Q. I just returned from a wonderful trip to Italy and ate and drank like a KING. Amazingly, I lost some weight over there and look and feel great. Did I just experience the so-called “Mediterranean Diet”?
Newport Beach, California
A. Over the years I have accompanied hundreds of Americans on my group tours to Italy. One of the first things visitors notice is that Italy seems to be a food and wine lover’s paradise – where bold flavors and freshness abound, and where expectations are rarely disappointed. However, it is ironic that given the quality and quantity of incredible food and drink, one rarely sees a “fat Italian.”
Here in the states there is talk of the Mediterranean diet, books have even been written about it. Yet there cannot be one definitive Mediterranean diet. About 15 countries border the Mediterranean Sea and diets vary greatly both between countries, and from region to region within a country. Differences in culture, ethnic background, religion, economy, and agriculture account for these differences in both style of cooking and the eating habits of the people.
Generally speaking, the basic elements of the Mediterranean diet are whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and healthy oils, such as olive oil. There is also a noticeable absence of processed foods, which have become commonplace in the diets of most Americans and even Northern Europeans. Shopping daily for fresh ingredients continues to be the custom in this part of the world.
Fresh fish and other varieties of seafood are essential components of the Mediterranean diet. Red meat tends to be expensive, and is eaten sparingly, as a condiment rather than as the main dish. Fresh seafood, rich in nutrients and healthy fats, such as Omega 3’s are light and healthy alternatives to heavy beef dishes.
Last but certainly not least, is the fact that wine is the beverage of choice in most Mediterranean countries. Until the 20th century, when clean tap water programs were put in place, wine was actually much safer to drink than water in many countries. In Italy, wine per capita consumption is almost 60 liters per person as opposed to only 8 liters per person in the USA.
Italians can eat as well as they do and still maintain their figures because food means more, not less, to them. The manner in which they eat, what they choose to eat, and when they eat makes a world of difference in the way they look.
There are two factors working in favor of the Italians keeping off extra weight. One is that Italians move around more than Americans do. Italians walk, rather than drive, to get their cup of coffee or go to the market.They will join with friends and family for the evening passaggiata, an after dinner stroll around the piazza, rather than stay indoors after their meal. Because Italy is actually a very crowded country, taking a car everywhere is just impractical, so Italians are often on foot, walking to the town center, to school or work, to visit friends, carting groceries to living spaces on upper floors in apartments with no elevators. I have an 80 year-old great-aunt in Napoli that lives on the fifth floor, and she beats me up the stairs every time!
Secondly, every meal is a result of careful thought; Italians plan out their daily meals religiously. For breakfast, only a coffee and maybe a cornetto (croissant) is eaten, and usually on the way to work at a local coffee bar. Only in the tourist hotels do you see people having a large American-style breakfast. Pranzo (lunch) is always the big meal of the day. It consists of a healthy, balanced three-course meal of vegetables, a salad or soup, pasta, and a meat or fish dish. Whether eaten at home with their family or in a local trattoria (small restaurant) it is always enjoyed at a leisurely pace with plenty of friendly conversation.
La Cena (dinner) is when Italians are on their own. Rarely is dinner a planned family event. The towns and cities of Italy come alive at night and everyone is out and on the move. Here is where they are burning all the calories from their earlier lunch. People of all ages are out for the evening passaggiata. OK, I will admit that the Italians really love their gelato (ice cream) and will indulge nightly. Young families are out showing off their babies. The older men are out getting some air, talking about their earlier bocce game or the state of Italian soccer. The housewives are finally done with their daily work and are eager to get out enjoying the evening street life. The young guys are out either showing off their girlfriends or looking for a new one, while the young girls are doing what Italian girls do best: looking beautiful!
Surprisingly, Italians do not often have a dessert of more than fruit and cookies on days other than Sunday. Only after sitting through Sunday mass and taking communion do they reward themselves with the creamy, luscious desserts from the corner pasticceria (bakery).
We Italians can’t speak for all of the Mediterranean, but if truth be told, it should be renamed the “Italian Lifestyle Diet”.