Where food's healthful, naturally

For some folks in Italy, the Mediterranean diet is just a way of life

September 11, 2002|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

CAMPAGNA, Italy -- On a warm evening not too long ago, I sat in a kitchen with Giuseppina Maffia. Sixtyish, a widow, she lives in Pioppi, a tiny, time-has-passed-it-by coastal village in Southern Italy. Through friends of friends, I'd been introduced, and now I was watching her cook dinner. A neighbor stopped by, and this lady, learning that I was American, wanted to make sure I knew that Giuseppina's last name was spelled with two F's.

"The Sopranos!" she said, and we all chuckled. There was a lot of laughter that night, humor being the only way to bridge the gap between their nonexistent English and my wretched Italian.

I was there trying to learn why people in this region of Italy, known as Campagna, have some of the world's fewest incidents of heart disease and cancer. I also wanted to see how what's become known as the Mediterranean diet is eaten at its point of origin. Though these ladies were happy to share their recipes, I could sense they thought my interest in their country's food was peculiar.

When I asked Giuseppina to define her diet, the first thing she'd said was "fish." After I pressed her for what else she liked to eat, it came out in this order: fish, pasta, olive oil, vino rosso, green vegetables, potatoes, beans, chickpeas, zucchini, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, onion and garlic. I'm not sure Giuseppina Maffia knew that she'd listed the classic ingredients of the Mediter-ranean diet, a cuisine many doctors call the most nutritious kind of eating possible.

The Mediterranean diet was discovered by an American doctor, Ancel Keys, who came to Campagna after World War II to spend time with people who were known as Mangiafogli, or "leaf eaters," because they were too poor to eat meat with any regularity.

Their poverty had a rich side effect, he discovered, since the foods they had were high in dietary fiber, B-vitamins, and antioxidants, all of which are tireless disease-fighters in the human body. (Keys knew a thing or two about tireless fighters, since he was already famous, or infamous, among enlisted men for having invented "K" rations.)

In targeting cardiovascular disease, Keys compared the diets of seven of the world's regions and found that Campagna's men and women were living the longest and healthiest lives. His theory - that this was due to what they ate - was originally laughed at. Now it is accepted thinking.

Key's research is all the more relevant today as, over the last half-century, there's been a steady increase of obesity not only among Americans but also across the world. When western-style fast food chains (and their burger and fries, high fat / high salt menus) are introduced into any culture, the percentage of people who are overweight rises at all socio-economic levels. The correlation is so obvious, a new word has been coined: "globesity."

"The eating patterns of the Mediterranean diet are bullet proof," said Dr. Attilio Giacosa, who is a medical doctor and chief of the Gastroenterology and Nutrition Unit of the National Cancer Research Center in Genoa, Italy. Through its drastic reduction of red meat, and plentiful servings of fish, fruit, vegetables, nuts, garlic and olive oil, Dr. Giacosa says, "there is ample evidence the Mediterranean diet not only prevents cardiovascular disease, but can prevent future heart attacks in those who've already had one."

"Actually, the word 'diet' is misleading and unhelpful," added K. Dun Gifford, President of Oldways, a non-profit group based in Boston that advocates healthy eating and exercise. "Diet makes it seem like some punishing thing."

"What we're finding," Gifford continued, "is that when people are introduced to Mediterranean ways of eating, they can stay with it because, unlike most diets, this food pyramid will satisfy their hunger. It fills you up naturally, with healthy foods. I am a firm believer that if you can encourage people to learn why certain foods are better for them, they are more likely to eat them, and stick with them."

People in Campagna talk about food passionately, because of a shared understanding that eating is an intimate act. Italians tend to read omens into how they feel immediately after a meal. Frequently, a man will stand up from the table, press his hand to his lower abdomen and mutter, "lo fegato" -- the liver. It's almost as if this organ, not the heart, is the home of the soul.

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