It’s hard to imagine that Italy has a “healthy” diet considering the amount of carbs that seem to dominate their dishes (we will debunk that further on), but they actually boast the second longest lifespan in Europe and only a 10% obesity rate – versus 39.8% in the United States. It’s clear that Italians put a different emphasis on their food than the rest of the world, and this attitude, along with other factors, is what sets them apart from everyone else.
One of my favorite aspects of their culture is the “slow down and take your time” approach for their meals. You will rarely find an Italian eating a plastic wrapped microwave breakfast burrito and chugging a jumbo coffee in the car on their route to work. Instead, you’ll see small groups making their way to local shops to grab an espresso (always served in perfect little cups with saucers) and a honey filled croissant while they sit and chat in the morning sun before they head off for the day. It’s this small act, which really only took about 30 minutes in total, that sets your day at a certain standard and reminds you to enjoy the small things in life!
It is also customary in Italian culture to break up dinner into many courses or categories, and you’ll likely notice some of these names and concepts are similar to what a “special occasion” meal might be for most people across the world:
- Aperitivo – basically the opener to the meal. It will usually consist of light foods like breads, olives, cheeses and often wine or prosecco.
- Antipasto – slightly heavier than the aperitivo but still lighter than the first course. This usually consists of cold items and meats, like salami, prosciutto, and hard cheeses as well as finger-type food like bruschetta or an olive tapenade on fresh bread.
- Primo – essentially the first course. Should consist of non-meat meals, like a risotto, polenta, or gnocchi dish, but can have rich ingredients like truffles or seafood so long as it is not the main focus of the dish.
- Secondo – this is where the meat comes in! Bring on the heavier dishes like lamb or fresh fish.
- Contorno – served alongside the Secondi dishes and are always vegetable based, whether it is raw or cooked is up to you. This should be served on a separate plate so as not to mix flavors with the meat/seafood of the Secondi dish.
- Insalata – basically just a light and leafy salad to refresh your taste buds.
- Formaggi e Frutta – this course is dedicated just to fruits and cheeses.
- Dolce – We all know it, we all love it – dessert!
- Caffe – a shot of coffee, generally without milk and more on the bitter side, to wake you up after that big meal.
- Digestivo – the best part of the meal is this last shot of an alcoholic drink, such as limoncello or grappa, to help aid with digestion. They also call this the “coffee killer” since it helps rid your mouth from the bitter coffee flavor left over.
This meal structure is not only a traditional part of their culture, but it is such a fun way to catch up with the people you chose to share a meal with! It brings group dinners to a different level, and along those same lines, it is also customary to share dishes among close friends/family when visiting restaurants! Everyone gets a taste of the different dishes a spot might have to offer and it brings everybody so much closer in the process. It’s hard to find a group of friends grabbing a meal together that aren’t passing plates back and forth, and you can always see how much they are enjoying this wonderful food amid the company of each other.
Beyond the attitude of taking the time to enjoy your food, the food itself is, of course, the key to the Italian diet! Italians pride themselves on the quality of their food, and they think it is of utmost priority to have the best ingredients over the most ingredients. They strive for simplicity in their cooking, since it is important to really taste all of the ingredients and how they balance each other versus being overpowered by an overwhelming amount of spices and ingredients. When they cook a dish there will always be a main flavor that they will center in on, and everything else is to help accentuate that flavor even further, not cover it up.
Personally speaking, it took me about a week for my Americanized taste buds to fully adjust to Italian cooking! This means that I was so accustomed to overly salted and seasoned food that it was hard to even pick up on the light and delicate flavors of Italian cuisines. I was also surprised to find out how much emphasis they put on fruits and vegetables since I always considered Italy to be the “Land of Carbs” with all their fancy pastas and breads. Instead, I was showered in delicious dishes focused on seasonal vegetables and local juicy fruits that made me feel refreshed and energized. Italy definitely has its share of secrets when it comes to a healthy diet and everyone should find at least one idea to implement into their daily life and watch how their relationship with food flourishes!