In this article I will talk about one my favorite topics – how to live long. I have already told you about the Japanese island of Okinawa, and the Greek island of Ikaria, where people live extremely long. Today I will tell you about one more “Blue zone” (A blue zone is a place where there is a significant amount of people who live very long) – Sardinia.
One of the things that makes Sardinia attractive to scientists, is that there is a record number of long-lived men. This is a really rare phenomenon. Women live longer than men worldwide, and in blue zones women typically outlive men too. Sardinian diet is believed to play a great role in the health of locals.
The lucky genes
The genes of the Sardinians, due to their geographical isolation, remained largely “undiluted” for a long time. Some scientists believe that this is one of the reasons why the island boasts almost 10 times more long-lived people per capita than, for example, in the United States. At the moment of writing, life expectancy in the US is 78.5 years (40th place in the world rankings). In Italy it is 82.97 years (8th place). Even today, about 80 percent of Sardinia’s population is genetically related to the first Sardinians.
Scientists agree, however, that genes are not the only factor that contribute to the long and healthy life of Sardinians. Lifestyle and diet must play a role too.
The active lifestyle
The island of Sardinia is located in the western Mediterranean and is an autonomous region of Italy. Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean (between Sicily and Cyprus) with an area of 24,100 square kilometres. Sardinia is very green. It is the most forested region of Italy.
Throughout its long history, Sardinia has been under foreign rule almost the whole time. The invaders always came from the sea. Therefore, a large part of the population, tired of hostilities and subjugation, moved to the central, mountainous part of the island. It took at least a few days to get from there to the sea. Therefore, most of the population was engaged (and continues to be engaged) in agriculture, in particular sheep breeding. Therefore, seafood is relatively new in the local cuisine.
The Sardinians move a lot. They remain capable of working for the full length of their lives: they go after cattle, work in the garden, gather mountain herbs and of course make almost all their food with their own hands.
Lunch in Villagrande
Sardinian cuisine is similar to continental Italian but has its own characteristics.
I visited all parts of the island: west, east, south, and north. In all regions the cuisine is very similar. Expensive restaurants are not too different from cheap ones in terms of their menus. Here I would like to tell you about my lunch in a very special place in Sardinia, the village of Villagrande.
Villagrande is the place where the most centenarians (people older than 100) in Italy live.
The village of Villagrande Strizayli (Bidda Manna Strizayli in Sardinian) is located at an altitude of 700 meters above sea level (but the height of its territory varies from sea level to 1834 meters above sea level). The way to the village is literally breath-taking – it is so high up! The village itself is spread over a fairly large area. To walk from one end to the other it takes more than one hour (and a lot of calories).
Scientists are still unable to determine exactly what the secret to the longevity of the inhabitants of Villagrande is – diet, lifestyle, genetics, or a combination of all these factors.
In the male population of Villagrande, research identified a gene on the Y chromosome that can significantly reduce heart attacks and strokes in men. This gene, which is passed from father to son, may explain the unusual long-lived relationship between men and women in the region, which is 1-1, while the figure is 1-4 worldwide.
Scientists, who have done research on the dietary habits of the Villagrande dwellers, note that their diet is characterized by a large number of vegetables and legumes: eggplant, tomatoes, sweet peppers, zucchini, horse beans, peas. Locals do eat fish now and then, because now, of course, Villagrande is connected to the sea by a normal highway. But traditionally, fish and seafood were a rarity. The villagers eat meat once or twice a week. They regularly eat pearl barley, wheat (lots of bread), sheep cheese (pecorino and ricotta) and potatoes (most often in the form of potato dumplings, so-called gnocchi). It is noteworthy that the villagers (including very elderly people) drink 2-3 glasses of local wine daily, made from the local grapes, Cannonau.
That’s science. But what about our lunch in real life?
My husband and I had lunch at a restaurant that was located in a coniferous forest just outside the village of Villagrande (there are no real restaurants in the village itself, and all the cafes were closed). The walls of the restaurant were decorated with newspaper clippings with reports on the long-living residents of Villagrande. Even before the menu was brought, we got traditional flat bread on our table. This is typical for Sardinia in general. Before the meal in any café and restaurant you are served a basket of local flat bread and sometimes yeast bread too. By the way, Sardinia counts about 600 varieties of bread.
I ordered a risotto with local wild mushrooms, my husband ordered potato dumplings in traditional tomato sauce. As a side dish we got a salad. The portions were gigantic in size, we ate less than half, only the salad was eaten completely. By the way, by “fresh salad”, in Sardinia, simply chopped vegetables is meant. Salads might slightly differ in the roughness of the vegetables cut and the choice of veggies, but there will always be one constant component – the local bitter radicchio.
The tables next to us were occupied by locals. Almost everyone drank red wine accompanied by cheese and bread. Only a few customers took risotto or potato dumplings and divided one serving between several people (smart).
We didn’t have enough space for dessert, but the menu for sweets offered only local rolls and fresh seasonal fruits. No tiramisu or gelato.
Eating is not only about diet
Sardinian diet is not only about what to eat, but also HOW to eat. It is not uncommon to see a large Italian family of three generations in a restaurant in Sardinia. Food for Italians is a social act of paramount importance. They eat for a long time, talk a lot while eating and laugh a lot. Strong family ties, by the way, are an important component of longevity.
Well, in the end I will give you a curious piece of information for reflection, not related to diet. Villagrande men often marry much younger women (an age difference of more than 10 years is normal). Scientists theorize that this is also an important factor in longevity. In this way, men stay in shape and avoid widowhood (which is a strong emotional shock and shortens life). Moreover, widowers often remarry, even at a very honourable age.