In Sardinia, people tend to live longer than in other parts of the world, and everyone from researchers, to famous actors, want to know why. Likely it’s a combination of factors: diet, environment, and lifestyle; all vital components of a traditional way of life. But let’s try to break it down a little, and clear up some misconceptions along the way.
We all know traditional Italian food is amazing, delicious, fresh, and healthy. We’ve all heard about the health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet. In fact, I wrote a whole article about The Real Mediterranean Diet, clearing up some common illusions there also.
Italy is one of the healthiest countries in the world, home of the Slow Food Movement, and Sardinia is an Italian island that has a long agricultural history steeped in tradition, so it all seems to tie together nicely. Therefore many researchers stop at this point because it’s easy to put this theory in neat packaging this way. But there is one major problem, the Sardinian diet has some variables that don’t fit in with common ideas about the Mediterranean Diet, or the Blue Zones, and their health benefits. Wait, what are Blue Zones?
Blue Zones: The World’s Longest Lived Cultures
Many articles have been written about the Blue Zones; areas around the world where a larger component of the population lives to be over 100 years of age. Sardinia is one of the Blue Zone areas that has been studied and the diet of the Sardinian people has been touted as one of the healthiest in the world, an island which is part of a country which is already among the healthiest. So what is the Sardinian diet, and what makes it so special, and healthy?
Shopping at local markets, and eating in the homes of Sardinians of various ages, I see what local people eat. Markets reflect the demands of local consumers and one can learn a lot about local diets from visiting them. I can tell you it isn’t all fava beans and vegetables, much as some researchers would like you to believe.
The focus of copious “Blue Zones” articles and books have examined the Sardinian diet, and they tout pecorino cheese, goat milk, cannonau wine, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables as the reasons the diet is so healthy, and why the people live longer.
All of these products are indeed wonderful, and certainly a healthy part of the Sardinian diet. However, there are several other important staples of the Sardinian diet absolutely missing from the conversation, ingredients such as honey, mirto, bottarga, pork, shellfish, game meats, and of course the ever-present pasta, to name a few. These products are just as important to the diet and as delicious as the others with their own health benefits. So why are they not on the list?
I believe there are a few important reasons. One, some of the products aren’t available in the mass market, especially in North America, where many people will try new diets. So in order to make these types of diet plans accessible to more people, you have to feature products that are widely available. This is a major contributing factor to why a lot of diet plans based on the “traditional diets” of healthier populations around the world utterly fail. When you water down the evidence to make it available to more people, it dilutes the entire integrity of the diet.
Artificially creating a diet for the masses also removes the conversation about the actual land where the traditional people live, and how the food is produced there. Different areas of the world have different nutrient makeups in the soil, which relates to the overall nutrients in the final food product. One must also take into account the way food is produced and consumed. Meat from an animal grazing on nutrient-dense grasses has different health implications for the people eating it than an animal who spends its life in a barn eating grain, who rarely sees the light of day. Yet, that shouldn’t discount the fact that certain animal products are staples of the Sardinian diet, theoretically contributing to the good health and longevity of Sardinians overall.
There also continues to be a lot of wild foods, or foods directly from the land still consumed in large amounts in Sardinia – everything from game meats, especially wild boar, to wild herbs, fruits, and vegetables. This means Sardinians partake of food directly from the land without pesticides or other man-made growth stimulants. Sardinians enjoy foraging for wild asparagus, mushrooms, and fennel; not to mention all the wild fruits like figs, grapes, berries, plums, and pears. Mirto, for example, is a traditional Sardinian digestif (which is discussed further down in the article) and is primarily made from wild fruits.
In my article Eat Like An Italian: Part 1: No Guilt, I talk about how I was trapped in an unhealthy cycle growing up in American diet culture, and how I was confused about what I needed to eat to be healthy which led to a myriad of problems in my life. However, living in Sardinia has helped me heal from a lifetime of struggle with body image.
Many in the nutrition field, backed up by pharmaceutical companies, large international food corporations, and the medical system want people to be confused about what to eat because it ultimately means more money in their collective pockets.
If you don’t believe people are confused about what to eat, here are some stats from last year:
80% of Americans said they were confused about what they should eat, and 56% said it made them question their food purchases, while 36% followed a specific eating pattern in the past year in the attempt to be more healthy. Americans always look for the magic bullet, and it seems to always begin with dieting, which is why books about Blue Zones and the Mediterranean Diet are so popular in the US.
The last reason some traditional Sardinian foods probably didn’t make the list is that they are not part of the international agenda which promotes plant-based diets as a way to solve all the world’s environmental problems. This vegan agenda is the basis for a lot of the fad diet books out there, and people eat it up even if there are discrepancies within the same book.
Ok, So What Do Sardinians Eat Anyway?
The Two P’s: Pasta and Pork
If you asked Sardinians what their national dish is (and yes, most Sardinians see themselves as separate from their fellow countrymen on “the continent”), they will likely name one of two dishes: Malloreddus or Porceddu.
Malloreddus, also known as “gnocchetti Sardi” is a handmade small pasta traditionally served with a sausage ragu, sometimes made of wild boar. The ridged shell-like shape was traditionally created by pressing the balls of dough on a reed basket, but nowadays most people use a special board with ridges, a citrus zester or even the back of a fork to create the lines, which are important so the sauce can easily cling to the pasta.
Porceddu, or Maialetto as it is sometimes known, is roasted suckling pig, which is prepared by pit-roasting the piglets using myrtle and/or juniper branches. The piglets are cooked around a large open fire pit and it takes about 4-5 hours to create the desired result: tender juicy meat with crispy outside skin, heaven on a plate for pork lovers.
However, strangely, neither pasta nor pork make the list of healthy Sardinian foods in the Blue Zones diet books, despite being very common elements on tables throughout Sardinia. Even if you have been lead to believe these foods are not healthy, we have to agree that neither are obviously posing any health problems for the local Sardinian population. Here is where the discrepancies begin.
Malloreddus and Porcheddu as the “national foods” exemplify the point that much of the island’s cuisine is based on foods of the land and not of the sea, despite the fact that Sardinia is an island surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea.
The thing is people in the mountainous regions of Sardinia, like Erula, and Ittiri where my parents in law are from, and also the mountain villages of Barbagia where many of the Sardinian centenarians live, and where the Blue Zones research rests heavily, are more likely to eat a more hearty, and earthy (Read: MEAT) diet.
Sardinia has spent most of its past isolated from the Italian mainland and has a history of invasions, beginning with the Phoenicians in the 9th century (BCE) then the Romans came, followed by Arabs, Northern Italians (Genoese and Pisans), and finally the Spanish. In resistance, the native Sardinian people moved inland creating strong bases of tradition in the interior mountainous regions thereby cultivating a traditional cuisine that relies mostly on inland foods, such as grains, and pastoral animals, like sheep, goats, cows, and pigs, as well as food directly from the land, like wild boars and hares, and game birds like partridge and quail, plus wild plants such as mirto, wild fennel, thyme, rosemary, and corbezzolo.
The most common Sardinian ingredient from the sea is Bottarga, a salted, cured fish roe, from either grey mullet or bluefin tuna – a product which is shelf-stable, and easy to store long term, since access to the sea was dangerous for Sardinians during much of Sardinia’s history. This preservation of fresh items allowed the people to live away from the coasts, which only tended to bring ships of invaders.
Throughout Sardinia’s history and continued to the present day these mountain regions are home to those with pastoral vocations, and we all know that shepherds and farmers, especially those living in remote areas, live off the food they produce, which in the case of shepherds are cheese and meat. When it comes to meat, they use the whole animal. Thus their diets are largely made up of what they can grow themselves, and what often arid land can produce. That produce would then need to be preserved, for long term storage.
Therefore, Sardinians eat a lot of cured meats, in addition to aged cheeses. However, this is not unique to the Sardinian diet. Most mainland Italian diets also feature cured meats, and as discussed in my article about misconceptions of the Mediterranean Diet which illustrates that the reality often does not always align with the theories espoused by healthy diet researchers.
The Holy Trinity: Pecorino, Honey, and Saffron
Sardinians use a lot of pecorino (sheep milk cheese), honey, and saffron in their cooking, its like a holy trinity, and all contain a myriad of health benefits. The sheep cheeses are created from pastoral sheep living off local nutrient-rich Sardinian fauna.
Honey has been a locally made product since at least Roman times, so it’s a prominent ingredient in the local cuisine. Some beekeepers still use the traditional hives made of cork, also known as “cork skeps.” It is the simplest and most ancient method of producing honey in Sardinia.
The most famous Sardinian honey is called “Miele Amaro” (bitter honey) from Corbezzolo, the “strawberry tree,” named for the small red fruits it produces. It has been used since ancient times, as noted in the writings of Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, and others that refer to it. Wild bees feast on the nectar of these trees, and the trees seem to grow all over the island. The honey is anti-asthmatic, used for bronchial infections, and to improve blood circulation.
It is also known for its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. A joint study by the University of Marche, the University of Vigo, and the University of Granada even detected certain effectiveness in preventing colon cancer. It is also higher in antioxidants than Manuka honey.
Saffron has over 40 therapeutic health uses. Saffron is high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. It is also chock full of B-vitamins, magnesium, and potassium.
People today use it to alleviate depression, and quell insomnia, lower insulin and fight obesity. It has also been used for centuries as an expectorant, to counteract aging, and most of all, as an aphrodisiac, making it one of the most ancient but varied use herbs in existence.
In Sardinia, the dough to make malloreddus pasta is often made with saffron, either in the pasta itself or sometimes added to the sauce. It is also commonly used in pastries.
Saffron was likely first brought to the island by the Phoenicians and then cultivated on the island soon thereafter by the Nuraghic people who inhabited the island at the time and are the ancestors of modern Sardinians.
Mirto (known in English as Myrtle) is another one of those quintessential wild Sardinian foods. This little wild bush covers the island and its little purple-blue berries full of antioxidants, are used to season food, and to make a specific liqueur, also called Mirto, commonly enjoyed as a digestif. Most Sunday lunches end with a little Mirto, and in every restaurant on the island, from a hole in the wall to upscale will offer a small glass of Mirto after your meal.
The mirto plant has astringent qualities, which give it antifungal and anti-microbial properties. Its leaves and flowers are often drunk as a tea to treat bronchial disorders, like bronchitis and whooping cough, to more serious conditions like tuberculosis.
What really strikes me when I look at the Blue Zones research especially, is that all of the centenarians featured from various cultures around the world is that they are living in fairly traditional communities. A key component largely missing from the longevity conversation is that diet alone does not explain why people live longer in certain communities. Lifestyle, which includes participating in long-held traditions, keep people going, and these Blue Zones centenarians all come from long-established cultures and communities.
I am passionate about the vital importance of culture and tradition and how they help bring a sense of permanence and belonging in this oft frenzied world. When they interview centenarians from these regions and varied cultures, they are always people who were born and lived their lives in that community. I haven’t found one interview with a person born to and living outside of one of the specific communities who moved there later in life and have now lived to be over 100 years old, but perhaps that research is yet to come, it is too early to tell. I myself am a willing guinea pig in that research.
Sardinians love their traditions, and they have many which are so ancient that some of the earlier meanings to these rituals and sacred places have been forgotten to time. From the beloved dance of the Mamuthones to polyphonic folk singing, and visits to the literally TENS OF THOUSANDS of megalithic, neolithic, and bronze age structures which dot the landscape like old friends: the 5,000-year-old, olive trees, the Nuraghi, dolmans, Tombs of the Giants, and Domus de Janas (“houses of the fairies”), Sardinians have many places and traditions of special spiritual significance which tie them to their mystical island, and the ones that came before them. Not to mention the vibrational energy that these places emit that surely has an effect on the constitution of the human body.
This connection to a place, to the physicality of the land itself and the energy of the land, and the traditions that have sprung from that place is such an important piece of longevity. In traditional societies, people have an inherent sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. They belong to a place, a community, and a way of life; they have a history, something to keep them rooted, which is a source of comfort, especially as we age. There are also so many things to look forward to, like cultural gatherings, steeped in the history of where they come from, where they can gather with friends and family. But also simple daily pleasures, like coffee with a friend, or watching people go by. Maybe by finishing the day with a little glass of Mirto.
That huge sense of loneliness you hear about in many developed countries is mostly absent here. The community supports its members, and there is a safety net. Sardinians also love Sardinia, her natural beauty, and her spirit. You can never truly feel alone when you have such a connection to the place you live in.
Diet is just one part of a traditional life, and although it is an important aspect, it can’t give us the whole picture of health. I’m sure the Blue Zones and Mediterranean Diets will yield good results if you want to try them, there is a lot of good research there. But often people try diets and are disappointed that the results don’t quite live up to what they expected. That said, I strongly believe that eating your ancestral foods in combination with native and wild foods from the land where you live can help reconnect us to that strong sense of belonging to the places and the people we come from, and the lands we inhabit.