Italian Diet Secrets
How the Italian people manage to stay slim in the land of pizza and pasta.
By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
We've all heard about how the French diet and lifestyle help protect Frenchwomen (and men) from the obesity epidemic that plagues the U.S. But what about the other Mediterranean countries -- like Italy, where obesity is rare despite an abundance of pasta and other delectable dishes? Are there Italian diet secrets we could learn from as well?
Studies show that a Mediterranean-style diet has many health benefits, from reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer, to living a longer life. But something must be getting lost in translation. Many of Americans' favorite Italian foods, like cheese-laden pepperoni pizza and fettuccini Alfredo, are anything but healthy.
On a recent trip to Italy, I decided to see for myself what the Italians' diet secrets were. My trip started in northern Italy, in the Tuscan region, and ended 12 days later further south on the Amalfi coast. My mission was rest, relaxation -- and finding out how the Italians manage to enjoy delectable Mediterranean foods, yet maintain healthy weights.
Italian Diet Secret No. 1: Dine Leisurely
It quickly became clear that the Italians, like other Mediterranean cultures, know how to really enjoy the experience of eating. They relax and socialize while dining for hours, over lunch and/or dinner and coffee. Yet sitting at the table for long periods of time does not appear to lead to excessive eating or drinking.
Before and after dinner, many Italians engage in the passagiata, a leisurely stroll through town. Generations walk together, talking and keeping alive a cherished tradition.
It also became obvious that the typical Italian diet is very different from what you see on an American Italian restaurant menu. Italians enjoy a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, beans, fish, poultry, olive oil, tomatoes, whole grains, dairy, red wine -- and they eat very little red meat.
Typically, Italians start the day with a relatively small breakfast of coffee with milk (rather than cream or half and half) along with cereal or a cornetto, a small biscuit. Lunch varies from family to family and all over the country but typically consists of a "first plate" and "second plate," such as a sandwich and salad, or a small plate of pasta followed by a small piece of fish or chicken and vegetables.
When kids want a midday snack, they usually have yogurt or fruit, not cake, cookies, or candy. Adults often opt for coffee or cappuccino made with milk (not specialty coffees topped with whipped cream).
Dinner is a larger meal, but is not served too late (to allow time for proper digestion). It's usually pasta with a tomato or vegetable sauce; a small portion of fish or meat; vegetables; and fruit for dessert. Mineral water is the preferred beverage, along with a glass of red wine. All portions tend to be small when compared to our own supersized quantities.
Italian Diet Secret No. 2: Stop When You're Full
Italians are not concerned with calories because they stop eating when they are full, says one Rome physician.
"We eat by our stomachs, not by our heads, and since we dine leisurely, we get the signal that we are full and can just enjoy a coffee and the company," says Stephano Gumina, MD, PhD.
Gumina also describes a very active lifestyle, with lots of walking or bike riding, especially in urban areas of the country. Then there's the Mediterranean-style diet, with plenty of fruits and vegetables, fish a few times a week, lean meats or chicken, whole grains, olive oil, and red wine. All of this helps Italians enjoy long lives, he says.
"Where we differ from Americans: We eat small portions, do not eat after dinner, never in front of the television, computer, or while sitting sedentary reading a book, and no junk food," he says.
In addition, Italians usually satisfy a sweet tooth with fruit instead of higher-calorie desserts. A typical dessert could be fighi e albicocce -- figs and apricots picked from the garden trees. In southern parts of Italy, the enormous and delicate lemons are the basis for desserts such as gelato and lemon ice.
Italian Diet Secret No. 3: Balance Quality and Quantity
On the sunny Amalfi coast up in the village of Ravello, the famous "Mamma" Agata runs a fabulous restaurant overlooking the sea, teaches Italian cooking classes, and plans to publish her first cookbook next year.
She sizes up Italian eating plans quite simply: "We balance the quality and quantity of ingredients -- not too much fat, just enough carbohydrates, lots of fish, chicken, and turkey, and just a little red meat."