August 10


Why Do Italians Live Longer?

By Rick

August 10, 2016

If you’re like me, you’ve often asked yourself, “Why do Italians live longer and stay so trim while consuming daily portions of pasta?” Perhaps you even read the recent article debunking the notion that pasta makes you fat. Vindication for feeding my daughter pasta every day! (The truth is, she’s at a picky stage where she won’t eat much else.)why do Italians live longer

Yes, for me, it’s comforting to see occasional examples of common sense and good science triumphing over fads and false hype. And yet it seems so challenging for logic to gain any traction when up against superior marketing.

The big consumer food brands must absolutely LOVE it when a new fad diet comes along.

Too much fat raises our cholesterol, say the scientists. Great, let’s launch a brand of low-fat frozen turkey burgers. But wait, sugar is the real culprit! No problem, we’ll just replace the sucrose in our cookies with Splenda and put the good-tasting fat back in. Well, no, natural sugar is OK, it’s the gluten that’s making me feel bloated. We’ve got you covered there, too. With the help of our good friends at Monsanto, we’ve re-engineered our breakfast cereals to conform to your imaginary needs. You’re welcome!

Italians seem immune to all this, preferring mamma’s kitchen to anything dreamed up by the food scientist-cum-marketer at Nabisco or General Foods. Things are changing in Italy, for sure, but there’s still a huge gap in food attitudes between Italians and Americans (or other non-Mediterranean cultures).

Why do Italians so long?

To gain some real-life insights, it would be instructive to simultaneously eavesdrop on two random social events; one in Italy and one in the U.S. Notice something in common? Yes—sooner or later, both conversations turn to eating.

Now notice the difference. In the U.S., they’re all discussing saturated fats, anti-oxidants, carbs, proteins, and various micro-nutrients. The latest bogus buzz words are flung into the fray for good measure: detoxifying, probiotic, and metabolically-optimized. In other words, they’re discussing diets.why do Italians live longer?

Now listen to the Italian version of this conversation. Even if you don’t speak the language you can hardly miss the sentiments: Ho mangiato una mozzarella celestiale; una pizza buona da morire; un dolce paradisiaco! Un sogno! Un miracolo! In contrast to their American counterparts, they’re actually talking about food.

What’s more, every adjective describes the miraculous nature of pleasurable eating, as if the food itself is a conduit to the divine. The excitement is over the exceptional taste and quality of the foods, not whether they conform to the latest fad diet prescription. Indeed, they couldn’t care less about that, it would seem.

Population Studies Can Offer More Truth than Lab Tests

So if they’re indulging in all of this incredible food while ignoring their “diets,” why do Italians live longer than Americans? According to the World Health Organization, Italians have the 5th highest life expectancy in the world while Americans are languishing at number 40, just behind Cuba and Taiwan.

The statistics further show that the U.S. spends much more money on healthcare than any developed country in the world at $8,000 per capita or 17.6% of G.D.P., while Italy spends only $3,000 per capita or 9% of G.D.P.  Furthermore, the U.S. spends more money on prescription drugs than the rest of the countries in the world. Combined!  And we’re still not very healthy.

The question remains: How can we explain these apparent contradictions?

Well, don’t bother asking an Italian because they can’t explain it to you. It’s not that they wouldn’t like to, but this knowledge is so innate that most Italians aren’t even aware that they possess it. The instincts are buried deep within their DNA, the evolutionary result of generations of discriminating eaters who could tell at a glance if a particular food was appealing or not.


The point is this: the time-tested traditions of the Italian kitchen contain more wisdom than any scientific study ever could. Doctors and scientists are very good at reductionist experiments, but ultimately these details add little, if anything, to our understanding of what it truly means to eat healthy—or more importantly, to be healthy.

Conclusions reached in the laboratory seldom translate to real-life benefits; indeed they often have the opposite effect. Even scientists themselves are starting to realize this. (NPR article: Scientist Debunks The “Magic” Of Vitamins) Nutrients can’t be accurately studied independent of the foods in which they’re found—our metabolic systems are much too intricate to be subjected to such easy analysis and explanation.

Fast Food vs. Slow Food

Fast might be a good thing for race cars and root canals, but it does us no good when it comes to eating. Sadly, we’re seeing more and more fast food options these days, even in Italy.  The marketers are very good at what they do and none of us are completely immune to their allure. Even if we outwardly renounce the food itself, the little jingles and slogans get stuck in our heads, so the subliminal message is our constant companion.

logoslowfoodThankfully there’s a group of Italian crusaders that refuse to back down from this fight against the Global Industrial (read: American) Diet. The group, appropriately enough, is called Slow Food (as opposed to fast food—get it?) and since its establishment in 1986, the movement has found support in over 150 countries.

The founder’s name is Carlo Petrini and he hails from the city of Bra, near Turin. His outrage was sparked by the opening of a McDonald’s in Piazza di Spagna in Rome. That particular battle was lost, but the war rages on in Italy, as well as in the U.S. where there are now over 225 local chapters who have taken up the cause.

Admittedly, we also run into some contradictions on this subject. As the name implies, slow food takes more time to prepare—and often more money to purchase. Nowadays it seems that you have to be fairly wealthy to eat like a 19th century Sicilian peasant. Shop the organic food aisle in any given grocery store and you’ll likely pay double of what you’d spend on their standard produce.

This shift has occurred gradually over time as we have slowly (no irony intended) traded our time for more money in order to buy a higher “standard of living,” whatever that implies.

Now the middle class has access to designer clothes, giant screen T.V.s, and German automobiles. We have collectively decided that these things are more important than healthy meals and quality time spent with friends and family at the dinner table—and so our food distribution networks are set up to accommodate that choice. It’s going to take a considerable change in cultural mentality to reverse this trend. But one can always hope.

My Recipe for Healthy Living

I made my own tiny contribution to this crusade by writing a book a few years ago entitled, “Eat Like an Italian.” It’s a not recipe book or a “blue print” for a healthy diet (as you can no doubt tell by now, I dismiss this notion outright). Rather, it’s much like this blog post—a thoughtful analysis of two divergent cultural attitudes towards food.

NOTE: The book is no longer available, but I’ve instead gathered this knowledge topic into a whole new website of the same name which discusses the rationale and origins of the Mediterranean Diet.

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About the author

Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

  • The Italian diet and food are really quite simple ! Everything fresh, portion-control, seasonal ingredients, easy to prepare with the least amount of ingredients to render the most flavor. This is precisely why Italian cuisine has replaced French cuisine as the world’s favorite Western cuisine to eat out and make at home. Italians are actually repulsed by ready to eat foods, preservatives, frozen and boxed dinners and pre-packaged foods full of preservatives, salt and artificial colors. Every meal is a true display of thought, love and comfort. You can go to practically any country on every continent (except Antarctica) and fine Italian restaurants in major capital cities worldwide !

  • Amazing how the way many of us were raised (Italian American but definitely Mediterranean diet) have always subscribed to so many of the new “guidelines” – Great genes and pasta? Oh yeah!

  • We have heard many times the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. But that’s just part of it. Lifestyle, activity, enjoyment of life, avoiding smoking, excessive drinking, drugs, processed foods. We Americans have become so fat and lazy. We drive cars to travel two blocks, load up on fast foods and sugar, and spend so much time in front of tv or a computer screen. Italians, on the other hand, are out gardening, bicycling, dancing in the piazza, running, mountain climbing, and eating healthy diets.

    • Yes, that’s the essence of it, although, unfortunately, your scene of Italians “out gardening, bicycling, dancing in the piazza, running, mountain climbing, and eating healthy diets” is rapidly changing in this globalized world. Still, the differences between Italy and the US are significant, as evidenced by life expectancy statistics, etc.

  • This has to be one of my favourite articles you have written, Rick! I found it to be so well researched yet somewhat disturbing about our “fellow Americans” and their lifestyle choices! I did not realise how poorly we ranked down the “food chain”, especially the part about prescription drugs and longevity! I am very thankful for my genes and the fact my 95+ yr. old mother is still very healthy and vital. Her mother, my grandmother lived to 102! I think I will start eating more pasta…..

  • I lived and worked in Napoli for nearly a year, and couldn’t agree more! The freshness of the ingredients, and the cooking process itself… I guess that’s what my mother would say is cooking with love. Less snacking and more walking are also part of the Italian culture. At least in Napoli, it’s a much more relaxed way of life. Amazing article, Rick. Sharinhg… 🙂


  • Well said. When I lived in Italy I had pasta every day for 4 months and lost weight. If I did that in Ameroca I would’ve packed on the pounds. I feel American products are full of so many preservatives and chemicals that unless you’re eating natural and organic , the weight gain is gonna happen cause if our bodies way of processing these foods.

    • Same thing happened to me! Part of it is what you mentioned about American products, and part of it is also portion size. Also, less snacking and more walking.

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