I recently went to Sicily with a good friend. She lost her husband a year and a half ago, after going through his three-year ordeal with cancer, and decided that it was time to rediscover the world of joy and pleasure. And since we’ve been giggling together since we were three years old, we already knew how to have fun—and fun, we had. We also had pasta, pasta, and more pasta. In fact, I ate more pasta in July than I have eaten in the last 20 years.
In the U.S., I am rarely tempted by it. Too many carbs. Too much bloating. But in Sicily, it’s a whole other story. I discovered spaghetti alle vongole. (Spaghetti with clams.) These are not the kind of clams you find in Maine. These are tiny little tender beings. And when they are presented with freshly made spaghetti, garlic, and olive oil, they are the food of the gods.
I don’t know why, but this pasta never resulted in bloating. Maybe the flour is processed differently. Maybe the variety of wheat is different. I don’t know. But here’s what I suspect. The reason why food is metabolized differently in France and the Mediterranean is that sitting down to eat a meal slowly and with others is part of the culture. Everyone, and I mean everyone, goes home at midday to have a meal. They sit down. They use tablecloths and real flatware. And then they have a rest. You can’t do any business in Southern Italy between 1:00 and 4:30 p.m. It’s siesta. Period—end of story. The 30-minute gulp-and-go at your desk would be sacrilege to an Italian.
And after enjoying my meals like this for a couple weeks, I realized that the digestion process when Mediterranean food is served in the Mediterranean is entirely different from eating the same food in the U.S. When food is appreciated and savored and prepared with pride and love, it’s metabolized differently. The body doesn’t have to metabolize a lot of excess cortisol and epinephrine—those pesky stress hormones that raise blood sugar and result in cellular inflammation. Nope. Here a meal is eaten in community. There is no rush. Nothing in the eating environment signals an emergency. Then when the meal is finished, you rest.
Given the link between stress and heart disease, it’s no wonder that the heart attack rate is lower in these countries with a rich food tradition. I especially loved stopping at service stations along the Autostrada (the Italian highway system) to enjoy an espresso—which was always served in small porcelain cups with a real spoon. So utterly different and so much more elegant than filling up your cup and then running to your car to keep going.
It amuses me that we keep studying the macronutrients in the diet to try to figure out why so many countries have a lower mortality rate than the U.S. Now, I’m convinced that the healthy effect of the Mediterranean diet is due as much to the relaxation and celebration at mealtime (and the lack of stress hormones) as it is to the olive oil or vegetables. Relaxation, joy, and pleasure are the real secret behind the so-called French paradox (people remaining thin despite eating pommes frites (French fries) and lots of butter). And also why the Mediterranean diet is so healthy.
So now I’m home. And trying to see how long I can keep up the wonderful feeling of a midday meal that is delicious and stress free. Let me tell you, it’s a lot easier in Sicily!!