My Health Adventure in Italy: Food Tips from the Italians

Northwestern Medicine
Health and Wellness April 01, 2013
Older man sitting at a dinner tableItaly is in the top ten in the world for life expectancy for its citizens. This week, Michael Rakotz, MD, a family physician from Northwestern Medicine’s Evanston office, is in the Le Marche region of Italy, which has one of the longest life expectancies within Italy. He shares with us what he has learned so far from the local residents and health professionals on what makes them live so long.

The weather this spring near Piobbico continues to be colder and wetter than usual, which has kept the soil too moist to seed. No farming lesson in for me today, so I spent the day cooking and learning how to better prepare whole grains and incorporate flavors from seasonal ingredients.  Then, I sat down for dinner with a local cardiologist to talk with him about why he thinks the people he cares for live so long.

“Many things,” said Dr. Gaggi, “But mostly I believe it is how relaxed we are. We don't watch the clocks here; we are not in a hurry. But that doesn't mean we are lazy. We are moving all of the time.” Gaggi himself is a great example. On his days off, he spends his free time farming.  When I ask him why, he doesn't understand the question. “Why not?” He proudly explains  that they have a great sense of community here. They help each other whenever they can. As far as secrets of the diet of the region, they regularly eat a wide variety of fresh locally grown vegetables, especially leafy greens and legumes. And although they love pasta, they eat very small portions, usually as a first course. Because residents don't eat processed foods, they have lower sodium in their diets than many other regions. Gaggi also promotes alcohol in limited quantities for his patients, about a glass a day of wine at most.  He stresses the importance of not smoking, and getting at least three hours of exercise a week – even if it is only brisk walking.

“In your country you read about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet.  We invented it!” he says with a smile. Le Marche is a very unique region in that it connects to the coast on one side, providing access to fresh fish, while also having some of the best soil in the country for growing grains, vegetables, olives, and tomatoes.  Although aging, Gaggi himself has no plan to slow down any time soon. He said something to me I will never forget. “When we stop working, or lose our purpose in life, we die.”  At home in the U.S., we read about these benefits every week. The Italians are living proof that what we call “beneficial lifestyle changes” really work and can have significant impact on our health and quality of life.  

To make an appointment with Dr. Rakotz in Evanston, please call 847.475.2273.

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