What Living in Sardinia Taught Me About the Mediterranean Diet

Nutella on bread

Maurizio Cigognetti / Getty Images

My expectations for great nutrition and an exemplary lifestyle were, surprisingly, disappointed.

Apparently we’ve got the Mediterranean diet all wrong. So much attention has been given to food that we’ve neglected to make the necessary lifestyle changes that can really make a difference in health. The Huffington Post urges Mediterranean Diet followers to do the following things:

Sleep: 7+ hours
Move: During the day, try to avoid sitting for longer than 45 minutes at a time.
Breathe: Simply concentrate for two minutes, breathing in for five seconds and breathing out for five seconds. Repeat this 4 times a day.
Exercise: Yoga, Tai Chi, and/or Pilates. Resistance training in order to improve the sensitivity of insulin. Higher intensity workout. Walking whenever possible.

This is great advice, but I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at these suggestions being labeled as authentically Mediterranean. My personal experience couldn’t have been further from what this article described. I spent a year living in a tiny town on the Italian island of Sardinia. Obviously my experience revolved around a single host family, but I spent plenty of time visiting Italian school friends and their families and was able to observe that my family’s lifestyle was typical.

A Real Mediterranean Diet

The recommended breakfast of “2 to 3 eggs scrambled in some butter, plus 1⁄2 an avocado with 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, Greek yogurt with berries and nuts with some cinnamon, coffee with cream” would be a source of great ridicule from most of the Italians I know. In fact, my schoolmates told me countless times that American breakfasts, a.k.a. bacon and eggs, sounded disgusting. I got 6 sugar cookies dipped in peach tea every morning, while my host brother ate a piece of bread thickly slathered with Nutella and a cup of cocoa.

Morning snack at school was packaged treats from the vending machine, usually more sugar cookies or potato chips. All my classmates ate like this, unless they brought bread slathered with Nutella (like my brother did).

Greek salad for lunch? Maybe in Greece, but not in Sardinia. We got pasta and meat, usually fried cutlets and a shredded lettuce salad. Dinner was something a bit lighter, like a soup. Drinking kefir for snack? No way. We munched on amaretti and papassini cookies, deep-friend cheese-filled pastries rolled in sugar, and countless boxes of Kinder chocolate snack bars. Again, we ate a lot of Nutella.

There was usually a bunch of bananas in the kitchen. I’ve never eaten so many bananas in my life, except during fig and persimmon seasons, when I ate an average of 8 persimmons daily off the backyard tree – that’s how desperate I was for fresh fruit. I was worried about getting scurvy. I’d never craved my mother’s Canadian cuisine (diverse, ethnic, often-vegetarian dishes) so badly. There’s a good reason I gained 30 pounds.

Don’t get me wrong: Italians do know how to eat when they get together for celebratory meals, traditional holidays, Sunday lunch, and weekly outings to the pizzeria. Then all the stops come out and they produce mouth-watering culinary masterpieces that stuff us all to the gills and leave us feeling logy for hours.

Exercise, Nutrition, and Diet History

Exercise? When I lived in Sardinia, nobody talked about yoga, Tai Chi, or pilates. High school sports were segregated into volleyball for girls and soccer for boys. I didn’t play either, but I wasn’t allowed to walk the half-hour to school for daily exercise because my host family was worried about what the neighbours would think. No wonder I gained 30 pounds that year.

My year in Sardinia was fantastic, but the lifestyle and nutrition did not impress me nearly as much as it did everyone back home in North America, who constantly marveled at how amazing the food must be. The Mediterranean diet, as we describe it over here, is very much idealized. While our version provides excellent advice, it is not accurate to assume that every Italian lives that way.

In Sardinia, I suppose I experienced what New York University professor and acclaimed nutrition author Marion Nestle calls “the time lag theory” – the idea that it’s only a matter of time until health declines hit many of the nations whose nutrition we’ve long upheld as a model for excellence. Here the theory is described in the context of France and Britain:

“The French consumed less animal fat than the Brits up until the 1970s (about 21 percent of total energy consumption from animal fat, versus 31 percent in Britain). The takeaway? The French weren’t eating that much fat back then. For the past three decades, however, they have been. And it should be catching up.”

American author Jeannie Marshall, who lives in Rome, wrote a book about the loss of regional food culture in Italy, and how she’s observed a disturbing trend toward processed, packaged junk foods, particularly for children – not what she expected when she moved to the perceived center for Mediterranean-style eating.

I think Italy’s in a tough place right now, just like the U.S., Canada, and countless other nations. Its diet has shifted hugely in recent decades. People have adopted American convenience foods and grown accustomed to processed tastes. Fewer people are learning from their nonne how to cook from scratch and skills are being lost.

Perhaps our adoption of an idealized ‘Mediterranean Diet’ can help get Italy back on track, as it strives to live up to a healthy reputation that, quite frankly, I don't think it merits at this point. The country has that potential, however, and is making impressive strides toward improving food sovereignty and security through interesting measures restricting food waste and encouraging climate-friendly eating. Italy may surprise me yet with its culinary resilience.