Myths and Reality About the Italian Diet

It’seasy to see why there is such a demand for insight into what and how Italians eat: study after study shows Italians are healthier and live longer. Though Italians smoke more than other Europeans and spend less on healthcare, they have healthier weights and less diseases. And Italy is one of the top 10 countries in the world with the longest human longevity.

But go to an Italian chain restaurant in North America and you’ll be served heaping amounts of pasta coated with cheese, a far cry from what is considered “healthy.” Movie and TV images of traditional Italian Sunday meals suggest big portions of meat, a lot of wine and opulent desserts are the norm. How do pizza and pasta translate into a healthy diet?

“That’s not representative of Italian meals,” says Susan McKenna Grant, author of Piano, Piano, Pieno: Authentic Food from a Tuscan Farm and owner/chef of La Petraia restaurant in Sienna. “[Italians eat] less junk food, less soda, less sugar, do more natural exercise like walking and have a better understanding of what good food is,” she says. She also confirms that olive oil is one of the best foods Italians consume. Fresh vegetables, and plenty of them, are the stars of meals, not just pasta.

A 1995 study of the Mediterranean diet “Italian Style” confirmed that Italians preferred a plant-based, low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet. This means a high intake of vegetables, beans, fruit and cereals; medium-to-high intake of fish and unsaturated fats (that’s where the olive oil comes in); and low intake of meats, saturated fats and dairy products. The study also tracked the physiological effects of this food and found the benefits abound. For example, tomatoes, broccoli, wine, unprocessed olive oil, garlic and certain spices offer antioxidant effects. The high intake of plant-based meals also provided protective roles for health. Spanish research published in Food Chemistry magazine found that tomato sauce – the olive oil, tomatoes and garlic cooked together particularly – is loaded with compounds that have been linked to the reduction of tumours and cardiovascular diseases.           

Other analyses have linked the Mediterranean diet with a reduced risk of heart disease as well. In 2013, researchers went even further to test out particular “Mediterranean” foods. A five-year study of more than 7,000 people found that those given either one litre of extra virgin olive oil, or 200 g of walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds every week had a significantly reduced risk of stroke and heart disease, compared to a group on a low-fat diet.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be too much of a good thing. Meals high in carbohydrates (remember that big plate of pasta at the restaurant?), put you at risk of diabetes as bread, pasta and starches break down into sugar once consumed. Studies have shown that eating 160 g per day of processed meats, like sausage or cured meats, in conjunction with other such habits, leads to an increased risk of premature death. “Obesity, gluten intolerance and celiac disease are big topics [in Italy] and rates are rising,” says Grant. But it’s not just the foods Italians eat, it’s how they eat them. Italians take more time to eat, and eat with others, rather than eating on the go like North Americans. “[Italians] don’t snack as much and sit down together to more home-cooked meals,” says Grant. “[They have a] small breakfast often standing up in the local bar – coffee and cornetti. Today lunch is just a sandwich as people don’t get home as much as they used to for lunch and more women work out of the home. Dinner is usually cooked at home and eaten sitting down with the family.”

As for those large, long dinners: “Italians eat more courses, therefore more variety, but the portions are much smaller,” says Grant. “I think Italians walk a lot more too. Most cities here have pedestrian only areas where cars are banned and the country is, in general, mountainous. You are always climbing here.”

Populations that follow the Mediterranean diet pattern also show the highest longevity. In fact, one of the world’s “hot spots” for longevity is Sardinia, Italy. Investigations into this area’s concentration of centenarians (those who live to 100 or older) have found less circulatory diseases there than in the rest of the country. In a popular news article from 2012, a set of nine Sardinian siblings between the ages of 78 and 105 credited their long lives to minestrone soup, vegetables, very little meat and a dedicated work ethic.

The problem is, whether in Canada or Italy, while the older generations have maintained the Mediterranean habits of their youth, younger Italians tend to give up the traditional diet and lifestyle in favour of more convenient foods. “Things [in Italy] are changing too,” says Grant. “And faster than you’d like to think. Fast food chains are sneaking in. Supermarkets are carrying more ready-made and prepared foods. Fewer people are growing their own and ready-made frozen or fresh prepared meals are becoming more popular.”

The impetus to live healthier and longer should be enough to encourage the traditional Italian diet, but the benefits may go even further than that. A Concordia University study of Italian-Canadians suggests that ethnic identity is positively related to the consumption of traditional foods. Want to get healthy, live longer and feel close to your roots? Don’t buy a book about the Mediterranean diet. Instead, start cutting up some melanzane and invite your family over for a 

written by Laura D Amelio