9 July 20193 Italian Diet Secrets That Have Them Living The Good Life

According to the 2019 Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index, Italy is considered the second healthiest country in the world after Spain. With individual pizzas the diameter of a stop sign, pasta laden with olive oil and some of the best wines in the world, what are the secrets of the Italian lifestyle? What are we missing in translation?

While traveling with my family this summer in Italy and visiting Italian friends in Naples and Ticino, my sleuth skills were on high alert.

Three secrets I found were:

1. Eat less but eat better

Dishes are prepared using high quality simple fresh foods bought at local markets from farmers. Thus, foods are seasonal and locally grown with flavors that need no improvement.

We planned our accommodations at a variety of family farms called Agriturismo, which included breakfasts and sometimes suppers, so that we experienced farm to table foods on a daily basis. From apricots picked before breakfast, honey from local bees, pork from suckling pigs, pasta from locally grown grains and special tomatoes only grown in June, the aroma and flavors delighted both our palates and nostrils so that we felt we were not just providing fuel for our bodies but nourishment for our souls.

2. Recipes comprise less than 5 ingredients

Since the recipes contain such high-quality components with strong flavors, few ingredients are needed. One evening on the island of Sardinia, I asked our hostess if I could cook with her. As is typical in Italy, we started preparing our first course (primi piatti), which is the pasta not the salad. Since we were all very hungry, after a day of swimming in the blue Mediterranean Sea off the western coast of Italy, our hostess said we would make "Italian fast food." This meant from start to finish was 20 minutes.

We started the water boiling for the pasta. In the meantime, we sautéed about 1/2 teaspoon of fresh garlic in extra virgin olive oil for about 2 minutes. Since there were just four of us, and she didn't want to overwhelm the taste with too many tomatoes, we added four small tomatoes cut into halves. Then, we added fresh calamari and clams and cooked the sauce with the lid on. After about 10 minutes, the seafood sauce was done. The al dente pasta (truly with a bite that we had to chew) was also done so we mixed it immediately with the frutti di mare (just two fruits of the sea or seafood my hostess said with a wink, normally it's four!) in a bowl and topped with fresh finely chopped parsley. Less than 5 ingredients!

Next, went to her small garden and harvested arugula lettuce for our salad which we finely chopped and mixed with fresh diced tomatoes. Dribbling a small amount of extra virgin olive oil over the top (1 tsp) with a pinch of salt (1/4 tsp), again our side dish was less than 5 ingredients!

Our second vegetable side dish were caramelized onions, sautéed in olive oil about 15 minutes so they turned brown and sweet with a dash of white wine (about 1 tsp) and a pinch of salt (about 1/2 tsp). Another dish with less than 5 ingredients!

Spoiler alert: In contrast to American-Italian food, none of our meals contained creamy high fat alfredo sauces, pizzas laden with so much cheese and pepperoni that you couldn't see the crust or garlic bread smothered with butter. Our total daily intake may have been carbohydrate heavy but not caloric heavy.

3. Fellowship: Linger longer

Slow food is real, whether at a restaurant or in a in a family home. Meals are supposed to last two to three hours and provide a time for relaxation and interaction with family and friends. By eating slowly, one truly has the opportunity to experience the flavors and stop when you feel full. At a restaurant you have to ask for the bill (il conto); consequently, one never feels rushed that your table is needed for the next customer.

As part of a global intensives class, my professor husband brought students from Colorado to Italy to study not only architectural engineering, but also the good life of Italy. After their first three-hour meal, the students were convinced that slow food after a busy semester was la dolce vita. The key is quality over quantity.

How can we experience la dolce vita at home?

Make better choices.

  1. When shopping, choose locally grown fruits and vegetables in season. Find a local farmer's market or join a local community supported agriculture group (CSA) to support local farmers and buy their seasonal products.
  2. ark a day on your calendar once or twice a week to enjoy a "slow food" evening with friends or family. Create a potluck based on the healthy plate model by assigning foods from each of the five food groups for friends to bring: fruits, vegetables, protein, dairy, and whole grains. Linger over a meal longer with laughter and conversation.
  3. Cook simply and enjoy the taste of the best ingredients.

Make a list of healthy recipes that are less than 5 ingredients and try them each week. Here are some websites to get you started:

  1. Cooking Light Healthy 5 Ingredient Recipes
  2. Eating Well Healthy 5 Ingredient Recipes
  3. Buzzfeed 27 5-Ingredient Dinners That Are Actually Healthy

In Italy, the obesity rate for adults is 10% compared to over 30% in the US. The Mediterranean diet has many health benefits from reducing the risk of cancer and heart disease to living a longer life. However, don't get lost in translation. Following the true Mediterranean Diet with a high consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, lean protein (fish or seafood), olive oil in moderation and a low consumption of red meat and high fat dairy is the key to a healthy life - Italian style!

Martha M. Henze, MPH, MS, RDN

Martha recently completed her Masters of Public Health (MPH) in global epidemiology and aims to help people improve their health on a population basis around the world.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

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