Lessons from Italy: How to live to 100

26 Aug 2022
Lessons from Italy: How to live to 100

Do you want to live to 100 or live longer? Italians have the secrets to the fountain of youth and it’s easier than you think. Increasing life expectancy, or living to 100 so to speak, is mainly based on factors within your control. For example, lifestyle is a stronger determinant of health and life expectancy than genetics. Smoking, poor diet, obesity or being overweight and a lack of physical activity can cut years from your life. Instead, the Italian lifestyle promotes good health and longevity. Read our blog and discover lessons from Italy that can help you live longer.

The Italian lifestyle

The secret to Italian longevity can mostly be attributed to the lifestyle habits of its citizens with a smaller influence from good genes. Factors include healthy body and mind, healthy eating habits of the Mediterranean diet, family unity, positive social influences and good sleep.

1. Healthy body

The Italian way of life involves daily physical activity. Everyone from young children to the elderly participate in daily activities and exercise. There is a regular ‘passeggiata’ (a leisurely walk, often with friends and family in the afternoon or after dinner) – some do this daily and others 3-5 times per week. The passeggiata can even include walking up and down many steps or rocky/mountainous terrain which is common in Italy. Garden and general maintenance and even cleaning contributes to daily activity. There are also seasonal activities like swimming at local beaches, hiking and playing sport.

2. Healthy mind

Italians enjoy life to the fullest. There is a saying in Italy “Il Dolce far niente”, meaning the sweetness of doing nothing. Mastering the Italian art of doing nothing is something I have come to enjoy in the past 3 months we stayed in Italy. Il dolce far niente isn’t reserved for the time-rich but a philosophy ingrained in Italians, and I love it!
Family and community activities are an important part of the culture in Italy which assists in mental/emotional health and well-being. It is almost as if family and community are valued above all else while work, success and money take a back seat. The Italians might be onto something there.
A healthy mind is also about seeking beauty in our surroundings and gratitude. Feeling grateful reduces our stress levels and forces your mind to adopt an abundance mindset. I must say, I am extremely grateful to have a wonderful husband and two beautiful children. We are healthy and so blessed to be living in Australia and enjoying trips to breathtaking Italy almost every year. For a healthy mind, it is important to remind yourself of the things you are grateful for every single day.

3. Healthy eating habits of the Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet is a key factor in Italian longevity. Before we go into what to eat, it is important to state that Italians are a big fan of portion control, enjoy ‘treat-type’ foods in moderation, generally eat less fat and avoid overeating. Sure, Italians eat their pizza and pasta, but their portion sizes are less than many Australian meals and again, in moderation. There is also a reduced consumption of alcohol in Italy. Foods that are related to a healthy Italian diet and therefore a longer life include:

  • Rosemary: Italians add lots of herbs to meals which has many health benefits. Studies indicate that rosemary, in particular is beneficial as it aids brain function and is one of the secrets to longevity.

Our favourite recipes using Rosemary: Lamb meatloaf, Porchetta pork roast, Italian roasted potatoes and Beef spezzatino (stew) with parmesan polenta.

  • Extra virgin olive oil: Olive oil is one of the main ingredients of the Mediterranean diet and also linked to living longer. It is particularly rich in monounsaturated “healthy fat” that is full of antioxidants. Regular consumption of olive oil has health benefits such as protection of the body against free radicals (unstable atoms that can damage cells, causing illness and aging) and reduced risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, stroke, diabetes and certain types of cancer. To get the benefits, extra virgin olive oil should be the only oil used in cold dishes.

Our favourite recipes using extra virgin olive oil: Italian grilled eggplant, Focaccia, Nonna’s octopus salad and Caprese salad.

  • Fresh fruit and vegetables: When it comes to eating fruit and vegetables, more is more. Fruit and vegetables are rich in antioxidants to protect the body against free radicals. They also contain essential vitamins, minerals and fibre with health benefits including lower risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease and reduced blood pressure in people with high blood pressure. Ideally, “eat the rainbow” which involves eating fruits and vegetables of different colours every day. Eating different coloured plants means that you will consume a variety of nutrients and maximize health benefits. Italians have a very high consumption of fruits and vegetables in their diet with many Italians still living off the land and growing their own food. The recommended fruit and vegetable intake is at least 400 grams per day, ideally five servings of 80 grams. Many people are not eating enough fruit and vegetables. Are you?

Our favourite recipes using fruit: Upside-down caramelised banana cake, Apple crumble muffins and Easy orange cake.

Our favourite recipes using vegetables: Fennel and blood orange salad, Sicilian potato balls, Healthy minestrone soup and Eggplant parmigiana.

  • Garlic: The health benefits of eating garlic go on and on. Garlic is rich in antioxidants that protects the body against free radicals. It is great for boosting the immune system, which is especially important for elderly or people with dysfunctional immune systems. Garlic also reduces the risk of common brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia and reduces the risk of certain types of cancer. High doses of garlic supplements (600–1,500 mg which is equivalent to 4 garlic cloves) per day are effective in reducing blood pressure in people with high blood pressure. It can even reduce cholesterol, particularly in people who have high cholesterol. Consult your doctor for medical advice, but given the benefits of consuming garlic or taking garlic supplements has on the body combined with its ability to fight infectious disease, it makes sense that garlic can help you live longer.

Our favourite recipes using garlic: Spaghetti ‘aglio olio e peperoncino’ (with garlic, olive oil and chilli), Chilli mussels, Broccoli cream pasta with pork sausage and Four hour slow roasted lamb shoulder.

  • Fresh fish and seafood: The Mediterranean diet in general is high in fish and seafood. Fish is rich in protein, vitamins A and D, omega-3 fatty acids and various other vitamins and minerals which are important for optimal function of your body and mind. Omega-3 fatty acids are also essential for development of the brain and eyes which is why expecting and nursing mothers should eat a sufficient amount. Interestingly, omega-3 fatty acids have benefits in reducing symptoms of depression, and significantly increase the effectiveness of antidepressant medications. Consumption of fatty fish at least once or twice a week (ideally 2-3 times) can make you a happier person, reduce risk of diseases such as heart disease, stroke and dementia and may even lead to improved sleep due to vitamin D content. As Italians consume more fish, they have a lower risk of diseases and slower rates of cognitive decline which improves quality of life and contributes to living longer.

Our favourite recipes using fish and seafood: Crispy fried calalmari, Baked snapper in acqua pazza, Black cuttlefish ink pasta and Livorno-style fish stew.

  • Hydration: We need water to maintain the balance of body fluids, which is essential for digestion, absorption, circulation, creation of saliva, transportation of nutrients, maintenance of body temperature and much more. Italians consume a high amount of water and why not? The more hydrated your cells are, the firmer and brighter your skin will be – there’s your fountain of youth right there. On the opposite scale, dehydration has negative effects on healthy aging.

4. Good genes, Italian family unity and positive social influences

Good genes are important, but it isn’t everything. Instead food and lifestyle choices which we have control over, are much more important factors in longevity. Italians tend to have a strong bond with their family members. A typical example of this is the unity of four generations of family members during special events such as Christmas. Enjoying good food and wine (with portion control, of course) in the company of friends and family is important for Italians.
Social influences on food choices, portion control etc. can be positive or negative. Social influences can be direct (by living with others who buy/cook food) or indirect (learnt from family/friend’s behaviour). This means that even if you cook and eat alone, your food choices can still be influenced by social factors because attitudes and habits are developed through our interaction with others. For this reason, it is important that you spend time with people who promote heathy eating and exercise habits. If this is a picture of what your family and/or friends are about – awesome! If not, you may need to look for positive influences to promote longevity.

5. Good sleep

Good sleep powers the mind, restores the body and strengthens virtually every system in the body. The right amount of sleep for an adult is 7 to 9 hours each night. Quantity of sleep contributes to overall health including improved cardiovascular, endocrine, immune and nervous systems. This means that being well rested is key to boosting longevity. It is also important to go to bed and get up at roughly the same time throughout the week.
Italians are definitely onto something with their siesta, a short sleep after lunch. Having an occasional Italian siesta has many health benefits to reduces stress, help cardiovascular functions, and improve alertness and memory. A siesta is particularly beneficial if you tend to get less than the required number of hours sleep during the night. For your afternoon siesta, aim for 20 minutes or no longer than 30 minutes for the greatest benefit. This prevents the body from reaching deeper stages of sleep which allows you to wake up feeling refreshed. Anything more than 45 minutes will dip into deeper sleep and is likely to make you feel groggy afterward, defeating the purpose of a nap.


Summing up lessons from Italy

I am not saying that life is perfect in Italy, but they certainly know how to live life to the fullest. When it comes to living a long and healthy life, let’s focus on what we can control. That is:

• Healthy body and mind
• Healthy eating habits
• Healthy family unity, positive social influences and
• Getting as much sleep as possible.
Even if you don’t live in Italy, you can take these principles and live a longer and better quality of life from anywhere in the world.

Happy living all!

Vanessa Bottaro

Author, Founder and Creative Director at Italian Spoon
In my eyes, Italian cuisine is love on a plate.

Vanessa is Creative Director of the Italian Spoon website and Author of The Italian entertaining cookbook, a collection of home-style Italian recipes and tips for entertaining in true Italian-style. In addition to cooking and taking photographs, Vanessa writes the recipes and blogs to bring the love of Italian cooking to life! The collection of recipes and blogs on the website have been inspired by travels to Italy and desire to share what she has learnt from the great ‘Mamma’s and ‘Nonna’s in her life!

Vanessa is an entrepreneur and wife to husband Simone and the mother of two beautiful kids Dante and Mia. Even so she was born and lives in Melbourne Australia, Vanessa has a deep connection to Italy. Perhaps it is the food, or maybe it is because it is the place where Vanessa met the love of her life, Simone to whom she has been happily married for so many years.
Vanessa Bottaro

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