Credits: © Ph. Giuseppe Giustolisi
Today, life expectancy has increased compared to a few decades ago. Progress seems to have given us a better quality of life. Yet, despite the blatant benefits offered by the contemporary world, we seem more vulnerable than once. The stress of everyday life, pollution, lifestyles, an improper lifestyle, undermine our health, weakening the immune system. In this context, nutrition, today more than ever, plays a fundamental role. Scientific studies show that the increase in the world of certain diseases such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, allergies are also due to an improper lifestyle food and the intake of overly refined foods.
In recent years, there is a greater focus on a healthier diet that favors unrefined sugars and flours, organic food, when possible, of plant origin.
To nourish oneself better, to live a better quality, it is possible and desirable above all to educate the new generations to a correct lifestyle, without renouncing the pleasure and conviviality of the table.
Gloria Barraco (in the picture), talented Italian nutritionist, with professional experience abroad, with expertise in chronobiology (, science that studies the biological rhythms of living beings) explains how to nourish better and the importance that the seasonality of food has on our lifestyle.
Once, the seasonality of fresh produce was the rule and not the exception. Today, although there are various international awareness campaigns that invite us to eat seasonal food, we find everything and all year round. There is no economic advantage in consuming tomatoes in the middle of winter. As far as our well-being is concerned, can you explain in what terms the seasonal product is more useful to our body than an out-of-season one?
The succession of the seasons, the alternation of crops is explained in a fascinating science that I was able to deepen in my research, the chronobiology. Nature acts according to a precise biological clock that takes into account the vitality and the metabolism of the individual fruits and vegetables and, at the same time, in a wonderful way synchronizes with those that are our needs.
Spring has to prepare us for the warmer months with green and floral vegetables: asparagus, chicory, artichokes. Red, a sign of richness in anthocyanins, comes alive with strawberries and cherries.
The hot summer has to hydrate to the maximum and provide protection to our skin so it provides vegetables and fruits among the richest in water and protective pigments such as carotenes and anthocyanins: melons, watermelons, peaches, plums but also cucumbers, tomatoes, aubergines, peppers.
Autumn has to pick us up from the hottest months by providing vegetables among the richest in magnesium. The pumpkin stands out among all. It provides broccoli, cabbage with powerful antioxidant effect just to repair any damage induced by the sun and gradually prepare for the colder months. The pomegranates, then, announce the arrival of vitamin C supplies. Soon, in fact, will begin the winter ready to offer vegetables with creamy pulp that lend themselves to warm and delicate velvety and richest fruits in vitamin C such as oranges, clementines, grapefruits and lemons ready to line up with our immune system against viruses and bacteria.
An off-season food for obvious reasons is, contrary to nature, “forced” to resist an environment that is not its own. On the one hand, this involves a certain suffering in the plant that affects the production of molecules that alter taste and, often, even color. This leads to loss of substances and pigments with beneficial effects for our body.
A weak plant, however, is also more at risk of getting sick and being attacked by insects. This leads to the use of pesticides as well as methods that force their growth. Substances that, not recognized as nutrients, can therefore poison our body and promote the disease.
Seasonality is one of the cornerstones on which the Mediterranean Diet is based, of which Italian cuisine is a part, declared by the Unesco Intangible Heritage of Humanity. What’s special about this diet?
The Mediterranean Diet is harmony between land, nature and the sea. Cereals, respect for seasonality, extra virgin olive oil and fish make it an ideal model of nutrition. A mix of nutrients and bioactive substances that contribute to the health of our body. However, it is also true that this is a model that must be expertly adapted to new standards of life, to office life, to the hectic life of the big city, to work for shifts but also to specific pathological conditions.
The science of nutrition is constantly evolving and the model of the Mediterranean Diet is well suited to be, from time to time, adapted to new discoveries. Examples are the chronobiological aspects: “when” consuming a given food affects even more than how much to eat; the combinations between different foods within the same meal that allow, for example, to reduce the overall glycemic load of the same. I would define it as a model of a special diet, but only if it is used wisely and adapted to the needs and needs of the individual.
Pasta, the cornerstone of Italian cuisine, is often demonized abroad. Probably, this also derives from the fact that abroad pasta is prepared with poor quality soft wheat, while we know that, by law, Italian pasta is made only with durum wheat (and quality ancient grains). Can you explain the importance of a carbohydrate like pasta, within a correct diet?
The demonization of pasta is born, as well as, as stated, by the different quality of grains also by the wrong message of many diets that are based on drastically reducing the amount of carbohydrates. However carbohydrates are the main energy source of our diet.
When I try to explain the importance to my patients I describe them as energy men. As such, to be able to work and ensure the construction of body mass that works best, in addition to using valuable help in the long-term energy supply provided by foods rich in fat, must be equipped with “bricks”. They are foods rich in amino acids and proteins but also “tools of the trade”. All smaller items needed for the success of this construction, which are provided by foods rich in minerals, vitamins and bioactive components such as fruits, vegetables but also spices and herbs. This is why a diet can not rely only on one or another group of nutrients and drastically reduce others.
Beyond the quantity that must be adjusted according to the needs of the individual, special attention must be paid to quality. Simple carbohydrates such as refined sugar, honey, sweeteners should be reduced because their rapid absorption leads to peaks in blood glucose levels. These today are known to be highly pro-inflammatory and difficult to manage by our body. On the contrary, it is better to prefer complex carbohydrate sources, which are absorbed more slowly by limiting the damage induced by the glycemic peaks. The latter are further limited by the combination within the same meal of carbohydrates with protein sources, lipids and vegetables or vegetables that play the valuable role of further slowing the rate of absorption of carbohydrates. Certainly healthy choice in this sense is the choice of whole wheat grain pasta and whole food.
Pasta is the main resource, other sources are bread and cereals in grains such as rice, oats, millet, spelled, barley. Due to the wondrful variety that nature offers us, it would be a real pity to keep only pasta in the pantry, but the latter must still be considered a healthy choice and in line with the needs of our human machine.
How can a correct lifestyle protect us from certain diseases?
A lifestyle that is respectful of the wonderful mechanisms at the base of our human machine can only promote well-being and health. Every elementary unit of our body, the cell, lives and performs its function most if it is based on quality food. From macros to micro nutrients, to the smallest bioactive molecules, everything contributes to a harmonious work. If this balance between macro and micronutrients fails, if substances in our diet are not recognized as nutrients from our body, if deficiencies are established, the cells will suffer.
We have mechanisms of homeostasis and reestablishment of potent balance but if these imbalances are protracted over time the body will begin to accumulate fat with all the complications that this entails. Defense systems and the action of the immune system will be deficient, favoring its vulnerability to infectious and inflammatory agents.
Most of the diseases of our century are all characterized by a chronic inflammatory state. An anti-inflammatory diet that respects the daily oscillation of hormones from breakfast to dinner, which guarantees anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant substances such as omega-3, polyphenols, which respects the natural balance of our intestinal microbiota, which plays on combinations to maintain blood glucose levels are low for this type of disease.
Genetics plays a key role, but most of the diseases of our century are multifactorial diseases, where diet and physical activity factors are those on which we can certainly act. Why not use these powerful tools? It is certainly a bit more challenging to throw down a pill when the pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar begin to rise towards values above the normal range but it is certainly free of side effects and indeed enriches us with other benefits such as, for example, those on mood.
How important is it to educate the younger generation for a healthy food lifestyle?
It is crucial. The new generations will be not only the consumers but, above all, the producers of tomorrow. They must know what is good for their body. Knowledge makes us free to make choices, to make mistakes, to criticize. In this regard, I believe that food education is the key from the first years of life. Mothers of my youngest patients are spurred to be an example, to put their hands in dough, to make choices that can “shape” and “educate” the taste of their children to healthy and quality food.