Meet Giacomo, my Italian neighbour. Giacomo enjoys gardening, making his own wine, cooking for himself and has recently undergone triple bypass heart surgery and is recovering fabulously. He has just celebrated his 92nd birthday.
In our nutrition class, we watched a Ted Talks video about the Blue Zones, which seeks to understand the similarities in diet and lifestyle among the populations who have the highest rates of longevity. One of these Blue Zones is located in Sardinia, off the coast of Italy, a country that enjoys some of the better parts of Italian diet and culture.
The secrets to the well-being of these populations include eating a natural, clean diet with health-promoting foods, getting lots of natural exercise (from gentle walking to working around the house), reducing stress and connecting with people around them.
Giacomo wasn’t a raw-vegan marathon runner in his youth. He cooks simple Italian meals (which include pasta), decants his own wine, walks to the bank and fresh fruit market and drinks his homemade wine in the evenings with his friend, my Nonna (grandmother). Other than being born with great genetics I think that we can take some advice from Giacomo if we want to be mobile and effective in our later years.
In naturopathic nutrition we learn that the Mediterranean diet is one of the most powerful for reducing harmful cholesterol levels, balancing blood sugar and lowering blood pressure. That being said, what is so effective about the this diet? Italians eat lots of carbs, include wheat in almost every meal, drink espresso, consume smoked meat and eat lots of fat. Isn’t that what conventional nutrition tells us is unhealthy? Despite the “unhealthy” cultural practices of the region, the Mediterranean diet includes a few commonplace “Superfoods” that we encounter daily in North America and that are very protective and health promoting. By incorporating these foods in therapeutic amounts into the diet, while reducing stress and increasing levels of moderate exercise, it is impossible to enjoy abundant health for many years to come.
After the “Low Fat Diet” craze of the 80’s, it has now become common knowledge that it is not total fat intake (quantity) but overall quality of the fats eaten that contribute to a risk in cardiovascular disease.
One important staple of the health-promoting Mediterranean Diet is its predominant use of the monounsaturated, omega-9 fatty acids found in olive oil.
Omega-9 fats reduce autoimmune effects of inflammation and also affect plasma cholesterol. A study showed that 2 tbs (20 g) of olive oil daily decreased plasma LDL (the bad) cholesterol and total cholesterol levels by 10-20%, about the equivalent of a statin drug.
2 tablespoons of olive oil reduces blood pressure by 8-10 mmHg systolic and 4-6 mmHg diastolic. One human trial in hypertensive individuals taking medication demonstrated that daily olive oil consumption reduces hypertensive medication by 50% or more.
2 tablespoons of olive oil has also been shown to lowers fasting blood glucose by 10-25% in diabetic individuals.
Since diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease are common chronic diseases in the elderly population that affect longevity and quality of life, increasing olive oil in the diet by adding it to salads (2 parts vinegar to 1 part olive oil) is very beneficial.
Pomodori, or tomatoes, are a delicious Italian staple. Italian men consume roughly 2 cups of tomatoes per day, which equates to approximately 15 g of lycopene, a important antioxidant found in this fruit.
Lycopene has shown to benefit cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis and male reproductive and prostate health.
Lycopene improves cholesterol profiles, reducing LDL, total cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood in individuals who consumed raw or cooked whole tomatoes or a lycopene extract. Eating tomatoes decreases clotting of the blood, which helps reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.
A study showed that combining tomatoes or lycopene extract with saw palmetto, and other herbs that have shown to benefit prostate cancer, increases the effectiveness of the other herbs. The Italian men who consumed 15 g of lycopene a day also had a 35% less risk of developing prostate cancer.
Lycopene’s positive antioxidant effect can benefit bone health, preventing osteoporosis and therefore reducing the risk of fractures, which insures increased mobility and independence as we age.
Red wine is the secret ingredient for its anti-inflammatory and anti-aging effects. It contains high levels of flavonoids and anti-oxidants, and the powerful antioxidant, resveratol.
Anti-oxidants prevent disease by neutralizing free radicals in the body, preventing them from damaging our important body cells and tissues. A study by the Journal of Nutrition showed that within 50 minutes, the antioxidant capacity in the subjects’ blood was increased by 10% after drinking one cup of red wine.
Red wine is shown to have significant benefit to cardiovascular health and decreases the risk of age-related diseases such as heart disease, cancer and stroke. Research speculates that it’s not the amount of LDL in the blood, but the presence of oxidated LDL, which causes inflammation and the formation of atherosclerotic plaques, causing cardiovascular disease. The antioxidant properties of red wine can help reduce inflammation and oxidation of LDL, keeping the blood vessels healthy.
Enjoying a moderate intake of red wine (1-2 glasses a day) not only helps the soul, but can help you live longer too! I suggest learning to make your own (more to come in a later post) to reduce the amount of additives and sulfates that are often added to commercial wines.
*This post is not meant to diagnose or treat any disease or condition. For medical advice, please consult your naturopathic doctor.