Why Italians Don’t Get Fat – Travel Notes
Working with human bodies all the time (albeit virtually most of the time), I see more than my fair share of body types, and body parts. Thus, I find observing the ways different cultures manifest in bodies endlessly fascinating.
Obesity is definitely not as widespread here. At first, that seems strange – all the sweets, the pastries, the sandwiches, the pasta, the pizza. But once you start paying attention, it starts to make sense.
You wake up, and head out of the door. You drop by a bar on your way to work to have an espresso, drunk in one or two gulps, and maybe, have a pastry, eaten in two or three bites (because unlike what we are used to, the pastries are NOT the size of your head. I estimate a regular pastry to be in the vicinity of 200-300 calories, while a regular muffin in North America will run 400-500 calories).
You walk to the subway station. Walk, walk, walk.
During your lunch break, you head outside to sit in a piazza and have lunch with a colleague. Lunch is a sandwich on a fresh baguette – tomatoes, arugula, prosciutto, buffalo mozarella. And a bottle of water. Then a cigarette. And an espresso few hours later – during that 2pm to 3pm slump.
Dinner is a big plate of pasta with tomato sauce. Or if you are eating out – an antipasto plate with cheese, prosciutto and olives, and a bottle of wine split two or three ways.
Another manifestation of lunch-dinner combo is a large break in the middle of the day, as most stores close between 1pm and 4pm, which then allows everyone to head home, cook lunch from scratch for the entire family, share the meal at the table, clean up, and maybe sneak in a little nap. Leftovers are then served for a light dinner.
So, what do we see?
Lots of time on feet, and urban infrastructure that encourages said time on feet. [To put things in context, I have been hitting 10,000 – 13,000 steps while in Italy without particularly trying. While I am at home, my average number tends to be about 3,000-4,000. Sad face here.]
Three “meals”, where a meal is loosely defined as any time something resembling food passes your lips. No snacks (which seems to be a North American invention, anyway). The diet is fairly carbohydrate heavy, but not particularly high in calories over the course of the day. It is mostly fresh food – made/prepared that day. Moderate alcohol consumption.
The macronutrient split may not be exactly six-pack producing, but the six-pack pursuit is a relatively North American phenomenon also. I mean, unless you are an underwear model, what the heck is the functional usefulness of visible abs anyway?
While people are generally smaller – you see lean and trim, but not aggressively so, there is softness to the bodies, pasta bellies, and pizza curves.
Italian makes an offhanded comment about how Italians (now that’s meta) are just generally less threatening. “How do you mean?”, I ask to clarify.
He shrugs. “Loud, big gestures, but also good-natured, doughy and harmless”. He does not explicitly mention Russia, but we both know that he is contrasting this trip to our visit to my motherland last year.
None of that friendly doughiness in Russia. Mostly resolute looks of desperation. Have you ever had Russian pasta? The mayo drenched salads that are as cold as Russian winters? Exactly.
It’s difficult to feel aggressive after a great bowl of pasta. Just fresh tomatoes in your mouth, and a general feeling of content and warmth in your belly. Pasta belly.
With no reliable access to the gym, I find myself running most days, and walking every day – the most travel friendly activities. I notice more softness in my body – the typical and expected side effect of no weight training on the road, as well as a different diet – lower in protein, higher in carbohydrates, and probably higher in calories.
The body feels good though – no digestive distress, no upset tummy that travelling often brings. Just high quality food wherever you turn. Ahhhh…