Italian Diet Secrets to a Healthy Weight (cont.)

"People think Italians eat a lot every day but they are wrong, because while we do eat a big family meal on Sunday, the rest of the week we eat small portions of healthy foods, such as pasta, vegetables, lean meat, fish, and cheese," she says. "But we never drink soda [or eat] chips, junk foods, or mayonnaise."

Olive oil is the preferred oil, used extensively in cooking and on salads. But you won't typically find it on the table for bread dunking as we enjoy in America. Italians enjoy the healthy, monounsaturated fat, but don't overdo it.

"Healthy fats are better than trans or saturated fats, but olive oil is fat, has the same number of calories as other fats, and needs to be eaten in limited quantities," says Gumina.

Italian Diet Secret No. 4: Enjoy Simple, Fresh Food

The Tuscan diet is loaded with beans, which are high in protein and soluble fiber that fill you up for a long time for very few calories. Riboletta soup and pasta e fagioli are two popular hearty dishes that feature beans.

Balsamic vinegar from Modena is another flavorful, yet very low-calorie, product of Italy that is used freely to flavor foods and salads.

Down south, the fresh fish, herbs, artichokes, capers, and gigantic lemons contribute to delicious and healthy cuisine. Pasta is served al dente, with a little olive oil or tomato sauce and vegetables, and always in small portions.

"Our cooking is simple and genuine," says Agata. "We start with fresh ingredients, often from our own gardens. We don't buy precooked foods. [We] eat lots of vegetables, keep it simple, and try to eat like our grandparents."

To make sure the kitchen secrets are passed along from one generation to the next, small children can always be found in the kitchen with their parents -- learning from the masters.

Italian Diet Secret No. 5: Don't 'Diet'

Dieting seems to be a foreign concept to Italians.

"We are not hung up on nutrition labels nor dieting, just eating a healthy, satisfying diet and being active," says Gumina.

Says Agata: "When people go on diets, they get depressed and gain more weight at the end of the diet. So instead, they learn to eat well and only enjoy something sweet on occasion, and this way they are not frustrated."

So the next time you're in the mood for Italian food, serve up a dish inspired by the land of Romeo and Juliet that includes all the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet. Skip fried foods and cream sauces on pasta. Instead, go for a tomato salad, simple vegetable pasta sauce, and use olive oil sparingly. Use herbs, lemon, vinegars, capers, and other intensely flavorful, low-calorie foods for seasoning.

Not only is the Mediterranean way of eating healthy, it's quite pleasurable, says K. Dun Gifford, president and founder of Oldways Preservation and Trust, which developed a Mediterranean diet pyramid in 1993. "Sipping wine, eating fine cheese and succulent seafood is quite luxurious, and an indulgent, lovely eating pattern -- yet it is good for you," he says.

Published July 9, 2007.

SOURCES: Stephano Gumina, MD, PhD, University of Rome. "Mamma" Agata, restaurant and cooking school owner, Ravello, Italy. K. Dun Gifford, president and founder, Oldways Preservation and Trust.

©2007 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

Last Editorial Review: 7/13/2007