In the Italian town of Pioppi, people live ten years longer than anywhere else. A new Mediterranean diet plan, based on their secrets, claims simple science-backed sense
I cheered when The Pioppi Diet book landed on my desk this week. I'm not one for diets at all, but the chapter headings, such as: ‘Saturated fat does not clog the arteries’, ‘you can’t outrun a bad diet’, ‘stop counting calories and stop snacking’ and ‘movement is medicine’ seemed to offer answers to much-debated and hot dietary topics. As someone who has umpteen ‘healthy’ cookbooks, has dropped embarrassing sums on the latest superfoods and still doesn’t know conclusively what to eat, The Pioppi Diet appears to be a simple, science-backed guide to what we should be putting on our plates for a long and healthy life. The 21-day Lifestyle Plan also tackles the life we need to live around eating - relaxing, moving, not snacking and enjoying the odd glass of wine and square of chocolate.
Authors, consultant cardiologist and health campaigner Dr Aseem Malhotra (who Jamie Oliver described as an ‘inspiration’) and filmmaker Donal O’Neill - the team behind last year’s documentary, The Big Fat Fix - take on decades of misguided public health advice, food myths and marketing campaigns which have meddled with our diets, while doing nothing to halt the march of type 2 diabetes, cancer, dementia and heart disease (low fat/high carb diets anyone?).
According to the authors, the answer to the question of 'what is healthy eating?' has been right under our noses in the tiny southern Italian village of Pioppi (population 197), where people live long and healthy lives without the merest whiff of a superfood powder, a gym or even a supermarket. Pioppians live, on average, 10 years longer than anywhere else in the world and the hamlet has now been designated the home of the Mediterranean diet by UNESCO. In studies, the Mediterranean diet, consistently scores highly for longevity and significantly reduced risk of major killer diseases. A landmark 2013 PREDIMED trial funded by the Spanish government over many years found that those on the Mediterranean diet were 30 per cent less likely than those on a low-fat diet to develop heart disease and half as likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Olive oil is a key factor in the diet and women who incorporated more extra virgin olive oil into their daily diets reduced their breast cancer risk by were 68 per cent.
Chilled cucumber and avocado soup
The authors spent time with the inhabitants of Pioppi, working out what gave them their edge. The resulting book is a 21-Day Lifestyle Plan to "lose weight, feel great and reduce your risk of type-2 diabetes and heart disease". It advocates getting off your butt every 45 minutes. The local men of Pioppi outlive elite Tour De France cyclists by almost a decade without any scheduled exercise by walking and working (many fish for a living) going uphill and downhill and crucially varying the intensity of their activities. The plan gives daily functional movement exercises such as mountain climbers, squats, spinal rolls, warriors, lunges and lots of variations on crawling.
It also addresses our stress levels, with easy breathing and relaxation exercises. When it becomes chronic, stress is known to shorten telomeres, the part of our cells that affect how we age. It also recommends intermittent fasting of 24 hours a week (as the Pioppians would have traditionally done due to food shortage) and not counting calories for weight loss on the basis that not all calories are equal - different sources of calories have different metabolic effects on the body. Socialising and sleep (minimum seven hours) are also key pillars.
So what does the menu look like? You eat three meals until you are full and make sure to include a handful of nuts and two to four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil a day. You pick your meals from the recipes provided; breakfasts (e.g. scrambled eggs, coconut pancakes, chocolate coconut porridge, Greek yogurt with berries nuts and seeds), lunches (tuna nicoise, cauliflower cheese and crispy shallots, monkfish skewers, dahl), dinners (cheese burgers, lamb stew, courgette pizza, veggie curry) and sides (salads, mixed veg, broad beans and parmesan). One day a week is a fast day where you omit breakfast and lunch.
Sweet potato rosti with poached eggs and harissa creme fraiche
What you won’t find are grains, breads, puddings and snacks - although I'm pretty sure the Italians eat pasta and pizza, no? Yes, but not every day, says Dr Malhotra. “Yes, the locals eat pasta – but only in small quantities, and they rarely touch sugar. They only eat dessert on a Sunday, pizza once or twice a month." You’re encouraged to go cold turkey on sugar for the 21 Day Lifestyle Plan and then have only the odd square of dark chocolate (minimum 85 per cent cocoa solids) when you've finshed the Plan.
The authors give their sample week-long eating plans and it’s clear that ongoing, the Pioppi way of eating is not as restrictive as the 21 Day Plan. As well as dark chocolate, I spied Earl Grey tea, coffee and red wine.
The plan comes with endorsements from some heavy hitters in the medical profession – as well as Andy Burnham, former Secretary of State for Health and now Mayor of Greater Manchester. It is full of staple ingredients that needn’t cost the earth. The challenge for many people, will be cutting right back on sugar as well as breads. I won't be ditching them completely and see the Pioppi way of eating as something to follow on the 80:20/everthing-in-moderation principle. But with the weight of evidence - both scientific and from the Pioppi inhabitants themselves - seemingly stacked firmly in its favour, if we’re serious about health, we need to go back to basics. The people of Pioppi have never left.
Donal and Aseem's top ten foods
1. Extra virgin olive oil - 2 - 4tbsp daily
2. Nuts – handful daily
3. Fibrous vegetables (specifically broccoli, cauliflower, courgettes, aubergines, onions, sweet potatoes)
4. Fruits (tomatoes, avocados, apples, berries)
5. Herbs and spices (garlic, ginger, turmeric, basil, cinnamon)
6. Fatty fish
7. Dark chocolate and/or raw cacao powder
8. Coconut (oil, cream)
9. Eggs minimum 10 a week
10. Full-fat and fermented dairy