Getting Back to Italy and a Healthier Mediterranean Diet

I'm turning 53 in just a few short weeks.

 

That fact alone brings a flood of thoughts that could easily send my fingers flying on the keyboard for days and making it hard to stay focused on this blog post. My 50s got off to a great start a few years ago. My hubby threw me a big surprise party and our friends and many of our family came to help me celebrate. We were living in Virginia, our home for many years, and were about to make some major life changes on the job front and relocate to a new warmer climate. 

Our kids have a sense of humor (and apparently think 50 means I grew up in 1950 and the Beach Blanket Bingo-era!

Fast forward two years and the changes we've made have so far been positive and life-affirming. We settled into our new home, my business is picking up, and things are going so well that I've apparently begun to neglect myself and take my health for granted. As time allowed, I turned my attention to me and made all those appointments I'd been putting off for far too long. First on the list was finding a new gynecologist to help with these wonderful new changes happening to me - the other wonderful new changes women start with in our 40s that last the next twenty years. A year after meeting my new Doc, I'm finally settling into a better endocrine rhythm as well as my new life.

Next up was a new Family Doc. My husband had been seeing a physician he particularly liked - a handsome Argentinean with a deep voice who sounds like Agador Spartacus, the doting houseboy played by Hank Azaria in The Birdcage. So I made the appointment. Then two weeks later I received an early morning call from his nurse.

 

"The Doctor is a little concerned with your bloodwork."  My heart stopped. "Your cholesterol is very high." How high, I asked. As I scribbled down numbers and letters on scrap paper on my lap, I could feel my husband looking over my shoulder. 

 

"300!"

 

I shouted her words back to her on the phone. My cholesterol count had skyrocketed 100 points higher than normal. Ding ding ding, tell her what she's won Don Pardo! How did this happen, I asked her rhetorically, as if she had any way of knowing my genetic predisposition or dietary habits. "I'm sending you some dietary suggestions to try. Then we'll reevaluate again in three months."  That sounded reasonable.

 

And then, "If it doesn't come down at that point the Doctor may have to consider medication." Now that got my attention.

 

Several days later a thick envelope arrived in the mail. I read the headline on the copied article sent by the nurse. "The Mediterranean Diet" it read across the top. Well, this is a piece of cake I thought as I read the article. I've been used to eating this way since I was a kid. I sounded smug even to myself but I knew I was lying. If I really had stuck to that Mediterranean diet my grandparents brought with them from Italy years ago, I wouldn't be in this situation now.  

My Italian grandfather in his vegetable garden

 

It's well known that diets rooted in the Mediterranean region of the world are far more healthy than those high in fats and carbohydrates. People originating from these areas tend to have lower incidences of heart disease and other heart-related diseases. My husband and I both come from Italian backgrounds and grew up eating this way with lots of fresh fruits and veggies, and grains and pasta. And olive oil, not butter - and certainly never margarine! We had pasta on Sundays and wine with family dinners. It was rustic, Italian food before Mario Batali ever appeared on the scene to tell us all about it. 

 

Hallmarks of a Mediterranean Diet

These are the hallmarks of a Mediterranean diet to see how your diet may compare:

  • Eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts
  • Replacing butter with healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil
  • Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods
  • Limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month
  • Eating fish and poultry at least twice a week
  • Enjoying meals with family and friends
  • Drinking red wine in moderation (optional)
  • Getting plenty of exercise

 

My grandmother is from Roseto, Pennsylvania, a small coal town near the Pocono mountains in the eastern part of the state that literally made history over 50 years ago when researchers concluded a famous 10-year study of the low incidence of heart disease among its residents. The town of Roseto was founded around the turn of 20th century by immigrants who settled this area from Roseto Valfortore, Italy, a small town near the Province of Foggia on the Adriatic Sea. In 1961, practically the entire town participated in the cultural study which looked at factors like social habits, family structure, and community relationships and their overall affect on heart disease. But one of the biggest factors contributing to what they ended up calling "The Roseto Effect" was the diet of nearly all the residents. The Mediterranean Diet. (By the way, you can also read about the subsequent erosion of this effect in this Huffington Post article.) 

 

So where did I go astray? Why at the ripe young age of 53 was my cholesterol through the roof? Well, I can think of several reasons.

 

First, Virginia and my introduction to southern cooking. Yes, there is a thing about southern cooking. Much of it is delicious and full of love and soul, and bacon drippings. I loved (and miss) living in Virginia but I readily admit I strayed from my usual way of eating when I moved there. Though my definition of a "salad" will never include mayo, whipped-anything or mini marshmallows, I did incorporate more red meat, mac 'n cheese, BBQ, butter, and ice cream in my diet than ever before.

It doesn't get much fresher than this take-home-and-kill-it-yourself fresh fish market in Naples, Italy.

Second - apathy. I simply stopped caring about what I was eating. It was easier that way. I rationalized it by telling myself how busy I was, how late we were getting home from work, and how tired we were all the time. "Could you go for pasta again for dinner?"

 

And finally, convenience. After moving from Virginia to a smaller house with far less storage and a bigger freezer, we looked for convenience and found Costco. Granted, a lack of storage is generally not helped by big-lot stores such as Costco, but when you find yourself filling your freezer with delicious, easy-to-microwave, portioned meals like their Yakisoba noodles for example (they're de-licious) you tend to stock up! The sodium level of convenience food like that might end up preserving you from the inside out, but it's really bad for you.

Italians shop daily for fresh produce and therefore eat more seasonally 

What it all boils down to is this: What am I going to do about it? Well, for starters, I've started making some lifestyle changes, stopped working ridiculous hours and putting a job before my family and me. Next, I'm writing this down in print for your benefit but mostly mine, so I can officially hold myself responsible. 

 

And then....

I'm going back to Italy.

 

We're planning a trip late this Fall to see Tuscany and other regions we have yet to visit. We'll be visiting farms and food producers, artisans and educators, and learning about the local food scene that embraces the community and heritage of the region. It's an important movement we can all learn a great deal from - getting back to the authentic and sustainable heart of Italy - back to my heart as it turns out.

 

I can't wait to tell you all about it! 

 

What do you do to eat healthy and manage a better lifestyle as you get older? Are you planning to age gracefully or go kicking and screaming? Share your thoughts with me - I'd really love to hear them :-) 

Cheers,

Lori