Wednesday, December 30, 2015

R.I.P. Mediterranean Diet

Cruising, Agropoli style.

Precious gifts from Rolando.

Local seafood dishes.

Seafood at the supermarket.

Whole-wheat bread baked in a wood-fired oven.

Braided mozzarella di bufala.

Seafood stall at the street fair.

A typical pasta portion.

Fresh fruit from the Astones' orchard.


More fruit.

The topography of the Cilento.
The Mediterraenan Diet is dead.  Long live the Mediterranean Diet!

Today I received some very sad news via my favorite Italian on-line journal,  It seems the famous Mediterranean Diet is in grave danger of dying out in its homeland.  This according to a new study carried out by scientists at the University of Rome Tor Vergata and published in this month’s edition of the journal, Eating and Weight Disorders, which found that less than half of modern Italians are eating the traditional diet.  More alarming still, only a third of those15-24 do so.

Sad news, but not unexpected.  Sandy and I have traveled and lived (periodically) in Italy for almost 20 years now, long enough to notice significant changes in our beloved second home.  And by far the most alarming change we have noted is the increasing incidence of obesity among Italians, especially among children, and especially in our beloved South.  The first summer we lived in Italy, back in 1995 when we lived in a small village in Tuscany, you hardly ever saw obese people and, if you did, chances were good they were American or German tourists.  But over the years we have noted with chagrin how the incidence of obesity has grown exponentially.  And, again, the phenomenon is most evident in the Cilento, which is the area which quite literally introduced the world to the Mediterranean Diet.  Last summer Sandy and I visited a local beach near Agropoli and afterwards joked rather ruefully that it was ‘Spiaggia delli Obesi,”  ‘Lard-ass Beach’,  because there were so many grossly overweight bathers, women in their tiny bikinis with fat rolls cascading in every direction, men with huge pot bellies overlapping their little Speedos.  And children of every age and sex who were grossly, morbidly obese.

Sad enough, if it were not so ironic.  Perhaps a refresher from a previous blog is in order.  You see, this was one of the areas upon which Ancel Keys, the famous American physiologist, focused in his famous Seven Countries Study, begun in the early1950s and first published in 1970.  Keys had done extensive research on human nutrition and starvation diets and had discovered that people in certain parts of Japan and the Mediterranean had dramatically lower incidence of often fatal cardiovascular disease (CVD) than did cohorts in more affluent countries such as the US, and this despite the severe limitations on their diets in the post-war era.  Keys positied a correlation between intake of high levels of saturated fats, especailly from red meats and full-fat dairy products, and the development of CVD leading to heart attacks and strokes.  His massive Seven Countries Study strongly suggested he was right.

Keys’ results are not without controversy, especially his emphasis on the role of fat in CVD to the near exclusion of any role of highly refined carbohydrates.  But the diet he and his wife developed actually addressed both issues.  There is considerable misunderstanding, especially among Americans, as to exactly what the Mediterranean Diet is.  The true Mediterranean Diet as proposed by Keys consists of high intake of fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables, high intake of proteins from legumes and unrefined cereals, only occasional intake of animal protein, especially from white meats and seafood, moderate intake of wine, olive oil, and low-fat dairy, especially cheese and yogurt, and all combined with regular exercise.  Keys was so taken with the lifestyle and cuisine of the Cilento that he moved here in his later years and remained here for his last years.

So it is especially disheartening to see our Cilentan neighbors abandon this precious birthright.  Sandy and I are hardly obese, but we both struggle with weight.  So you can imagine what a luxury it is to live in Agropoli and eat to our hearts’ content and consistently lose weight over the summer.  Granted, we are spoiled.  The Astones provide us with homemade wine, olive oil, vinegar, tomato sauce, not to speak of fresh vegetables from their garden or that of their neighbor up the ridge.  And all we have to do to procure fresh fruit is walk across the driveway to the orchard for figs, lemons, kumquats, plums, apples, pears, peaches, and more.  And all grown completely free of pesticides so you can pluck it off the tree and dive in.

And then there is the fact that we are less than a mile as the crow flies from the Port where the world’s freshest seafood is available in glorious profusion.  Ah, but Dave, you may say, what about that pizza and pasta you’re always gushing about?  I can almost guarantee you could eat Agropolesi pizza five days a week and never gain an ounce.  The crust is made with half AP flour and half whole wheat and then topped with only the freshest seasonal vegetables, tiny amounts of meat if any, and perhaps a few slices of mozzarrella di bufala, not those mounds of shredded ‘mozzarella’ so celebrated by our American pizza purveyors, swimming in puddles of grease from sausage and pepperoni.  Meat-lovers’ pizza indeed.  Pasta tends to be handmade egg pasta here and is never, I mean NEVER a main course.  A cup and a half of pasta, again served with minimal sauce and cheese, is the standard portion, not those honking mounds they serve at Maggiano’s.

The other component of our summer ‘diet’ is the one most Americans, and increasingy most Italians, have the greatest difficulty sustaining, namely the exercise which must be a standard part of any true diet.  The two of us go days on end in the Cilento without teleivision.  What tawdry reality show could possibly compete with the beauty of this area and the endless variety of the Agropolesi themselves as they stroll up and down the corso every night in that time-honored tradition, the passeggiato?  And of course the topography of the region, with its rugged mountains and dramatic hilltowns, makes any casual stroll a challenge.

More’s the pity, then, that so many of the Italian neighbors have abandoned the stroll to plant themselves in front of the boob tube and vegetate.   

The results are nothing short of calamitous.  The original study published by Keys contained an index, admittedly a crude one, to measure the extent to which participants adhered to the Mediterranean Diet.  In 1970, Italians scored 8 out or 10. Today’s Italians’ average score, by contrast, is 2.  To put that into context, the US, with no tradition of such a diet, has an average score of 1.  Thirty-one percent of Italy’s youngsters who were interviewed for the new study admitted a preference for so-called ‘Western’ diets, typified by their high red meat content.  The health implications of this abandonment of the tradtional diet are dire.  Figures show that fully one-third of Italian children are obese, the second highest incidence in Europe after Greece.  Statistics show that in 2015 in Italy there were more than 66,000 more unexplained deaths than in the previous year, and one suggestion advanced for the phenomenon is the changing diet.  Says Dr. Antonino De Lorenzo of Tor Vergata, “The diet industry and mass media have a lot to do with it—but how many lives do we have to lose before we return to a healthy way of eating?”