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I recently had the chance to tag along with Dry Farm Wines when they visited Europe and I got to see some of the amazing family-owned vineyards where their wines are grown.
One of my goals when we left for Europe was to figure out some of the reasons that many European countries routinely rank higher than the US in so many health metrics. My thought was to find at least 5-7 reasons that could explain this. I went home with a list of 30+ potential reasons!
Why Are Europeans Statistically Healthier (Than Americans)?
The US is consistently ranked near the bottom in most health metrics and mortality. On top of that, we spend more in healthcare than other countries and are less healthy.
The reasons I suspect make the biggest difference in Europeans’ health metrics and longevity were not related as much to food (surprisingly) but to other basic lifestyle factors. Certainly, there were food differences as well, but from what I saw, other factors make a much bigger difference.
Since we can’t all move to Italy (though I certainly might if I could!) I came home with these ideas to incorporate into my daily life here and to bring a little bit of Europe home. Of course, not all of these factors are true in all of Europe and there are exceptions to every rule, but these are some of the biggest factors I noticed in the areas that we visited.
1. More Focus on Community
I immediately noticed this difference and suspect that this alone could explain many of the health differences. All of the places we visited had a very strong and noticeable focus on community.
Each night, these families and communities shared a big common meal and spent several hours talking, drinking wine, and enjoying each others’ company. They didn’t eat in the car on the way to other activities and their lives didn’t revolve around external activities and kids’ sports. Family dinner was a given each day and the family spent time preparing the food together, eating together, and relaxing together.
Recent studies show that having strong relationships and community is one of the most important factors for health. In fact, community/relationships are statistically more important for health than quitting smoking and twice as statistically significant as regular exercise.
Seeing this difference in Europe firsthand, I’m inclined to think that the focus on relationships may be one of the biggest (if not the biggest) factor for better health outcomes in Europe.
2. More (& Better) Wine
For the families we visited, wine was a part of daily life. In fact, many of them drank a small amount of wine at lunch and a glass (or more) at dinner as well. From a health perspective, this is an interesting point. On one hand, alcohol is by its nature toxic (and Todd and I talk about it in this podcast episode).
On the other hand, people in many of the original Blue Zones (places where a higher percentage of people live to be 100+) consume wine daily.
So why the difference? I have two theories.
- Wine contains many beneficial compounds like flavonoids, resveratrol, and other beneficial plant compounds that are good for the body. With wine consumption in moderation, these beneficial compounds likely outweigh any potential downside to the wine.
- Alcohol in low amounts (like low-alcohol wines) may be a hormetic stress. This means that a compound (like alcohol) can be dangerous in high amounts but beneficial in small doses. The small amount of stress it places on the body can actually make the body stronger rather than weaker.
The other important difference is that the people we visited are drinking natural wines, which are much better than even organic or biodynamic. They are not irrigated (lower sugar and alcohol content), use native yeast fermentation (probiotics and good bacteria), and are tested to make sure they don’t have pesticides or added sulfites.
(If you want to try these delicious natural wines, you can get an extra bottle for a penny through this link.)
3. Less Plastic Exposure
You may already know how much I dislike plastic and why I think we should all be working really hard to reduce plastic use. Many plastics contain known endocrine disruptors and plastic overuse is causing problems in our oceans and water supply. Europe as a whole does much better on reducing plastic use due to policy and personal decisions.
Not only do grocery stores charge for bags (up to around $1 each in some cases), some don’t offer plastic bags at all! Many foods came in glass or other reusable packaging and many families grow much of their own food at their house (more on that below).
Almost everyone I saw at markets and grocery stores brought their own bags or backpacks and many of them walked to and from the stores. Mineral water came in glass bottles that were reused or recycled. Many people we met go to the markets and prepare food fresh each day, avoiding the plastic packaging from many products. In one town we visited, people would visit the local pasta maker, butcher, and produce market each day and buy incredible fresh food to prepare that evening.
4. More Walking and Movement
I saw almost no gyms on our entire trip but most of the people we met get more “exercise” than most of America does. The families we met certainly didn’t head off to a gym to “work out” for an hour each day, but their daily life involves walking to and from town, working on vines or in the garden, and preparing food. They very seldom sat still and were often walking so they don’t need supplemental exercise to stay healthy.
This lines up with current research as well. A few years ago, reports came out showing that “sitting is the new smoking” and that any of us who sit too much on a daily basis are at a higher risk of health problems. Many people switched to stand-up desks or other options.
Then, a follow-up report came out showing that it turns out that standing all day can be equally problematic and that we are just meant to MOVE throughout the day in different ways. In Europe, when we were in cities, we walked most places because it was faster than trying to take a car. In smaller towns and vineyards, we walked with the families as they cared for vines or went into town for food.
We walked well over 75 miles in less than two weeks!
5. Nap Time
I’d heard of the afternoon siesta in Spain, and Italy has a similar nap tradition referred to as riposo. Think of it as a longer lunch break that involves some time for resting or napping. Especially in the small towns, many businesses shut down for a few hours around lunch time so everyone could go home and rest.
During the heat of the day, it felt great to rest and take some time off, and everyone came back refreshed and ready to work a few more hours. Rather than fight the “afternoon slump,” Europe seems to embrace it and respect time for rest.
Recent science shows the many benefits of a 20-30 minute quick nap. In fact, Harvard Health recently released a report explaining the benefits of a quick nap and how it can positively affect circadian rhythm. Companies like Google are jumping on the bandwagon too, creating nap-friendly environments and even “nap pods” for employees. (Any other moms think a “nap pod” sounds like an amazing idea? I want one!)
6. Less Air Conditioning
Full disclosure: this wasn’t my favorite part of Europe, but even this has some hidden health benefits. Many places we visited didn’t have air conditioning and it was often in the high 80s or even low 90s during the day. This meant I was sweating at least 60% of our visit… but this turns out to be good for health too. (Plus, it saves energy!)
Sweating is one of the body’s natural detoxification mechanisms and is said to be great for the skin microbiome. On top of that, sweating may help balance mineral ratios in the body and a good regular sweat may even help avoid kidney stones.
For most of history, humans also haven’t had the luxury of being at a constant 70 degree temperature all year long and it turns out this can have some unintended consequences as well. When we don’t experience the extreme heat of summer or the extreme cold of winter, we miss out on some important benefits:
- The stress of heat exposure activates genes that optimize heat shock proteins within cells. Why does this matter? Heat shock proteins are involved with avoiding plaque formation in the brain and are also linked to longevity. (Side note: this is another reason saunas can be so beneficial)
- Cold exposure, on the other hand, increases norepinephrine in the brain, leading to improved mood, better sleep, better focus, and increased resilience to stress.
7. Growing Food at Home
I was surprised how much gardening was a part of daily life in many of the places we visited. Almost every family had a private family garden (often in addition to commercial products like grapes, olives, or tomatoes that they sold).
One family in particular, Casa di Baal (wines coming soon to Dry Farm Wines), grew everything their family ate with the exception of only three food products they bought at the store: coffee, flour, and sugar. The tomatoes, artichokes, olives, arugula, and everything else we ate at their home was grown a few feet away. Their mucca (cow) produced the milk their family used, and they pressed their own fresh olive oil from trees on their farm. Peacocks and chickens produced eggs that they ate and the chicken we had for lunch at their house had been prepared just a few hours before… straight from the backyard.
There was no need for an “eat local” movement because many of them didn’t even have to go to the local farmer’s market… their food came from the backyard.
Gardening has so many benefits, and there are many reasons we should all incorporate growing our own food into daily life. Seeing the way families did this, even on balconies and tiny patios made me realize just how much room for growth we have in this area and inspired me to come home and plant some fig trees, fruit trees, and a more permanent garden.
8. Better Use of Space… and Stairs
Minimalism has become trendy in the US lately as we all KonMari our houses. In Europe, it seemed that in general, people owned less “stuff” and made better use of space. Even those who seemed to be able to afford very large houses seemed to focus on spaces that were the size they actually needed and that kept the focus on community spaces and family areas.
Since many buildings were built hundreds of years ago, they didn’t have elevators and had #allthestairs (more natural movement). Most houses and buildings didn’t have massive rooms or built-in closets. Everything seemed very functional and organized and used space well.
9. No Dryers
Another part that was admittedly not my favorite… the absence of clothing dryers (and even of washing machines in some areas). I’m not sure this is the standard throughout Europe but where we visited, it was common to see clotheslines in the yards with freshly cleaned clothes on them each day.
Turns out, this has many benefits too. It saves energy not to use a dryer, washing and hanging clothes is natural exercise, and the sun is a natural sanitizer so clothes stay fresh and don’t shrink.
Other Health Factors
The list above sums up the biggest reasons I think many Europeans are largely healthier. I’m sure there’s a couple dozen more reasons that include everything from less access to fast food (especially in rural areas), to eating more slowly and preparing almost everything from scratch, to getting more sleep.
In general, the people we met also seemed to prioritize family and friends more and have much less stress on a daily basis. I came really close to volunteering to be a farmhand at one of the small vineyards there so I could soak up the incredible life they live.
Bottom Line: Lessons from Europe
At the end of the day, while Italy is amazing and stole a piece of my heart, it isn’t a panacea (no place is) and it has its fair share of problems too. That said, I think we can learn something from everywhere we go and every person we meet. Europe had its fair share of important life lessons and I hope to go back sometime soon.
At the same time, there are a few things they could possibly learn from the US too, like maybe not driving with babies in a backpack carrier… on a motorcycle.
But for me, since our trip, I’m making an effort to walk or bike whenever possible in my local area, to grow more of the food we eat, and to really prioritize building strong community where we live.
Ever been to Europe? Why do you think Europeans are healthier than Americans?