When many of us think of Italy, we immediately think of food. Having previously ventured to Tuscany, I can’t help but be transported back to visions and smells of beautiful tomatoes, olives, cheese and, of course, wine, whenever I think of the country. It has been said, for years, that the secret of old age and good health in Sicily is as a result of their diet. So, what is it that is so damn good for you?
How to Grow Old Healthily
There is an area of Sicily, The Sicilian Mountains, where the prevalence of centurions is twice that of any other area in Europe – 4.32 per 10,000 inhabitants. Although there are numerous reasons why this may be the case – healthy social environment, fresh air, minimal stress etc – it is strongly considered that their diet also plays a huge role.
The beauty of the centurions and pre-centurions in the Sicilian Mountains is that they also live active lives, often free of any serious disease or ailment. Studies have put this down to their diet, just as much as the aforementioned environmental factors. So what is the secret of the Sicilian diet?
In a research conducted with two of the Sicilian Mountains’ centurions, it was discovered that they eat only 1200 calories a day. On top of this, the diet is very simple, with bread, milk, vegetables, legumes, pasta, fresh cheese, a little meat and the occasional fish. They also tend to eat seasonally with regards to both fruit and vegetables, only eating local, organic produce, and compliment their meals with water and the occasional red wine.
This diet is complimented by the oil of locally-grown olives, which is rich in healthy monounsaturated fats, polyphenols, coenzyme-Q and vitamin E. These provide terrific antioxidant effects and are said to offer a great defence against disease.
One of the key factors of this low-key, organic diet is the minimal presence of carbohydrates. There is no white bread, only a small amount of pasta, no fizzy drinks or tinned food and no ‘sweet treats’. This helps to limit blood-sugar.
Recreating the Diet at Home
In reality, recreating the diet at home is more about self-restraint and effort than anything too complicated. There are many who promote the idea of eating what is locally available and this is becoming increasingly straight forward. Of course, fruit and vegetables are available in abundance and too it is possible in most areas to get fresh cheese and fish.
The real issue is avoiding the bad things, as opposed to getting hold of the good things. Growing out of the habit of snacking between meals would be a good step and, if this is not possible, then making sure you only snack on fruit an veg is the next best thing. It would also be good to avoid fizzy drinks and too much alcohol. This is not to say that you have to become teetotal overnight, but there is a big difference between the occasional glass of red and a six-pack of beer every night.
Although much of what has been said about the Sicilian diet is rather obvious, perhaps one slight surprise is Olive Oil. Although it has been advertised as being beneficial for good health for a long time, it is not as widely accepted as say fruit and veg. The results speak for themselves, however, and who is to argue with a 107-year-old Sicilian?
Why is Olive Oil good For You?
First of all, it has to be said that, like most things, the benefit you will reap from eating olive oil does hugely depend on the type you purchase. There are some simple tips to ensuring that you select the olive oil that offers the most health benefits.
Selecting the Best Olive Oil for Your Health
First of all, it is crucial that the olive oil you eat is fresh, as it’s health benefits don’t stand the test of time (unlike the Sicilians). Many experts suggest that how you select your olive oil should be similar to how you would select your wine. In this respect, you should consider – where it was bottled, when it was bottled and what olives were used.
For oil connoisseurs, a peppery tingle at the back of your throat is a clear indication of a quality olive oil. This comes from the antioxidant, oleocanthal. The greater the presence of oleocanthal in your olive oil, the greater the health benefits will be.
Unsurprisingly, Italy is at the top of the olive oil quality chain, with Sicily mentioned alongside Tuscany and Puglia as the best regions. Of course, the oil must use extra virgin olives too. Experts even suggest that you should purchase olive oil in darker containers (jars or tins), as this helps to prevent the photo-oxidisation and degrading of the oil.
Olive Oil and the Cardiovascular System
One area where olive oil carries the most benefit is in the cardiovascular system. It is a major source of Monounsaturated fatty acids (MFAs), which are seen as a healthy dietary fat. Simply, the regular consumption of olive oil reduces the chance of contracting cardiovascular diseases, such as Stroke, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
In addition to this, the regular consumption of olive oil also helps to reduce swelling, which has a vast number of health benefits, and limits the hardening of the arteries associated with a lot of cardiovascular illness.
There is also a lot of research that suggests that eating olive oil, as opposed to trans-fats, can help to reduce numerous psychological conditions. These include both depression and Alzheimer’s. Indeed trans fat consumers have close to a 50% greater chance of suffering from depression than those who regular eat olive oil.
Don’t Splash it Everywhere
One thing to remember is that olive oil only carries health benefits in a small amount – DON’T DRENCH EVERYTHING YOU EAT IN IT!
James Harris is a chef who has spent a lot of time in Italy over the last decade. He is the author of a book on the importance of eating olive oil and supports companies like http://www.distinctive-tastes.com who promote its consumption in the US. he believes that not only can eating healthily extend your life, but too it can improve it exponentially.