You would think that, as arguably the greatest country in the world, Americans would have the grandest of grand prizes…..a long, healthy life.
Whenever I am traveling, I like to study the statistics of the country that I am in. I’ve recently learned that our wealthy country is only 33rd in longevity while Italians are 4th. Men in Italy live an average of 80 years and woman 85. In the U.S. men live an average of 76 years and woman 81, according to World Health Organization (WHO) rankings. So my curiosity drives me to ask why?
Healthcare – We believe we have the best health care in the world, and this may be true for the wealthy. But as a country Italy ranks 2nd and the U.S. 38th on the World Health Organization list. My Italian friends tell me how horrible healthcare is in Italy, and if I ever get sick I should go to a private clinic instead of a public hospital. They say you will be sicker coming out of a public hospital then when you go in. But evidently, the overall healthcare system is better at least according to the WHO list.
Food – Yes, I know pasta, gelato, cheese and baked goods are all things that Americans are told to stay away from. But here is the trick. Portions served in Italy are about 40% the size of what we eat. They don’t sit down and eat four slices of bread. They will take a piece of bread and pull small pieces and use it like an appetizer. Their ice cream cones are what we would call “baby cone” size. When they eat pasta it is not the mixing bowl serving we would eat, but a cup size. Their food is fresh. You need to go to the store about every two days since there are no additives and no impurities in the fresh food they eat. The biggest thing I notice is the lack of meat. It would not be uncommon to go four days on an Italian diet and eat less than four ounces of meat. At home I eat about 7 ounces a day, while in Italy I eat about two ounces. What’s the big deal? Well my belief is that all that meat causes organs to be overworked and tissue to swell. Our bodies are working overtime to process the volume of meat that we consume. Italians eat for enjoyment, but only to the point they are full. Americans…well you know our story.
Stress – When people think about Italian culture they say, “It is so stress free, so laid back.” Go for a taxi ride at 6pm, in Rome, on a Wednesday night, you will learn about stress. Italians have lots of stress, but here is the difference. They are very good at choosing what they get stressed out about and very good at turning it off. This never rang more true than a week ago when I had a party at a private residence for some CEO friends of mine. It was Sunday night and I hired a great nine piece band that was playing very loud. By 11 pm I thought the cops were going to be pounding on the door to shut us down. Just then my wife motioned me to the window, as I peered out what I saw was true Italian culture. Looking up and down the alley I saw families with small children dancing in the streets to our music, giving us the thumbs up. They had taken what I perceived as annoyance and found it to be a gift.
Exercise – Yes we all know that Americans like to take their exercise to the gym. But in Italy it is all about walking and climbing stairs. A study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise reported that Americans walked a little over 5,000 steps daily, while our European counterparts, like the Swiss, are closer to 10,000 steps. They walk to work, to eat, to the grocery store, to the park. It’s not just the steps, but the quality of the steps. I went to a tailor and we had to walk up five flights of stairs to get measured. By the time I was at the top, I think I wore one size smaller. Stairs are everywhere and I am amazed at the number of 80 year old Contessas who I see go up five flight apartments daily. Maybe that is why they are 80 plus.
Relaxing – Do we as a country really know how to relax? I mean really? To me relaxing is screaming when my favorite football team scores a touchdown on Sunday afternoons. But is this really relaxing? Italians are pros at it. They love two hour coffee sipping, sitting in the square watching people, going for long walks or just hanging out. I am always amazed when I walk through the shopping district and see the same guys just laughing and cracking jokes with each other. Not 80 year olds, but 40 year old men. They have turned visiting into a profession.
Obesity – Italians take being overweight very seriously. I have been getting my haircut in Italy by the same man for five years. We have become friends and even spent time together outside the salon. So the second day of my visit I go to visit him. The first words out of his little Italian frame, “D, what happened you have gained so much weight, you looked so good last year.” Not the typical thing you expect when you go to your hairdresser. Yes it is true. I was just coming off a 75 day diet plan last year and have gained 11 lbs. back. He goes on to tell me what I needed to do. He explains that there is a doctor is getting famous in Italy by inserting a nasogastric tube and then you carry a backpack of liquid food around. You will lose 10 lbs. in ten days. You are not hungry and the backpack doesn’t weigh much. You don’t have to eat. Wow, that sounds very attractive, I wonder if I can fill mine with lemon gelato. So I am telling my wife’s Italian friend this story over lunch. She is like 5’5″ and 95lbs. She says, “That is so ridiculous, what you need to do is go to the doctor who shoots diabetic insulin in you and you will lose 20lbs in a month.” This vacation is getting more interesting by the moment. I passed on both suggestions and instead decided to walk an 8 miles a day.
Vanity – This may seem a little out of place but I truly believe that vanity keeps the Italians healthy. They love wearing very tight clothes. The men all wear jackets that fit as though they belong to their 12 year sons. Women like everything short, short shorts, short skirts, short shirts that show tummy. They are more obsessed with their looks then we are with our chuck wagon buffets and the peer pressure keeps them in check. It reminds me of how I feel when I go to lunch with my two triathlete friends. “I will just have water no ice and a lettuce garnish please.” You eat better when everyone around you is watching and judging.
So on your next visit to Italy, when you are sitting at the Spanish Steps and watching your Italian host smoking a cigarette and slurping a tiramisu gelato; just know that they have figured out the secret to long life.