The Mediterranean Diet: How Italians Stay Thin and Healthy
A famous quote by Sofia Loren has her saying that “Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti”. It’s no secret that Italians like their carbs; bread, pasta and pizza are regular food items on the table at meal times…so the question remains; how do Italians stay thin, healthy, and beautiful like the iconic Sofia Loren or Monica Bellucci.
I was born in Canada and grew up in a traditional Calabrese household. The cultural traditions that my parents grew up with were imparted on my brother and I and the notion of dieting never came into the picture. In fact, food always played a major role in our family; it was the thing that brought us together around the dinner table. I questioned our carb heavy, always eating diet and struggled with that “ideal” body image and what I should eat verses what I wanted to eat. As I grew up and developed more self confidence in myself I learned the importance of balance and portion control and this kept my weight in check and me “happy” …but something was still missing. Although, I grew up eating traditional, home cooked Italian meals, the way we live and eat in North America is very different than in Italy. So how do these beautiful Italian men and women stay so svelte and confident; it can’t be just in their genes or the air they breathe.
I travelled to Italy in my mid 20s and it was at this time that the Mediterranean diet all made sense to me. As I began to eat my way through Italy and immerse myself in the simple Italian life, the piece that I had been missing all became clear to me. I began my journey in Florence with the goal of living “la bella vita” and eating as the locals do.
By the end of my journey, I came to realize that to Italians, food is more than just what they eat, but also when and how much of it they eat. I have decided to break this all down in several categories.
Fast, processed food is almost non-existent in Italy and can only be found in more touristy areas. You won’t find frozen prepared foods or prepackaged meals. Everything used for cooking is with fresh, organic, whole ingredients. The food eaten in Italy, is real food, meant to be enjoyed and savoured. Although I did not grow up eating fast food or processed food very often, as I entered high school, university and starting working, these quick foods became more prevalent in my diet. We live in a fast-paced society and convenience is everything; but in Italy, this is not the case. Food is not viewed as fuel but as a pleasure. Packaged, canned and processed foods are packed with salt, sugar, fillers, and preservatives…. all things that cause you to gain weight. Instead of packaged seasonings they use fresh herbs and spices, instead of butter they use olive oil, instead of canned fruits and vegetables they eat only produce that is in season. Italians keep it simple and fresh.
Fruits and Vegetables
While I was in Italy, I couldn’t believe how flavorful and juicy the food was. Everything just tasted better and fresher. As I mentioned, Italians only eat what is in season and by doing this there are many more health benefits. When fruits and vegetables are picked after being naturally ripened on the vine or tree they are packed with more flavour and nutritional value such as higher anti-oxidants, vitamins, folates, and carotenes. Produce that has been stored for long periods of time, harvested early or out of season all have a reduction in Phyto-nutrient content. Also, since Italians either cultivate their own produce or buy their produce from local markets, they can be sure that they are organically grown without the use of dangerous pesticides and other contaminants. Eating seasonally and organic is just natural in Italy.
What You Eat vs. How You Eat
One big cultural difference in Italy compared to Canada and the United States is the notion of a “siesta”. I had always heard of the Italian Siesta; when Italians closed their shops between 1pm -4pm to head home, cook lunch, eat and relax a little before heading back to work refreshed. I honestly thought this was more of a myth or something that was only carried out by the older generation….I was wrong. Although some shops and restaurants stay open the whole day (mostly in touristy areas) many more actually do close their doors. This was crazy to me…I am the type of person to usually work right through my lunch and eat at my desk and if I do get away it was usually to grab a quick coffee. However, as the days and weeks passed, I learned the importance of slowing down and enjoying my food, my life and the company I was with. What I also learned is that lunch is the heaviest meal of the day and not dinner. Italians will usually consume pasta for lunch but rarely for dinner. These extra carbs give them the fuel they need for the rest of the day. For dinner, they consume a much lighter meal of fish, poultry, beans, dairy, vegetables and occasionally red meat. Most dishes are prepared with an olive oil or tomato based sauce without the use of heavy cream sauces; this also aids in keeping meal lighter and easier to digest.
As Italians, enjoy their biggest meal at lunch, breakfast for them is small and just enough to get them through the morning. During my stay in Florence, I stayed at a local B&B and was pleasantly surprised to see that the morning spread consisted of some fresh fruits, cornetti (Italian croissants), mini toast crackers, Nutella and sometimes hard-boiled eggs, cheese and prosciutto. Where was the omelets, pancakes, or waffles? Italians keep it simple for breakfast, and although this selection of foods isn’t exactly the healthiest, it is the quantity that is eaten that is important. The average Italian will consume an espresso or cappuccino with a cornetto for breakfast. There is no such thing as a Grande cappuccino and in fact the average size is about 5-6 oz not 12 or 16 oz. Also, the average cornetto is about half the size of what we are used to seeing in North American. Breakfast is meant to give them a quickly pick me up in the morning…that’s it.
Dolci / Sweets
I am first to admit that I have a sweet tooth and it’s no secret that Italians love their sweets also. With all their Gelateri and Pasticcieri, you would think that Italy is quite an unhealthy country, however, the major difference between their sweets and those found in North America is the sugar content and size. The sweets they eat or nowhere near the super sugary treats that we indulge in here, such as double stuffed oreos or packaged cakes stuffed with fudge and pre-made frosting overload with sugar. Italians prefer pastry like desserts, such as cream filled cakes or fruit desserts. Their gelato is also very different than our North American ice-cream. Not only are their portion sizes smaller but gelato has less fat than ice cream. It is made with more milk than cream and uses less eggs yolks if any compared to ice-cream that that has a fat content of at least 10 percent.
Drinks and Alcohol
Italians indulge in a variety of beverages including sodas, coffee and alcohol. Again, one of the big differences is size and quantity of how much they consume. Sodas and juices are served no larger than 8 ounces compared to our 12 – 20 ounce cans and bottles. Cappuccino is commonly consumed in the morning is about half the size of what we are used to in North America. It is also an unwritten rule that you don’t drink cappuccinos after 11am so any coffee you have the rest of the day would be espresso either black or with a little sugar only; Grande coffee with cream, sugar and syrups are non-existent. In Italy, you will notice that there is no such thing as coffee creamer. When it come to alcohol, Italians consume much less than North Americans and drink more wine than beer, which has a much lower calorie content. Although, Italy is known for their wines, Italians don’t drink just to drink. The big cultural difference is that they are much more conservative with their alcohol and will usually drink to actually enjoy the alcohol they are consuming versus drinking with the intention to get drunk and indulging in beer after beer or shot after shot. In fact, beyond a glass of wine a night, Italians mostly consume water with their meals.
Exercise and Stress
I have always been an active person, and going to the gym was just normal. As I roamed the streets of Italy, I rarely saw gyms or people working out…so why does everyone look fit. The simple fact is that the average person walks or bikes everywhere. They are constantly active, even if it’s not in the conventional sense at the gym. Their fitness has more to do with their eating habits and cultural lifestyle. It is a common fact that Italians lead a less stressful life than we do in North America; stress leads to weight gain. Even their work schedules allow for a less stressful day as Italians have the ability to enjoy a leisurely lunch at home or with friends. They work to live not live to work.
In review, it’s clear to see how Italy is rated healthiest country in the world according to a 2017 report by Bloomberg Global Health Index. Their Mediterranean diet is rich in fresh vegetables, olive oil, pasta, and fish. They stay active by biking and walking everywhere, they follow portion control, stay away from packaged foods and they don’t over indulge in high fat and sugary sweets and sodas. Balance and a more leisurely cultural lifestyle is key to their health success. So, I think it’s clear that Sofia Loren didn’t actually mean that she primary only eats pasta but rather that she eats within moderation as part of the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle she grew up with. Now we know her real secret.
A first generation Italian Canadian with a love for food and the Italian Lifestyle.