Italians are the world's healthiest people

Il Duomo, Florence
© K Martinko

Despite a stagnant economy and high youth unemployment, Italians are the epitome of health and longevity.

Italians are the world’s healthiest people, according to the latest Global Health Index by Bloomberg. A child born today in Italy, raised on a diet that includes plenty of pasta, bread, cheese, meat, and wine, can expect to live into its octogenarian years.

This is intriguing because Italy’s economy has been stagnant for decades. The unemployment rate reached 12 percent in December 2016, and an estimated 40 percent of young people do not have jobs. Bloomberg writes that Italy has one of the highest debt loads in the world relative to the size of its economy. So, while Italians have a lot on their plate to stress them out, it does not appear to be affecting health or longevity.

The Global Health Index looked at 163 countries. It calculated a ‘health score’, based on likeliness of mortality by disease or injury, life expectancy at various ages, and probability of survival at key times. From this score is subtracted ‘health risk penalties,’ which measure damaging behavioral factors (i.e. smoking, obesity, and childhood malnutrition) and environmental factors (i.e. pollution and lack of clean drinking water). The final result is a ‘health grade.’

The top five countries and their health grades are:

1. Italy, 93.11
2. Iceland, 91.21
3. Switzerland, 90.75
4. Singapore, 90.23
5. Australia, 89.24

The lowest in the top 50 are:

46. Slovakia, 65.10
47. Barbados, 64.14
48. Oman, 62.89
49. Panama, 62.39
50. Albania, 62.01

The United States, by contrast, is only #34 on the list, with a health score of 73.05. Bloomberg says, “Its ranking for prevalence of overweight people is 67.3 – tipping the scale as one of the world’s heaviest nations.” To make matters worse, the maternal mortality rate is actually rising in the U.S. while dropping in the rest of the world.

We should take a lesson from the Italians, who clearly have some things figured out – primarily, how to flourish on a diet that contains many foods that are shunned and avoided by health-conscious Americans. The secret must lie in the great number of fresh vegetables and fruits consumed on a daily basis, the lean meats, and the heart-healthy olive oil drizzled over everything.

Another factor could be Italians’ approach to food. Having lived there in the past, I know how much Italians love their meals. They eat for pleasure, more than fueling their bodies. They take time to prepare meals from scratch, to savor, and to digest, even on weekdays. Surely this slower pace has its benefits.

Interestingly, on a completely different index, the United Nations’ World Happiness Report for 2017, Italy ranks only #48 out of 155 countries. Despite being healthy and living to an old age, Italians are, unfortunately, not terribly content.

Tags: Diet | Health | Italy

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