There has been much written about the Italian diet, health and nutrition by people much more knowledgeable and with many more degrees then me, so I won’t try to go into a great amount of actual fact about how I am now able to eat copious amounts of pasta and not gain a pound (or kilogram as it were). The United States, as many Europeans seem to think, outside of major cities like New York and San Francisco, is something of a vast wasteland of poor food habits and huge steaks, which isn’t an entirely inaccurate claim. When I express my pleasant surprise about being able to eat pan fritto con stracchino - fried dough stuffed with a creamy, rich local cheese – and not immediately feel obese, no one else blinks an eye. Where in the U.S. I would spend a few minutes doing that instant calculation many women can do in seconds, rounding out the amount of yoga hours it would take to neutralize a heavy meal, I look around this small little corner of Liguria and the even bigger cities and am constantly surprised by the absence of any gyms or health centers.
Not to say that every day is a fried dough and cheese induced binge, but living here follows what is definitely a reasonable way to eat. Provided one avoids any semblance of a breakfast in this country, which usually consists of some pastry filled with sugar with more sugar on top, drizzled with nutella or dunked in a sweetened, milky caffeinated beverage – Italians certainly have a sweet tooth, and that is incredibly evident in breakfast.
A day usually begins with coffee (usually= always) with sugar. Not aspartame or splenda, but straight up sugar – dramatically different from New York. Lunch can be anything from a foccacia to something more substantial – pasta, a protein, vegetables. Eggs, too, make up a lunch, not a breakfast, and a frittata, to mirror the writings of Elizabeth David, and a glass of wine, can make up quite a nice supper. Today, for example, I had a salad with mixed greens, milky mozzarella, salty capers and anchovies and ruby tomatoes, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and 3 soft, fresh slices of bread. 3 espressi, a sweetenediced tea, a ginger beer, and 5 pan fritto pieces so far have rounded out my daily food consumption. For dinner, I will more then likely eat either a few pieces of steak and a small salad of arugula, or a swordfish with a light tomato broth with a small serving of pasta. All in all, it’s not an incredibly heavy amount of food for one day, considering. In the U.S we are encouraged to snack. All daylong – we are, let’s face it – a snacking culture. Even the prevailing diet wisdom of the day encourages a series of small meals rather then the few big ones eaten in Italy. Here, however, the snacks are small. The pan fritto is a portion of 8-10 pieces, and is usually split. A “pastry” bar or a “cake bar” or a “whatever you want to call it “ bar usually maxes out at about 250-300 calories a portion, some even remarkably less. And you eat only one. Nutella is eaten in a small spoonful, and on a cookie or two – though I’m still wrestling with that self control Nutella issue. The ham is fresh, there is always some fruit or a vegetable – and even the drinks are smaller. A can of coke here has 139 calories, and you drink, again, only one.
The portion size has been analyzed to death between the U.S. and Italy, but more then that, I think it’s the quality of the food. Here, no one uses Splenda or covers their foccacia with wasabi mayonnaise and bacon. Foccacia, the way we eat for lunch, isn’t that bad for you – a few slices of meat, some cheese and greens. I have long been a friend of the carbohydrate, and in that, Italy is constantly proving me correct in my theory that it is not bread that makes one fat. It’s what you are putting on it. If it’s fresh, you don’t need all those other things. In addition, its only about 5 inches in diameter, which counteracts the “foot long” sub that really makes one think – do you really need to eat something that is one-fifth of your height?
Though Italians are known for their huge feasts and meals, on a daily basis, they are a remarkably weight conscious culture with one of the lowest percentages of obesity in the world. Walking down the street eating a huge gelato causes friendly teasing about gaining weight, ordering a second portion draws half-kidding, astonished “mamma mia”-s from friends. Everyone wants to give you advice about weight and digestion, and, like the weather, they are all experts in their own little way.
What I think is the soundest piece of advice I have heard and seen in practice is one from a different nutritional school of thought. If you take the time to eat real food, you don’t need to spend so much time figuring out how you can enjoy its substitutes with half the fat or calories. “Can I make this lunch even less fattening?” becomes “eat and enjoy” quite easily. You stop when you are full – it’s not a difficult concept to master, but one easy to forget.
Eating that foccacia with proscutto and brie fills you up more – and, more then that, leaves you satisfied – more then a veggie burger with soy mayo on spelt bread. Coming from someone who has walked that line many times before, trust me when I say that it is true. Salads only get you so far in life, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with eating bread.
Just be careful with the nutella.