I recently was fortunate to be among a group of 24 nutrition and public-health students from Georgia Southern and Armstrong Atlantic State universities who spent a week exploring Verona, Italy, and the Tuscan countryside by day and learning how to prepare Italian dishes by night. It was an especially memorable spring break.
At any given meal, the wine pitcher was kept full — just like my stomach. I was always on the lookout for water, which I just couldn’t get enough of in Italy. The Italians knew right away that I am American because I asked for tap water instead of the carbonated variety, which they call “fizzy” water. One evening, I chugged as much water as I could and tried to make room for dinner, which consisted of horse meat with polenta — the signature dish of Verona. It is served only on special occasions. When in Verona, as they say, do as the Veronese do.
Although we enjoyed the signature meal just once, every evening in Italy was special for our group of study-abroad students. Not only was I interested in cooking, I wanted to learn more about what makes the Italian diet healthier than a typical American diet. The Mediterranean diet is hailed as one of the healthiest in the world. Heart disease, diabetes and obesity exist in Italy, but it’s not like the United States, where these are among the nation’s top health concerns. Research and studies show a direct link between diet and these particular health problems. I consider this good news, since we can control what we eat.
“Each time we eat, we can work on improving our health,” said Dr. Giovanni Liserani, a pharmacist who gave a lecture in Siena, Italy, on herbal remedies. Liserani recommends natural solutions for common illnesses to his Italian patients.
“Herbs were the first way to restore health,” he said. “We have the keys to improving health inside the plant.”
I noticed Liserani’s natural approach resembled many Italian views on health and diet. During lectures given at the Dante Alighieri Language School in Siena as part of the Verona International Program, we learned how Italians take advantage of and promote locally grown, seasonal “slow food.”
Slow food is an international movement commonly touted as an alternative to fast food. Dr. Antonella Bampa, an expert in the slow-food movement in Verona, taught us the slow-food philosophy and highlighted its progress in the Veronese region.
“We need to promote local and traditional food products and educate our citizens of the dangers of fast food,” she said during a seminar in Verona. “Convenience foods emerged during the past century, lacking the quality and nutrition our bodies need.”
She also explained the benefits of eating foods that are in season. Fruits and vegetables grown out of season or shipped from around the world do not have the same nutrients as produce grown locally and seasonally.
In addition to eating slow food, many Italians follow the Mediterranean diet, which is low in saturated fat and rich in complex carbohydrates and fiber. We learned that the benefits of this diet mainly are due to its effect on heart health.
Animal products are high in cholesterol, which builds up on artery walls. This is the leading risk factor for heart disease. Cholesterol is found only in animal products. Dietary reductions of animal products and saturated fat can improve heart health.
Also, wine consumption may help decrease this build-up of cholesterol in the heart. Liserani recommended 100 milliliters of wine at lunch and dinner to maximize health benefits.
I believe one thing for sure — the American diet needs to change. The leading cause of death in our country is heart disease, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Studying abroad in Italy was an eye-opening experience, and I am grateful for having had the chance to learn from their culture, knowledge and experiences. Slow food, locally grown food and dietary awareness could have big impacts on our nation’s major health concerns. Above all, moderation seems to be the key to healthy hearts and lives.