no longer sustainable in terms of the ecological impact on the planet."
Marchesini and his team work hard to promote a return to the Mediterranean model which, he stresses, is not only about what we put in our mouths. At his clinic for metabolic and dietary diseases at Bologna's Sant'Orsola hospital, they no longer send people home with weight-loss diets.
"We provide educational courses and a team of dieticians and medical doctors. We have exercise specialists, a psychologist - everything that may be of help to change people's lifestyles," he notes.
Marchesini also practices what he preaches - eating plenty of legumes, fruit and vegetables, and cycling to work daily, rain or shine.