Want to get lean and strong? It’s time to embrace all things Italian
I have spent too many years of my life miserably scanning restaurant menus for low-carb, low-fat and, inevitably, low-fun meal options.
What I’ve never understood is that when you travel through Mediterranean countries, and it was Italy where it particularly hit me, the men are generally lean and athletic and they are happily chowing into big bowls of pasta. Some bread with that? Sure! Wash it down with some wine at lunch? No problem!
As I contemplate a dry chicken salad, the injustice is infuriating.
I share my pain with Canadian nutritionist Bernard Lavallée who indulges me with a little empathy: ‘In Canada and the US we call this phenomenon the French Paradox, but it equally applies to Italians.
‘We’re not actually sure of why people living in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea are less prone to obesity or cardiovascular diseases. One of the factors that might explain it is that people from Mediterranean cultures seem to place more importance on meal-time than Americans.
‘When you take more time to enjoy your meal, you allow time for your brain to realize that you are full and you can stop.’
In the name of investigative journalism, I pulled together a panel of Italian men for a discussion about food.
Fabrizio De Leo, a television executive – originally from Rome but now working in London – confirms that when he was growing up in Italy, meal-times were very much a family affair: ‘Dinner was always home cooked and with the whole family around the table.’
Swimming instructor Andrea Cencioni, from Viterbo in Italy, also remembers his family meal times fondly: ‘Meal times were always together, religiously at the table. When your family eats together it’s about sharing feelings, emotions and the day’s routines and news – you can’t hide anything!’
For Mario Benetti, a vet from Tuscany, lunch was the big meal of the day for his family: ‘Every region has their own way of doing things but, for us, lunch was always at 12.45pm, we always began with pasta, then meat and vegetables that was served with some bread and salad, followed by cheese and fruit.
‘My parents would always drink wine with lunch.’
I checked this experience with some Spanish friends and found a similar approach to food. According to Marcos Villarreal: ‘Meal times were awesome! That’s when the whole family got together to chat and argue and fight – always great fun. Lunch was a three course meal followed by a siesta and coffee.’
Meanwhile compatriot Geovanny Rocha’s days seemed to almost be structured around food: ‘We always had a light breakfast in the morning, then around 11am a little snack, at 2pm a big lunch which was our main meal of the day, around 5pm a sandwich that we call merienda, and then sometime after 9pm would be dinner.’
While not conclusive, what my research is suggesting that Italian men (and Mediterranean men in general) have a fairly relaxed and balanced approach to food.
There is also some evidence to suggest that having your main meal during the day gives your body a better chance to digest and absorb all the nutrients from your food. In addition, by making meal times a key social occasion during the day, food becomes less transactional, less objectified and less about ‘good versus bad’ and more about enjoying good food with family and friends.
According to nutritionist Lavallée, while numerous studies have shown that gay men seem to be susceptible to body image and eating disorders, very little work has been done to promote a balanced approach to food and nutrition.
‘Gay men tend to be less satisfied with their body image than straight men,’ he told me. ‘They also diet more than their heterosexual counterparts and do it to modify their appearance, not for health. Not surprisingly, they also suffer more from eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.’
In Britain, research by LGB campaign group Stonewall has shown that lesbian and bisexual women tend to have average body mass indexes and are no-more hung-up than average about their bodies. By comparison Stonewall’s new report into gay and bisexual men, released yesterday, indicated that gay guys were much less likely to be overweight or obese than straights but also less likely to exercise regularly and more likely to have body image and eating disorders.
‘The best way to reach and maintain your target weight is by acquiring and sticking to healthy eating habits that are not restrictive,’ says Lavallée. ‘Dieting involves restriction and frustration. You can’t keep this up forever and you will certainly start gaining weight not long after getting your old eating habits back.’
So my new goal is to be a bit more relaxed about food and to try and start eating a little more like an Italian.
Breakfast could be a bit of a challenge, according to Mario Benetti, his favourite way of starting the day is a caffe latte with some biscotti – he swears by the biscotti made by iconic brand Mulino Bianco (‘the white mill’). Mulino Bianco’s latest advertisement oddly features Antonio Banderas speaking Italian and extolling the virtues of these delicious biscuity treats. Strangely irresistible…