We love Italian food... seriously, give us all the pizza, pasta and gelato you’ve got. It’s perhaps a bit strange, then, that a nation responsible for such calorific delights is held up as being one of the healthiest in the world. It turns out that there’s quite a bit more to the story, though – and here’s what eating like an Italian will actually do to you.
The world has its perception of the classic Italian diet but, in reality, it’s slightly different than how we might picture it in our minds. Most Italians enjoy a diet full of fish, fruits, poultry, whole grains, beans, tomatoes and vegetables, on top of their staple pasta dishes. They tend to avoid red meat and they love their wine and coffee. Their diet as a whole’s traditionally known as the Mediterranean diet.
On top of this, the Italian attitude to food’s very different to that in other parts of the world. Eating a meal’s a sacred thing in Italy; an experience that, if done right, takes time. Stephano Gumina, a doctor in Rome, told WebMD, “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.”
The Mediterranean diet, coupled with how the nation treats eating, has contributed to Italy being named one of the healthiest countries on the planet. But what if we told you the reality was more nuanced than that? What if we told you that some Italian food can actually be quite bad for you, and that some questionable food habits from other countries have been creeping into Italian culture for quite some time?
In 2013 The Lancet journal published an assessment of public health in 19 nations worldwide. The outcomes were collated from 20 years of data, and they revealed something interesting. Italy had the second-longest life expectancy of any nation, coming in above other European countries such as Sweden, France, and Germany.
Amazingly, the Italian life expectancy of 81.5 years was a full 18 months longer than that of people in the U.K, who were expected to live to 79.9 years on average. An incredulous BBC published an article entitled, “Why do the Italians live longer than us?” It couldn’t understand how this was the case when the U.K had a bigger healthcare budget, its people smoked less, and the country had a more thriving economy.
Alan Maryon-Davis, Professor of Health at King’s College London, had a theory. He told the BBC that he believed it had something to do with the gap between Italy’s rich and poor citizens being smaller than in the U.K. He noted, “There is a flatter social gradient – less difference between the haves and have-nots in Italy, and that is likely to play a role in health outcomes.”
Stefania Salmaso of the National Center for Epidemiology & Health Promotion in Rome was adamant she could identify the biggest factor in Italian longevity, though. To her, it was the adherence to the Mediterranean diet. She said, “Since the 1960s there has been a big improvement in the Italian diet, which much more fresh fish and a wider variety of foods.”
“Fresh vegetables and fruit are commonly available, and we use a lot of olive oil in cooking, and less animal fat than is found in British dishes,” Dr. Salmaso continued. Indeed, olive oil’s essential in Italian cooking. It’s a superb source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and is used in everything from salad dressings to marinades and as a delicious dip for fresh bread.
The Italian attitude to food has also been cited as a key aspect in their healthiness. Eating as a social activity and taking the time to enjoy your food have always been extremely important element of the Italian cultural identity. This emphasis on mealtimes as a ritual to be savoured certainly has benefits. For example, it means Italians eat slowly, which is vitally important to their health.
Think about it: if you eat quickly, you can wolf down a huge meal in no time. But you may feel sickeningly full afterwards. If you eat slowly, taking your time over each morsel, your stomach will have the time to recognize that it’s becoming full. You’re therefore likely to eat less. Eating slowly also enables the body to digest food more easily.
Italians also have a very different attitude to alcohol than many other nations. It would be rare to eat a meal in Italy without a glass of wine, as their culture views it as a perfect accompaniment to food, but they don’t tend to binge drink. Moderate consumption of red wine has long been seen as beneficial to the heart. Maybe the Italians are onto something here.
Here’s where it all gets a little confusing, though, especially to an American. When we think of Italian food, we picture pizza and pasta, right? And how can pizza and pasta be healthy? Well, it’s because the pizza and pasta served in Italy is light years away from what we’re used to eating in Italian-American restaurants. Allow us to explain.
In Italy, pasta’s often eaten every day, but it’s rarely the main event of a meal. It’s usually the first or second course and is served in a small portion. The ingredients used are generally very simple and fresh, and it would be highly unusual for meat to be involved. In fact, chicken’s always absent from pasta dishes, because it’s always reserved for its own course.
As another example, you’d never get spaghetti and meatballs on the same plate in an authentic Italian restaurant. The pasta course and meatballs would be served separately, and neither would be smothered in tomato sauce. In fact, meatballs are known as “polpette” and are much smaller than their American counterparts. They’re also served with no sauce at all, or in a soup. What?!
Beloved Italian-American dishes such as fettucine Alfredo also aren’t authentically Italian. It features an overabundance of butter, cream and cheese, which isn’t quite the norm in Italy. “Very few things are drenched in sauce or overloaded with cheese,” Ali LaRaia, chef at New York restaurant The Sosta, explained to Insider in 2018.
This also goes for dishes with tomato-based sauces such as marinara. Italians wouldn’t dump a huge amount of sauce on a pasta dish because, as LaRaia pointed out, “When you have marinara covering eggplant or chicken, you don’t actually taste it. The dish just becomes a vessel to eat sauce and cheese.”
So, it’s becoming more and more obvious that the Americanized version of pasta, with its massive portions and abundance of cheese, sauce and meat, is where the calories come from. But what about pizza? How can Italian pizza be any healthier than U.S. pizza? Again, the key difference is in the simplicity and the portion size.
For starters, deep dish and stuffed crust pizzas aren’t things that exist in Italy. The vast majority of authentic Italian pizza crusts are wood-fired and so thin that they’re almost like a cracker. The only exception’s the Sicilian crust, which is rectangular in shape and much chunkier. Generally, an authentic thin Italian pizza can be easily finished by one person and is eaten with a knife and fork.
The tomato sauce used in Italy’s made from simple ingredients: pureed tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, oregano and basil. It’s a much lighter sauce than the American version, which is usually slow-cooked, rich and tangy. The Italians also don’t put anywhere near as much mozzarella cheese on their pizzas.
Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is in the toppings. In the U.S., there are countless variations you can order – the more ingredients, the better. But in Italy, if you were to order a meat feast, they’d look at you funny. It’s customary in Italy to have only one topping on a pizza, and when it comes to meat, you won’t see anything aside from ham.
It’s clear that the Italian food served up to hungry U.S. diners has been adjusted in key aspects, so it’s no wonder it’s so fattening. The obvious answer to this problem, though, is to eat more authentic Italian food, right? Well, yes and no. In truth, mounting evidence now exists that suggests many Italians broke with their healthy traditions a long time ago.
Julia Belluz, a health writer at Vox, published a fascinating essay about her personal experience of Italian eating habits in 2016. Titled “I went to Italy to eat, and learned an ugly truth about the Italian diet,” the piece presented a shocking view of how Italians eat nowadays. Belluz believes many citizens have moved away from the traditional Mediterranean diet.
The first thing that surprised Belluz was the portion sizes of every meal she and her boyfriend were served. For example, the house appetizer in a restaurant close to Ostuni was a 17-dish marathon. They were small dishes, of course, but there was still so much food that a side table had to be produced to house it.
Interestingly, though, it wasn’t just the quantity of the food served that left Belluz perturbed. “We loved food, and we went to Italy this summer with dreams of handmade pastas, juicy produce and fresh fish,” she wrote. “Instead, we were surprised to find scant vegetables and too many fried meat and sugar filled dishes.”
Prior to this vacation, Belluz had fully bought into the notion of Italy being the healthy land of the Mediterranean diet. But now she had first-hand experience of how the country’s eating habits had changed somewhere along the way. So, she did a little bit of research – and what she found shocked her even further.
It turned out that wolfing down gargantuan portions, having pasta with every meal and devouring gelato for dessert had indeed wreaked havoc on the waistlines of the Italian people. Belluz took a peek at research by the European Association for the Study of Obesity. She found that, while adult obesity in Italy’s uncommon, childhood obesity is anything but.
In fact, the rate of overweight boys in Italy outranked that of the U.S. In a 2014 chart created by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, it was revealed that 36 percent of Italian boys under the age of 18 were overweight. The one country with a higher proportion was Greece, while the U.S. came in fifth with 30 percent.
The situation for females under 18 was similar, with 34 percent of Italian girls clocking in as overweight. But what about younger kids? Well, even more worrying figures were arrived at by an earlier study conducted by Milan’s Institute for Auxology in 2011. It found that 36 percent of Italian eight year olds were classed as overweight.
“Italians are eating less and less of the Italian diet and more and more fast food,” Dr. Antonello del Vecchio, a spokesman for the Slow Food movement, told The Independent newspaper in 2011. “For a long while, unlike Northern Europe, we resisted, but now it’s here and we’re seeing the results.”
A 2015 study by the Institute of Clinical Physiology at the Italian National Research Council looked at the eating habits of more than 5,000 people. It found that less than half of them still consumed a traditional Mediterranean diet; 43 percent, to be exact. The other 57 percent were eating a more Western-style diet with higher amounts of dairy products and red meat rather than the usual vegetables and fruit.
American soft drinks have also been cited as a problem in Italy. A fascinating excerpt from Jeannie Marshall’s book The Lost Art of Feeding Kids: What Italy Taught Me about Why Children Need Real Food was published by Slate in 2014. The author, a Canadian, was shocked to see her young son offered a Coca Cola with lunch in Rome. She believed Italian kids only drank water with their meals.
Instead, Marshall found sugary soft drinks, so long cited as a contributing factor in American obesity, had begun to crack Italy in the 2000s. In fact, Coca Cola launched a large-scale advertising drive in the country during 2011. The company made their adverts appear retro, including images of people in the 1950s drinking Coke in front of Rome’s Colosseum.
Marshall believed that the Italian people were prone to be preyed upon by a marketing campaign that pushed Coke as a wholesome family product. “There’s an innocence here when it comes to these sugary drinks that reminds me of North America in the 1970s” she wrote. “Families arrive at the beach lugging giant bottles of cola and orange and lemon soda.”
“I saw a woman at the beach pouring Coca Cola into her baby’s bottle – the baby wasn’t even walking yet,” Marshall continued. “In Italy sweet soft drinks are perceived as children’s drinks, and there’s an implicit trust that no one would make something for children that was actually bad for them.” While it’s perhaps hard to believe a country could be so naïve, Marshall certainly painted a compelling picture.
Zachary Nowak, who works for the Umbra Institute in Central Italy, believes that traditional Italian cuisine has been fighting an uphill battle against economic stagnation for many years. Processed foods, pastas and sugars are all much cheaper to buy than fresh vegetables and fish, so that’s what many Italian families have been eating. And this is especially true of low-income families.
By way of illustration, the 2011 Milan Institute for Auxology survey found that in the less affluent region of Campania, almost one half of eight-year-olds were overweight. Contrast this to Valle d’Aosta, a much richer area of the country. There, fewer than a quarter were classed as overweight. So it seems likely that social and economic issues shouldn’t be overlooked when analyzing the changing Italian diet.
The perception of Italy as a nation of healthy eaters still persists, though. Marshall lamented, “I wanted to believe that Italy was more sophisticated than North America, and that Italians were more discerning about the food they ate. I didn’t want to believe that they were so rapidly descending into the food mess that I thought I left behind in Canada.”
But perhaps the reality is that Italy’s been following the same path as the U.S. and the rest of Europe for decades. After all, in 2008 the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations conducted an analysis of eating habits in the entire Mediterranean region from 1962 to 2002. This took in data from all of Europe, including Italy, Spain, Cyprus, Portugal, Malta and Greece.
This analysis found that Italians in 2002 consumed 30 percent more calories daily than their predecessors in 1962. The reasons given for this were very much in line with the rest of the Western world. They included the increasing dominance of supermarkets and the decline of fresh markets, the proliferation of fast-food outlets, and the lack of emphasis on exercise.