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EATING WELL AND LIVING LONGER

Science and medicine, it is sometimes said, have done much to add years to life, but little to add life to years. Regular exercise, a sensible diet and adequate sleep can do much in the way of extending your life. With this in mind, millions of health-conscious people across the country, and in fact all over the world, have taken to speed-walking, running, jogging, swimming, yoga, and aerobics. Tofu, bean sprouts, lots of greens, and an emphasis on grains and fiber have indeed had a beneficial effect on the many persons who have opted for a healthier way of life. Red meat? No Way. Butter? Forget it. Fish, perhaps, and maybe some chicken once in a while. But thick steaks, well-marbled with fat and sizzling from the grill are no longer de rigeur for dinner.

There are still those, though, who disdain the rigors of a healthy lifestyle - stubbornly insisting that they would rather eat with less discipline, and perhaps not do much in the way of exercising at all. They will, they say, accept the consequences. They may not, in fact, even be particularly vigilant about regular medical exams. Almost all of us know at least some like this. In today's culture of diet and exercise fads, they are no longer considered mainstream.

It may come as somewhat of a surprise, then, to learn that some of the world's healthiest populations often do not receive routine health care, do not get regular "health club" exercise, and eat only what comes naturally to them. They would roll their eyes at the thought of reconstructing their gastronomic habits to accommodate their blood pressure. They would laugh heartily at the prospect of a low-fat diet and a morning workout.

One might well wonder what they do eat, and where they live. Who are these people who have surpassed other areas of the world, not only in longevity, but in vigor?

They are the Mediterraneans. They eat lavishly, and they live in an area which many have characterized as one of the most beautiful and gracious spots on earth. Their typical diet is rich in grains, beans, lentils and pasta. They eat very little red meat, but they love fish and they thrive on pasta and olive oil. Mushrooms, cheese, fresh vegetables and fruits are standard fare. A sizeable percentage of this population has never visited a doctor, and many get no regular exercise. They even smoke more than their counterparts in many other areas of the world.

What's Going On Here ?

In studying this population, and in comparing them to other nations, doctors have concluded that it is their diet which makes them healthier, which assists in preventing heart disease, and which contributes to their longevity. They eat very little red meat and very few dairy products. They scarcely go a day, however, without olive oil, which they use at the table on their bread, on their vegetables, and on their pasta. It is just as generously used in preparing dishes in the kitchen as it is at the table, and is generally considered so much a part of Mediterranean cuisine that mealtime without it would be unthinkable.

But olive oil is oil. And oil is, after all, fat. How can it be healthy?

The typical American diet does not use olive oil in a healthy way. It is used sporadically, and is not substituted for butter. In this country, people who use olive oil are usually also using butter, sometimes even in the same dish.

Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat. When it's used instead of butter, it actually works to reduce cholesterol levels.

Imagine, for a moment, a small round table covered with the typical Provençal yellow and blue cloth. This table is set outdoors on a terrace among a tangle of climbing flowers and umbrella pines which cling to a rocky escarpment. Hundreds of feet below the Mediterranean crashes against a shingle of beach. You sip some vin du pays - a wonderful and inexpensive regional wine - and you contemplate the waves. Eventually (never in a hurry) the waiter brings you a heap of pasta. It is cooked with wild chanterelle mushrooms, fresh thyme, olive oil, white wine, garlic, and leeks. It is sprinkled generously with cheese, and it is piping hot. There is crusty bread, of course, and a cruet of fine olive oil. The aroma makes you sigh. The vista is beyond compare.

On your way home from this fine meal overlooking the ocean, you may linger in the square to watch a game of pétanque and sip a glass of pastis. You will discuss politics, to be sure. You may discuss the neighbors, or the truffle season. But you will not be wondering about serum cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Life is too short.

One wonders, after all, whether the Mediterraneans have succeeded marvelously at adding life to their years at the same time that they've added years to their life.

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