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Food for thought if you want to live longer

Co Down healthy eating campaigner Donal O'Neill tells John Meagher how his new book could help you live to 90 - and why embracing fat and ditching sugar is key

Pioppi is a remote village in southern Italy. It's a long way off the tourist trail and few holidaymakers are likely to bother with it when there are so many golden beaches and stunning restaurants in the region.

But Pioppi, whose population hovers around the 200 mark, is a remarkable place. The people here live far longer, on average, than they do elsewhere and the average man lives to 89.

What makes Pioppi so noteworthy is that, when its residents eventually die, they rarely have the diseases of ageing.

Diabetes and heart disease are practically unknown. Many of them continue to lead active lives after they turn 100.

And there's a disproportionately high number of centenarians there, too.

Pioppi is recognised by Unesco as the centre of the Mediterranean diet - a lifestyle phenomenon that was first popularised by one of the giants of the healthy eating industry, Ancel Keys, in the 1950s.

It's back in vogue again thanks to a new book, co-written by Co Down-born healthy eating campaigner, Donal O'Neill.

The Pioppi Diet, which is published by Penguin, drills down into old assumptions about the Mediterranean diet and espouses new theories - such as the importance of fat and the absence of sugar in helping to promote a long and healthy life.

O'Neill was the young firebrand who rocked the GAA in 1999 when he co-founded the Gaelic Players' Association (GPA) one autumn night at the Wellington Park Hotel in Belfast.

A son of Down 1960s All-Ireland winner Kevin O'Neill, Donal used to compete for Ireland in the high jump until injury got in the way. He's had numerous careers, but for the best part of a decade, since leaving the GPA, he has made a quest for how to eat healthily his life's work. There have been a number of provocative documentaries - and now a highly persuasive book.

"Pioppi is a very special place, where people forget to die," he says, quoting an eye-catching phrase from the book. "People use olive oil a lot, they enjoy a glass of wine with their dinner, they're very active. It's a very inspirational place and somewhere that we can really learn from."

O'Neill, who is now resident in Cape Town, where he lives with his South African wife Louise, says the decades-old message that fat is bad for us simply isn't true. "Its reputation is unjust and it has skewed many people's relationship with food," he says.

"We need fats in our diet and I get them from many sources - olive oil and red meat are just a couple of them."

He also avoids sugar wherever possible and he cites this decision as one the best he ever made. "It's life-changing," he says, "and you had visionary people like John Yudkin who were talking about the dangers of sugar in the early 1970s, but they were laughed at. The prevailing wisdom and the big food companies didn't want to entertain the idea."

Donal O'Neill is a "disrupter", to borrow a word popularised by the tech industry. He wants to disrupt conventional thinking about diet, just as he wanted to disrupt the relationship between the GAA and players when he co-founded the GPA.

He happily admits to being "a pain" when it comes to big business and long-established organisations because, he insists, he "wants to do what's right".

Like many of the well-known figures espousing a certain way of eating, he seems unshakeably sure that he has found the answer. But he is keen to point out that a healthy life is about far more than an excellent diet.

"Eating well and really thinking about what you put in your mouth will only go so far if you're very stressed, or not moving about enough or failing to get as much sleep as you should. All those things are really important too."

He admits that the simple, old-fashioned way of life experienced by the denizens of Pioppi is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of modern-day life, but he believes everyone can improve their health if they take the time to assess their situation.

"A lot of people have desk jobs," he says, "and they sit at their computers for hours on end. Something as simple as getting up and moving around every 45 minutes or so would make a difference."

O'Neill is evangelical about sugar and why we need to limit consumption of it. "It's a huge factor in the dramatic rise in obesity," he says. "We are eating far too much sugar and, unfortunately, it's not as simple as saying 'no more sugar in my coffee', or no more biscuits. Refined sugar is added to all kinds of processed foods, even the ones that are marketed as healthy and they're doing us a lot of damage."

He says the dramatic increase in the prevalence of type 2 diabetes in the West is largely down to sugar, the proliferation of ready meals and the "super-sized" products that have become the norm. Twenty years ago, it was unusual to see a 100g packet of crisps or bulked-up confectionery bars; now it's commonplace.

He is also dismayed by the slow, insidious creep of low-fat processed food. "These things are being sold as healthy," but they're often full of sugar, or sugar substitutes. The thing about fat is it helps make food taste nice, so when they take that out, they have to put something else in to make it taste good, and usually that's sugar."

He thinks back to his time in the GPA when he helped leading Gaelic footballers and hurlers broker commercial deals, and he has regrets. "We were dealing with brands like Coca-Cola and Kellogg's, but they shouldn't have a place in sport, and nor should confectionery companies." O'Neill believes such sponsorships are far more harmful to children than alcohol. "And yet it's the alcohol that's been getting all the media attention."

He is saddened that sport has been a happy hunting ground for fast-food chains, sugary drinks makers and processed food manufacturers. And it's everywhere, whether it's McDonald's sponsorship of the World Cup, or Coca-Cola's long relationship with the Olympic Games.

"I remember the GPA worked on an energy drink deal and we were chuffed with it, but, later, I was speaking to the wife of one of the players, and she was a dentist, and she said, 'Do you have any idea about the harm that stuff can do to teeth and general health?' It was a wake-up call."

His focus came to diet and health when his father, Kevin, had a heart attack in 2010.

"Here was someone who had been an elite sportsman, who had barely put on weight, who was still really fit and who didn't drink alcohol. How could it have happened to him?"

O'Neill suspected food could have been a contributory factor and went on a personal crusade to discover the part it played. The more he discovered, the angrier he got.

"We've been sold a lie for a long time," he says. "Many of the foods that are marketed as healthy are anything but, and big business has helped us get used to sugarier food, dependent, even. And that long-engrained advice that fat is bad has done untold damage."

Super Size Me - the influential 2004 film from American director Morgan Spurlock - played a big part fuelling O'Neill's polemical zeal and he set about making his own documentary.

The result was Cereal Killers, in which the ubiquitous breakfast cereal was singled out for special criticism, and with the help of the respected sports scientist professor Tim Noakes, O'Neill embarked on a 28-day high-fat, whole foods, sugar-and-wheat-free diet.

O'Neill made the film himself, without the commission of a TV network, but such was its viral appeal that it has been picked up by the huge film distributor, Lionsgate.

Always the marketing man, O'Neill had himself photographed in a coffin filled with cornflakes. Only his head was visible. Today Cereal Killers and a number of other self-made documentaries are available to purchase and rent online. A more recent film, The Big Fat Fix, centred on O'Neill's explorations of Pioppi, alongside UK cardiologist Aseem Malhotra. Penguin offered the pair a book deal and The Pioppi Diet was born.

O'Neill hopes it won't be seen "as just another diet book" and would love to imagine readers having a "eureka moment" about fat.

"Even if they stopped using those artificial spreads and started using butter and replaced those rancid vegetable oils with olive oil, it would be a good thing," he insists.

But he admits he has his work cut out for him as so much of the modern food messaging centres around buzz-terms like "clean eating". "I don't even know what that means," he says, "and I suspect some of those making their fortune from it don't either."

O'Neill scoffs at attempts made to commercialise the health aspects of places like Pioppi. "Have you seen this new Rosemary Water product? They went to Italy and discovered that lots of people who were living long and healthily were using rosemary in their cooking and they came up with this.

"Well, let me tell you a story. When we were filming in Italy, the team came across this woman who was in her 90s - a real character. She had to climb a lot of steps every day because of where she lived and she used to swear violently every time she climbed them. You can imagine what she was saying: 'I've been climbing these steps every day for 92 years, and I'm sick of it!'

"Ask yourself this: is she enjoying a long healthy life because of those steps or because of the rosemary?"

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