How do Italians stay healthy and still eat so many carbs? What are the secrets of the Italian Lifestyle?
If you’ve ever been to Italy, you’ve probably found yourself wondering how Italians eat so many carbs and stay so fit and healthy. The pastries, the pizza, the pasta, the bread..carbs never seem to end in Italy! All these delicacies play such a huge part in the Italian diet and hedonistic Italian lifestyle in general. Yet Italians somehow stay fit and healthy, boasting the Mediterranean diet as the healthiest in the world.
Every time I go to Italy, I try to eat in a balanced way to stay healthy since I’m usually there for 2-3 months (aside from the extra helpings of pasta and gelato that I wouldn’t normally be having back home). Let’s just say right from the start— that‘s really hard. I’ve been invited into Italian homes plenty of times for dinner and while all the food is OVER-THE-TOP delicious, it usually consists of carb-heavy dishes with miniscule amounts of vegetables on the table. *However, it's also true that when I’m invited to an Italian home for dinner, it’s a “special event” so they’re serving richer food and thus, I’m not getting an accurate perception of how Italians really eat.
On top of being wined and dined by my warm-hearted Italian friends, I’m faced with temptations at every turn. Just try resisting authentic gelato in the midday heat, the pastries being sold by the cute old man smiling behind the counter, or just a quick bite of pizza margherita after a long day walking in the city.
No matter how hard I try, after a few weeks, I’m feeling out of balance, bloated, and definitely gaining pounds at the end of my stay. There’s nothing wrong with a little “Italy love on the hips“, but after years of struggling to feel balanced and healthy when in Italy, I just really want to understand the mystery of the Italian diet: How do Italians manage to stay healthy and fit while eating the pizza, the pasta, the pastries, the gelato, and the everything else?!
I’ve called my friend Eva Perocsenyi, a Hungarian photographer based in Florence, who shared with me about her experiences with the Italian lifestyle and food culture, and tried to answer the inexplicable question: How do Italians eat so many damn carbs? (Click here to watch the video interview!)
Eva is a long-standing advocate of a healthy lifestyle with a limited amount of carbs. While carbs are essential for our health, the right amount (about 180 g/6.3 oz) per day is the key. It’s actually not that difficult to reach this goal. All you have to do is be creative with your food and play with the ratios on your plate to achieve a balanced Italian diet. Eva says it’s surprisingly easy to do so in Italy, and she’s shared with me the 7 ways Italians stay healthy while still enjoying their carbs. Read on below!
1. The Italian Lifestyle is Not to Be On Vacation Everyday
An everyday lifestyle of a typical Italian is not to walk downtown, sit down in a charming little café and enjoy a cup of cappuccino with one of their fantastic desserts, then have pasta or pizza for dinner, and wash it all away with a glass or two of local wine. These are the habits we tend to have while we’re on our vacation and crave to taste the country’s culinary pleasures with all of our senses. Italians eat their tiramisù only on special occasions. A vacation in Italy definitely IS a special occasion, so enjoy the Italian heaven on your tastebuds without a side of guilt— but Eva pointed out that Italians don’t eat that way everyday!
2. Italians Do Eat Pasta, Just Differently
If you think an Italian is able to resist their own country’s staple dishes, you should really visit Italy. It’s impossible! But it’s important to balance out the less healthy meals with healthier ones- and Italians are really good at that. Did you know that Italians eat pasta as the first course? Which means smaller portions. The main dish is usually meat and salad. Salad is generally a part of every meal. They still eat white bread and pasta regularly though which confuses many people – why are they so healthy while eating white flour so often?
According to Eva, the answer is that they use a different type of flour – Italian bread and pasta are made of durum wheat flour which doesn’t spike your blood sugar levels as much and therefore it doesn’t significantly contribute to weight gain as much as regular refined white flour would, for example. When it comes to having a dessert, it’s not very common in everyday life; Italians usually end their meal with a cup of coffee, although sometimes they’ll enjoy some local and seasonal fruit. That’s the secret to their balanced diet!
3. The Italian Lifestyle Includes Much More Walking
Many Italians are used to walking or biking rather than sitting in the car at every opportunity. If the destination is less than an hour of walking away, a typical Italian will walk there because they find pleasure in such a simple thing as walking. And many times it’s also quicker to walk because public transportation in Italy is not the most reliable when it comes to a schedule.
Many apartments don’t have elevators so that’s extra steps in a day as well. Sometimes it’s easier said than done, but walking is actually very important to our health. Active everyday life is a big part of the Italian lifestyle. Moving their body burns more calories and therefore they can treat themselves to a piece of tiramisu or panna cotta now and then. Sounds pretty reasonable, right?
4. Italians Spend More Time In the Sun
Italians have fewer lifestyle diseases than many other nationalities and Eva says there’s one more important reason besides healthy food and moving your body. Hint: Italians have plenty of this special ingredient. Yes, the SUN! If you‘ve ever been to Italy, you probably noticed locals spending their free time on the beach or drinking a cup of coffee on their balconies.
Even if they don’t bask in the sun on purpose, it’s pretty hard to avoid the sun in Italy. And how is the sun linked to your health? Sun rays stimulate the production of vitamin D in your body which contributes to good insulin resistance. This may be one reason that Italians have a lower risk of developing obesity and diabetes. Sun exposure can, however, cause skin cancer, so it’s important to dose it in moderation and always use sunscreen, especially if you’re not from a typically sunny country and therefore not used to such high sun intensity.
5. The Italian Diet Celebrates Local and Seasonal Fruits and Veggies
Try bringing a basket of freshly picked cherries or tomatoes to any Italian and they’ll be genuinely so excited, happy, and thankful! Their appreciation for fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables is infectious. Italians eat seasonally because they know that when the season for a certain fruit or vegetable comes around, the food is fresh and loaded with vitamins and tastes exactly as it should. Strawberries in December just don’t taste right and probably won‘t be as much benefit to your health.
6. Italians Avoid Added Sugars
Sugar is not only a matter of desserts and sweets. It can hide basically in any food – commonly in seasonings such as ketchup, mustard, salad dressing, soy sauce, but also in things you don’t really think about, such as pickles, alcoholic beverages, cereals or sausages. Italians usually avoid these types of food in their everyday life so their health is not negatively affected by added sugar and they can have their gelato once or twice a week without any guilt. But discipline is an important part of it and Eva thinks Italians have slightly more of it than others!
7. The Italian Diet Focuses on High-Quality Food
You can buy parmesan cheese or mozzarella in a supermarket outside Italy, but it will probably not taste the same as in Italy. Italians like to keep the best for themselves and their health benefits from it. The food is probably the only thing they will never compromise on and they appreciate it with their whole heart. The words "local" and "organic" are real in Italy and as common as it can get – Italians love their local butcher, baker, or neighbor who supplies them with the top quality salami, bread, wine, or fruits. Even if the products aren’t necessarily certified as organic, most farmers don’t use chemicals because they know the food wouldn’t be high quality. The Italian diet is certainly about quality, not quantity.
One extra reason the Italian Lifestyle is Healthier: Less stress!
Italians are much more connected with the natural ways of things. If it’s hot, you’re gonna sweat! Rather than combat it with environmentally-harmful air conditioning and being a couch potato, they head to the breezy beach or the mountains where the air is naturally cooler. Running late? The meeting will start 5 minutes late, no big deal.
There’s no reason to stress about everything. Take the laid-back Italian lifestyle as an inspiration, not as a set of rules. Italians are living their la dolce vita which means living their life to the fullest in each and every moment. This couldn’t be done if they were stressing about calories and carbs all the time. Balance is the key! Listening to your body’s needs will do. Next time you eat gelato in your local café, take a walk through the town after and enjoy the pleasure of walking as Italians do!