World diet’s – Italy: What They Eat, How They Prepare and Eat It
AVERAGE LIFE EXPECTANCY TOTAL POPULATION: 80.20 years
PERCENTAGE OF OVERWEIGHT ADULTS: 38.3 male; 52.7 female
PERCENTAGE OF OBESE ADULTS: 12.6 male; 12.9 female
MEAT CONSUMPTION PER PERSON (2002): 90.4 kg
DIET COMPOSITION (PERCENTAGE OF TOTAL NUTRIENTS):
According to a 2007 report by the World Health Organization, men in the mountains of northern Italy enjoy the longest life expectancy in the world, with an average life span in excess of 80 years—that’s a full five years longer than the average American male lives. Italians also have a relatively low obesity rate, with only 10.2 percent of the population considered obese in 2006 (although this figure was up from 7 percent in 1994).1
WHAT THEY EAT
How do Italians stay in such tip-top condition while gorging themselves on enormous plates of pasta and greasy pepperoni pizzas? The answer is, they don’t. Italian food is one of the most popular ethnic cuisines in the United States, but what most Americans consider “typical” Italian food bears little resemblance to Italian food in its native setting. Pizza, ravioli, lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, fettuccine Alfredo—some of the most popular “Italian” dishes in the United States—have been Americanized beyond recognition.
Like other cuisines in the Mediterranean region, the traditional Italian diet is rich in fruits and vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, seeds, lean protein (fish and poultry), a small amount of dairy, and a little wine. Italians place a premium on fresh, local foods and straightforward, uncomplicated flavors. And like the inhabitants of neighboring countries, Italians get most of their fat from healthy, unsaturated sources such as olive oil, not the through-the-roof quantities of meat and cheese that play a starring role in many American Italian dishes.
Yes, the Italians love their pasta, but they almost never eat it as a main course. It’s usually served on a very small dish between the salad and meat courses. What’s more, the sauces served over Italian pasta dishes have little in common with the goopy cream or heavy-duty meat sauces we find on pasta here. Instead, pasta sauces in Italy tend to be tomato and vegetable based. And while pizza in the United States is often served on a thick crust and piled high with cheese, pizza in southern Italy, where it is most prevalent, generally consists of a thin whole-grain crust topped with tomatoes and vegetables and just a sprinkling of cheese.
WHAT’S IN IT
Tomatoes: The Italians consume more tomatoes than any other people in the world, but they generally don’t purchase ready-made tomato sauces. Italian tomato sauces—like most elements of Italian cooking—are simple and fresh, a concentrated source of the many nutrients tomatoes have to offer.
Tomatoes are rich in vitamins A, C, and K, and they’re also one of the few dietary sources of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that’s been proved to protect cells from oxygen damage and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Lycopene helps fight nearly all forms of cancer, including colorectal, prostate, breast, endometrial, lung, and pancreatic. Cooked tomatoes provide more lycopene than raw ones, and virgin olive oil, garlic, and basil—the three essential supporting ingredients in a basic marinara sauce—can enhance the absorption of lycopene.
When in Rome
When I think of “typical Italian fare,” I inevitably remember a dinner I once had while working on the southeastern Italian coast at Brindisi. The entire meal consisted of a single simple, light dish, zuppa di pesce, a traditional peasant soup made with various seafood in a flavorful broth, poured over some stale bread. It contained clams, oysters, mussels, sea bass, squid, shrimp, and other fish caught off the coast. I cannot begin to describe how enjoyable that meal was. When I left the table, I was full—in both stomach and spirit.
Pasta: Contrary to popular belief, pasta can be incredibly healthy, especially when it is homemade. It’s a source of thiamine, folic acid, iron, riboflavin, and niacin. Just be careful how much of it you eat and what you put on it. The Italians eat pasta in small quantities, as a side dish.
Oregano and Basil: For flavor minus the fat—and numerous health-boosting properties—Italians infuse their dishes with a variety of subtle herbs and spices, especially basil and oregano. These herbs are packed with antioxidants. In addition, oregano contains thymol and carvacrol, two antimicrobial agents that reduce infection. Basil, the main flavor in pesto, contains flavonoids, which protect cells and chromosomes from radiation and oxygen-based damage.
Balsamic Vinegar: The best balsamic vinegar in the world is made in Modena, in northern Italy, and Italians throughout the country use it to add a touch of sweetness without extra calories to dishes. Balsamic vinegar also has some important health benefits. It can help suppress your appetite, can encourage the production of metabolism-boosting digestive enzymes, and might even strengthen your bones.
Beverage of Choice: Espresso
Millions of Italians rely on a morning espresso. Because of the way it is made, an espresso might contain two to three times the amount of healthy antioxidants as coffee made with other brewing methods. And unlike a Frappuccino from Starbucks, which might contain as many as 800 calories (that’s as many calories as in three McDonald’s hamburgers!), an espresso has no calories at all.2 Espresso comes in many different varieties, from the regular espresso to the macchiato to the cappuccino and finally the latte, depending on the amount of milk. An espresso has no milk at all, and the latte is chock-full of it. Espresso also has less than one-third the caffeine of regular American coffee, so you can have more than one a day.
Italians also regularly drink a single glass of a local red wine and a glass of sparkling water with dinner.
Legumes: Beans and legumes—especially cannellini beans (white kidney beans), green beans, and chickpeas—are staples of traditional Italian cuisine, used in soups, salads, pasta dishes, and risottos. Beans are a virtually fat-free source of protein, soluble fiber, iron, and B vitamins.
Artichokes: The artichoke is an extremely versatile vegetable that can be stuffed, steamed, or turned into a delicious sauce—not just dipped in melted butter the way Americans enjoy it. Artichokes are high in magnesium, folic acid, fiber, and vitamin C.
Lemons: Lemons are used in all sorts of dishes in southern Italy, where they grow in abundance. Italian cooks also use them in salad dressings and squeeze them over meat and fish to add flavor. Lemons are high in vitamin C, which is essential to maintaining a strong immune system.
Fruit: A small bowl of fighi e albicocche (figs and apricots) is a common dessert in Italy. Southern Italians frequently end their meals with a fresh, delicious lemon ice. Soda, candy, and other junk food have only made their mark on Italian culture in recent years.
Cooking Oil of Choice: Olive
Italians consume a great deal of olive oil, which can lower cholesterol and protect against heart disease. But though olive oil is a relatively healthy source of unsaturated fat, it’s calorically dense, and Italians are careful not to overdo it. At American Italian restaurants, the waiter will often bring out a little dish of olive oil for you to dunk your bread in. This practice is much less common in Italy.
HOW THEY PREPARE IT
Grilling and poaching are the most common ways to prepare foods in Italy. Like so much else about Italian cuisine, these cooking techniques are straightforward and healthy. Sautéing, baking, and steaming are also common.
HOW THEY EAT IT
They savor la dolce vita.
Italians take pleasure in la dolce vita—literally, “the sweet life”—which contributes to their health and longevity. Americans may think of Italian dining as indulgent and heavy, but this is a misconception. In fact, Italians have only one large meal a week, and that’s usually Sunday lunch. The rest of the week, Italians do linger over their meals, but not because the food keeps on coming.
Italians like their meals to last a long time, often extending relatively small meals into three or even four separate courses. They may go for a stroll both before and after a meal, enjoying the fresh air and drawing out the pleasure of the meal for as long as possible. Why rush the pleasure of the dining ritual, one of the greatest enjoyments life has to offer?
Did you know that this slow approach to eating might do more than enhance their enjoyment of life? It might also benefit their waistlines. A recent Japanese study published in the British Medical Journal found that eating quickly until full can more than triple a person’s risk of becoming overweight.3
Long meals are just one aspect of Italians’ famously low-stress lifestyle. They rarely work more than forty hours a week, and they have one of the longest vacation allotments in Europe.
They have a weekly “free day.”
From Monday through Saturday, Italians generally eat modest portions of healthy foods. Sunday is their national “free day,” the one day of the week when they indulge in massive, filling meals. It’s no coincidence that Sunday lunch is also the longest meal of the week, sometimes lasting up to five hours.
The rest of the week, Italians stick to small portions, often served in multiple courses. They also eat a small snack between breakfast and lunch. This keeps their blood sugar levels relatively steady and discourages bingeing.
Italians tend to load up on salad and go light on pasta. In Italy, pasta is usually a small course between the salad and the main dish. Most often it’s served in a light tomato sauce or a little olive oil. Italians also eat salad as often as twice a day. By filling up on greens at the beginning of a meal, they are less likely to pig out when the pasta course arrives.
They pass on cooking traditions from one generation to the next.
Eating is an intergenerational affair in Italy. At a typical Sunday lunch, grandparents, parents, and children all eat together. But it’s not just the sit-down portion of the meal that involves the whole family; it’s also the preparation. Passing cooking techniques from one generation to the next is the logical extension of the Italian emphasis on food and family. Small children learn firsthand how to cook by spending time in the kitchen with their parents and grandparents.
HOW THEY BURN IT
Before and after the dinner hour, you will see Italians strolling leisurely through town, stopping to chat with neighbors and look in store windows. Grandmothers walk with their grandsons, husbands with their wives. This tradition, known as the passeggiata, is a classic illustration of the Italian art of taking pleasure in life. These relaxing nightly ambles are first and foremost social events, but they’re also a wonderful way to facilitate digestion and get in a bit of gentle exercise before bed.
How We Misinterpret It
Chicken Parmesan is a perfect example of an artery-clogging “Italian” specialty that was actually born in the United States. This dish of breaded and fried chicken cutlets drenched in marinara sauce and melted mozzarella reputedly first saw the light of day in New York or New Jersey in the 1930s, the invention of Italian immigrants from Naples. But don’t expect to find chicken Parmesan on a menu in Italy. At least two key features of the dish—the combination of meat and tomato sauce and the massive amount of mozzarella—would be utterly unfamiliar to most Italians.
Another fat-burning habit practiced all over Italy is walking to the market. Rather than drive to the grocery store and load up on a week’s worth of supplies, Italians typically walk to their local markets and buy what’s freshest, letting the best-looking veggies dictate the evening menu. Remember, convenience is not a priority. Italians generally look down on frozen and precooked meals.
Finally, like many other Europeans, Italians are soccer mad. From a very young age, Italian children are on the soccer field, and they continue to play through adolescence. In many cases, their passion for playing this high-impact sport endures into adulthood.
Breakfast: Breakfast in Italy is usually pretty simple, consisting of espresso and either cereal, a small roll, or a small dish of yogurt.
11:00 A.M. Snack: This often consists of a cappuccino (espresso with milk, never cream or half-and-half), yogurt, or fruit. It’s important to note that although Italians typically have a midmorning snack, they never snack after dinner. They believe that food should be digested before they go to bed.
Lunch: Lunch is generally broken down into two small courses, such as a small plate of pasta followed by a small piece of fish or chicken and vegetables.
Dinner: Traditionally the largest meal of the day, dinner is served relatively early in the evening (by European standards, that is) to allow proper digestion before bed. To prolong the pleasure of dining, Italians extend the meal over several courses: a small salad, pasta with a tomato or vegetable sauce, a small portion of fish or meat, vegetables, and fruit for dessert.
• Start your day with a jolt of espresso.
• Take time over meals: savor the ceremony. Eating should be an art and a pleasure.
• Load up on healthy whole grains and fresh local veggies.
• Take a walk before and after dinner.
• Indulge in a weekly “free day.” After six days of discipline, you’re allowed to splurge on Sunday!
1. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Health Data 2008, “How Does Italy Compare.”
2. “The Hidden Calories in Your Drinks,” ABC News, January 23, 2005.
3. K. Maruyama et al., “The Joint Impact on Being Overweight of Self Reported Behaviours of Eating Quickly and Eating Until Full: Cross Sectional Survey,” British Medical Journal (October 21, 2008): 337.