Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Scorecard: Supersize Adults

                                                United States  Italy

Overweight or obese               67%                 40%

Obese                                      38%                 10%

What’s Their Secret?

When I moved to Rome I resigned myself to getting fat. To my surprise, a year later I had lost 10 pounds.

My new shape blended in with my surroundings. Italians are lately the second-thinnest people in Europe, next to the French; a woman who’s medium-sized by American standard is hard put to find clothes she can squeeze into in Rome boutiques.

How do they stay slender while tucking away all that pasta, olive oil, and gelato? Chiefly, because their attitude toward food is, well, normal. They eat three squares rather than constantly stuffing their faces, they savor their food instead of packing it in, they cherish the collective mealtime ritual of sitting down together at length to break bread with family and friends. Grazing and raiding the refrigerator are concepts as un-Italian as Taco Bell, and six months living under the disapproving gaze of my mother-in-law until my ex- and I found an apartment cured me of both.

That cultural norm of eating when they’re hungry instead of using food as a pacifier means Italians are less likely to get hooked. Food addiction, once you’ve acquired it, is a particularly hard habit to shake. Here’s why: it’s common knowledge that recovering junkies, smokers, or alcoholics have to stay away from their favorite substance altogether. One sneak fix, one fag after one supper, one highball will send the slipper-up back to addict hell. Since you can’t both stay off food and stay alive, the obese are obliged to achieve that impossible goal of eating – consuming the substance they’re addicted to – in moderation. 

The kind of stuff that goes in Italian mouths counts too, of course. They put real food on their plates rather than fat- and sugar-packed processed products, quench their thirst with water rather than soda, love vegetables, and after dinner are more likely to eat a peach in summer or an orange in winter than a slice of chocolate cake.

I can’t find any reliable statistics from mid-century, but between watching postwar movies and decades of personally eyeballing the locals I can guarantee you that skinny hasn’t always been the rule. When I first sat on Italian beaches in 1970 I was amazed at the plus size bosoms and bottoms that were wrapped in those skimpy bikinis. Later when fashions changed, Italians’ sensible food culture made slimming down a relative cinch: just slash your standard portion of pasta by half, eat one less course at every meal, and voilà in a decade the national figure shrank from Rubens to . . . Raphael.
P.S. It helps, needless to say, that Italians habitually use their feet instead of their car, and take the stairs without considering it torture! 


  1. I suspect that many Italians--like New Yorkers and San Franciscans and the French--do a lot more walking and stair climbing in their daily lives than average Americans.

  2. hi susan--this was very interesting. I think another key to keeping slim the Italian way, is that they do a lot of walking. Certainly, for me, Rome is a wonderful city to walk in. And since the buses can be unreliable (understatement!) walking is often the only alternative.

    1. Everything Susan says is spot on (except what is so easy about slashing your pasta portion?), but as for Rome being "a wonderful city to walk in"—I heartily disagree. It's beautiful, yes, but fraught with perils, and annoyances, for pedestrians, from invisible crosswalks to sidewalk potholes (I have broken bones on three separate occasions) to gaggles of tourists who refuse to let regular people walk in a straight line down the street. New York is a great city for walking, not Rome.

    2. You're damn right, Maureen, and thanks for the comment. I have to brave the tour bus hordes every day I walk to work, and down the hill from my apartment is a sidewalk pothole that's more like a sinkhole and has been "fixed" three times. But, hey, I'd still rather stroll down Via dei Giubbonari than Amsterdam Avenue.

  3. Good God, did I forget to include that vital fact? Thanks so much - I've already stuck in a rapid P.S.

  4. Great post!!! I love the 'ladies' and their wonderful bods. And being a semi-permanent Roman-dweller, I understand completely the very healthy eating habits of Italians. Olive oil, moderation, fruit and minimal intake of fat and as you say, USING YOUR LEGS. Makes 'em sexy, too.