Why Do People in Sardinia, Italy Live So Long? Could fantastic tasting food make a difference?

People from Sardinia, Italy have one of the longest and healthiest lifespans on the planet. My wife, Nicole, and I just spent our 25th anniversary sailing on the northeast coast of Sardinia and had the opportunity to enjoy their food, wine, and glorious Mediterranean scenary.

There is a famous greeting in Sardinia, “May you live to be 100″ — and in fact the island has the world’s highest documented percentage of people who have passed the century threshold. Of 1.6 million Sardinians, there are at least 220 who have reached 100, twice the typical ratio. Five of the world’s 40 oldest people live on the island, and until the January death of Antonio Todde at 112, Sardinia boasted the oldest of them all.

Scientists give Sardinia’s diet most of the credit, yet people in Sardinia are very active, much more so than average people. And we didn’t see anyone obese in Sardinia, unless they were tourists. So likely a lifestyle that makes you fit and trim are critical factors to longevity as well.

The noteworthy foods that are famous in Sardinia are very similar to my Sweet Sixteen Vitality foods and include:

  • Almonds and hazelnuts (they eat nuts in abundance every day)
  • Fava beans, in fact lots of all kinds of beans (which are high in fiber, folate, and many antioxidants)
  • Dark red wine (the local Cannonau wine is very dark red with the world’s highest levels of antioxidants), plus they only drink wine with their meals
  • Leavened bread, a thin, whole-wheat bread with bacteria that are high in probiotics that keep the digestive tract extra healthy (their traditional diet follows my whole grain or skip the grain rule)
  • Fruits and vegetables (they eat a great deal of these every day)
  • Very limited meat (they treat meat more like a treat than a staple)
  • They also have a little piece of “pecorino sardo”, which is a cheese made from the milk of grass-fed sheep, resulting in a product that is high in omega-3 fatty acids and very rich in probiotics. (This is similar to having yogurt every day.)
  • They cook with olive oil (perhaps the healthiest oil to cook with on the planet)

Yet they have something else going for them besides these ingredients that scientist don’t discuss very often; namely their food tastes great!

Italians in general, but especially people from Sardinia, eat food in season when it is fresh, flavorful, and optimal. Year round the markets and restaurants feature local produce at its peak. Where ever we visited, there wasn’t a great variety of foods to choose from, but what they offered was fabulous. They also use a generous portion of herbs and spices with everything they make.

Here are a couple interesting questions to consider.

  • When you eat something delicious, are you satisfied with less food?
  • Is it any surprise that you have to eat a ton of junk food (chips, candies, processed cookies) to feel satisfied?
  • When we eat food that is local and in season, does that food speak to our genes differently than food that is picked green, without flavor, and shipped from thousands of miles away?

As an example, are ripe, fragrant, delicious peaches richer in nutrients that our bodies require and more satisfying to eat than green, hard peaches without any fragrance or flavor? In truth, perhaps because I live in Florida, I have not tasted a decent peach in the United States in years, and I had to go all the way to Sardina to remember how they should smell and taste. Our brain desires flavor and aroma — that is why marinara sauce smells so wonderful when it is simmering in the kitchen, because your brain has a biochemical affinity for those herbs, spices, aromas.

Let me share a few critical take home messages:

  1. Enjoy local produce in season. Look for produce that is local, fresh, and flavorful. Stop buying peaches, melons, and carrots that don’t have any flavor.
  2. Use more herbs and spices in your food. They are the most nutrient rich foods in our diet.
  3. When you eat, practice mindful eating. Rather than eating aimlessly at your desk or in front of the television in a setting when you can not appreciate your food, eat your food with people you enjoy at a table with plate, knife, and fork. First look at your food and appreciate its beauty. Then smell the fragance. Finally, taste eat bite, and if it doesn’t taste great, then don’t eat it!

Whether we are at home or eating out, we need to be much more picky about the quality of food we are willing to eat. I believe if we fill our palates with flavor, we’ll eat less food, and the food will meet our nutrient requirements better, as well. Of course, we need to choose the right types of food if we want to enjoy a long, healthy life, but remember, fantastic tasting food might make a critical difference, too.

Bon Appétit!

Steven Masley, MD (Physician, Nutritionist, and Trained Chef)

 

Comments

  1. Thanks again Dr. Masley for your great article on really tasting your food. It’s something we often forget in this fast paced world. Keep the articles coming!

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