If, like me, you’re trying to lose a bit of weight, or if you’re on a strict gym regime that requires you to precisely control what you’re eating, then you may find that eating out at restaurants – or just life in general – can get a bit tricky. You can spend a lot of energy studying menus for low-carb, low-fat, low-sugar, and low-fun meal choices.
However, if you’ve ever dated an Italian guy – or travelled through the Mediterranean countries – it’s hard not to be impressed by their enthusiasm for big bowls of pasta, freshly-baked bread, and large quantities of red wine. What’s slightly irritating is that they seem to be able to eat whatever they want while still maintaining a very appealing physique.
I spoke with nutritionist Bernard Lavallée to try and understand how Mediterranean men seemed to be able to have the best of both worlds.
“In Canada and the US, we call this phenomenon the French Paradox, but it equally applies to Italians…” explained Lavallée. “We’re not actually sure of why people living in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea are less prone to obesity or cardiovascular diseases. One of the factors that might explain it is that people from Mediterranean cultures seem to place more importance on meal-time than Americans. When you take more time to enjoy your meal, you allow time for your brain to realise that you’re full, and you can stop eating.”
I decided to test this theory with a panel of men from the Mediterranean region.
Fabrizio De Leo, a television executive - originally from Rome but now working in London - confirms that when he was growing up in Italy, meal-times were very much a family affair.
“Dinner was always home-cooked and with the whole family around the table…” says Fabrizio.
Swimming Instructor Andrea Cencioni, from Viterbo in Italy, also remembers his family meal times fondly.
“Meal times were always together, religiously at the table…” explains Andrea. “When your family eats together, it’s about sharing feelings, emotions and the day’s routines and news – you can’t hide anything!”
For Mario Benetti, a vet from Tuscany, lunch was the big meal of the day for his family.
“Every region has their own way of doing things…” acknowledges Mario. “For us, lunch was always at 12:45, we always began with pasta, then meat and vegetables served with some bread and salad, followed by cheese and fruit. My parents would always drink wine with lunch.”
I checked this experience with some Spanish friends and found a similar approach to food.
“Meal times were awesome!” exclaims Marcos Villarreal from Gran Canaria. “That’s when the whole family got together to chat and argue and fight – always great fun. Lunch was a three course meal followed by a siesta and coffee.”
Compatriot Geovanny Rocha’s days seemed to almost be completely structured around food.
“We always had a light breakfast in the morning, then around 11 AM a little snack…” remembers Geovanny. “At 2 PM it was a big lunch that was our main meal of the day, around 5 PM a sandwich that we call merienda, and then sometime after 9 PM would be dinner.”
Some of the consistent themes that emerged during these conversations include:
- Mediterranean men seem to have a fairly relaxed and balanced approach to food.
- Having your main meal of the day at lunch instead of dinner could give your body a better chance to digest and absorb all of the nutrients from the food.
- If meal time is a social occasion, you’re more focused on enjoying good food with family and friends – food becomes less objectified or less transactional.
According to nutritionist Lavallée, while numerous studies have shown that gay men seem to be particularly susceptible to body-image and eating disorders, very little work has been done to promote a balanced approach to food and nutrition.
“Gay men tend to be less satisfied with their body image than straight men…” suggests Lavallée. “They also diet more than their heterosexual counterparts and do it to modify their appearance, not for health. Not surprisingly, they also suffer more from eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.”
“The best way to reach and maintain your target weight is by acquiring and sticking to healthy eating habits that aren’t restrictive…” continues Lavallée. “Dieting involves restriction and frustration. You can’t keep this up forever and you’ll certainly start gaining weight not long after getting your old eating habits back.”
It could be time to start talking Italian.