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.