by Alyssa Giesler, Greenheart Travel Language Exchange Participant in Italy
We have all heard or read about the numerous health benefits of following a Mediterranean diet: it can lower cholesterol, prevent heart disease and cancer, provides vital antioxidants, can lower the risk of diabetes, and can help with the ever-recurring issue of obesity. What exactly is a Mediterranean diet? It is a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, beans, seeds/nuts, and healthy fats found in fish and olive oil. From a health and wellness perspective all of this sounds wonderfully simple which begs the question: Why don’t more people follow this diet? I have found in my time here in Sicily that the reason for this is because a Mediterranean diet is in fact not a “diet” at all, it is a lifestyle.
I have always hated the word “diet.” It has strayed from the simple definition of food/drink habitually eaten by a person, and now eludes to a pessimistic mentality of how one should “diet.” People nowadays say “I am on such-and-such diet” or “I want to try this diet” or, quite simply, “I need to go on a diet.” I am constantly amazed at how one word, four letters, has the ability to change a person’s mindset in an instant. The word can positively motivate someone to change the way he/she lives as easily as it can make them feel self-conscious and ashamed. In a society that places so much emphasis on looking perfectly flawless in every way, we are forever changing the way we diet, constantly in a tug-of-war between what think about the way our bodies look and what the world says about the way our bodies look. The concept of dieting in America has become so focused on how it will make us look, and less and less on how it will make us feel, both mentally and physically. In this way, the Mediterranean diet is less of a “diet” and more of a way of life.
People here are so blissfully unaware of things such as caloric intake, high fiber vs. low fiber, or “Which is better: Vegan or Vegetarian?” More so, they have no concept of how the rest of the world views their way of eating. It simply just is. There are no restrictions or limitations to what foods they eat. Food fuels the body, therefore the body must have food. The difference in mentality between Americans and Mediterranean cultures is that the latter look at food/drink as source of energy as well as pleasure. They eat bread (not whole grain) with every meal, use olive oil on everything, sip wine with lunch and dinner, and typically enjoy a sugary delight each night to please the palate. This provides the pleasurable side of food, and the energy lies in how people here only cook as much as needed, no more, no less. This is how people eat on a Mediterranean diet–a balance of pleasure and energy everyday so that the body stays fueled and the mind and senses happy. Americans are extreme: they tend to either overindulge on the pleasurable aspects of food or set strict limitations on their eating habits. The body and mind never seem to be balanced with each other; when one is overfed while the other remains hungry.