The Sardinian Diet
How do the oldest people in the world eat?
Sardinia is a magically beautiful island. Gorgeous sand beaches with turquoise-blue sea contrast with a sparse mountain landscape. Exactly there, in the mountains, are more people who live longer than anyone else in the world—for a hundred years, or more. What’s the secret of their good health? A diet?
The original meaning of the word “diet” is “how one leads one’s life.” The life lead by Sardinian mountain dwellers fits into this well, because there is practically no difference between the life expectancy of women and men there (as there is elsewhere). What and how do they eat?
Giovanni Mario Pes is a physician at the University of Sassari in Sardinia; he researches this Sardinian “Methuselah formula” and has reached some exciting conclusions. The oldest mountain dwellers are composed of shepherd families with sheep and goat herds. They are pastoral nomads; the animals can cover up to 20 kilometers a day, and the herdsmen also walk a lot. The steeper the mountain, the healthier—and longer-lived—are the people. So the fist, not so surprising, component of a healthy life is: movement.
Now for their nutrition. The Sardinian herdsmen eat three times in a day, which begins with milking time. This brings the second component (which shouldn’t surprise us, either) to light: only three meals a day, no snacking between meals. We can take for granted that the herdsmen allow themselves time to eat. But what food helps the people in Sardinia’s mountains to live for so long? The diet in this rather harsh region is unvaried. Bread made of barley and old varieties of durum wheat is primary. This is a handmade sourdough bread: the dough has time to grow, yeast and lactobacilli have time to unlock the grain, to ferment, and to develop.
In some villages, this bread is prepared with yeasts believed to date back hundreds of years. In comparison with industrially produced bread, this sourdough bread (after consumption) reduces blood sugar and insulin levels by up to 25%—a true relaxation program for the pancreas, and the best protection against becoming overweight, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.
A herdsman eats more than 500 grams of sourdough bread in a day! But any doctor would discourage his patients from eating such a large quantity, because such a high percentage of carbohydrates in ones diet drastically raises the risk of inflammation. So why doesn’t it affect Sardinian shepherds? Because they exercise so much. They don’t jog in running shoes through the landscape; they walk.
The next important components of this diet are olive oil, vegetables, and milk products. Vegetables aren’t eaten raw, but mainly in the form of minestrone vegetable soup. Available vegetables consist mainly of fennel, carrots, potatoes, celery, onions, and pulses (beans, dried peas, chickpeas).
On Sardinia, yoghurt and cheese are made of sheep and goat milk, adding fermented milk products to the diet. The advantage of goat’s milk is that the fat it contains is easily digested by our lipase. Goat’s milk doesn’t raise cholesterol levels in blood, and should even provide protection against bowel cancers. The high content of calcium and phosphorus also prevents osteoporosis. Because Sardinian mountain dwellers are naturally, through sunlight, provided with plenty of vitamin D (being so often out of doors—and SPF 50 sunblock isn’t part of their outdoor outfits!), bone fractures are also relatively infrequent among the elderly. In addition, the high zinc and selenium content of goat milk provides optimal support for the human immune system.
Lamb, goat meat, and pork are served approximately twice to four times monthly. In the mountains, fish forms almost no part of the diet, and wild herbs are heavily represented. Nuts such as chestnuts and walnuts are also found; honey is used as a sweetener, and among available fruits are nopal (the fruit of the prickly pear cactus) and the fruits of the arbutus tree; dried figs and raisins add to the choices.
Wherever raisins are found, wine is not far away. But now comes a big disappointment for red wine drinkers (myself included). There is no firm proof that red wine actually has a health-beneficial effect, although it’s certainly enjoyable.
Of course, life is also changing in the mountains of Sardinia; people don’t walk as much, food options have broadened: pizza, pasta, and dairy (cow) milk products arrived from the Italian mainland long ago. But what can we learn from them that could be applied to our eating habits?
Elderly Sardinians maintain a very monotonous diet; raw vegetables and sugar are absent; grains are allowed to ripen before they’re used to bake bread; and meat only rarely appears on the menu. The shepherd’s lifestyle allows for a life spent in the open air, and also grants people something very positive: time. For example, time for eating. Health and happiness don’t depend on the size of supermarkets.
As much as possible, as colorful as possible, everything possible—immediately. That’s our culture’s “land of plenty” motto, including our cultural eating habits. A dinner with family or friends has to be opulent, nothing can be missing from the table or the plate that we happen to wish for in the moment.
But is enjoyment really a question of quantity? Or quality? “Most men pursue their desire with such haste that they rush right past it,” the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) wrote in the nineteenth century. And the speed of life has only increased since then.