As we continue our discussion of La Dolce Vita, Italian for the Sweet Life, I want to talk to you about food and eating Italian style.

Who doesn’t love Italian food? In America we love pasta, pizza, tiramisu, and all the earthly delights of Italian cuisine. But they are also the foods that we are warned will make us fat. Too many carbs, too much white food, too much sugar and cream, blah blah blah. But yet, the people of Italy are not fat. In fact, they have a lower percentage of overweight and obese people than we do in the United States. And they have a longer life span than people in the U.S. and all of the European Union.

They are much less likely to suffer from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and all the other illnesses that are associated with being overweight.

So why are so many Americans overweight?

Italians eat in moderation. They eat a diet rich in fresh, seasonal vegetables. They flavor their foods with herbs and garlic instead of heavy creams and cheeses. They eat fruit for dessert. They enjoy meals slowly by serving several small courses. They dine with family and friends and savor the flavors as well as the conversation. They have water and wine on the table. And everything is allowed, so nothing is overindulged.

Italians take pleasure in their meals. They are not constantly dieting because it’s not necessary. They enjoy good food without depriving themselves.

Let’s compare a typical dinner you would get in an Italian restaurant in the U.S. to that of a trattoria in Italy.

A bread basket with butter or olive oil and balsamic vinegar is put on the table. You probably order a glass or a bottle of wine. You share an appetizer of fried calamari with marinara sauce. Next, a salad with ranch dressing or balsamic vinaigrette. Or perhaps a bowl of minestrone or Italian wedding soup. The main course is chicken parmigiana: 2-3 large cutlets of boneless chicken breaded and fried, covered in tomato sauce and melted cheese, with a large side of pasta. For dessert you get tiramisu with a cappuccino. This is a typical Italian restaurant meal in the U.S.

Dinner in Italy
There is probably bread on the table with olive oil. There will be a bottle of water and wine, perhaps several. For an appetizer you get grilled radicchio with chestnuts. Your next course is a small bowl of pasta cooked with pancetta and some vegetables, perhaps some seafood. The sauce is the natural juices. Some parmesan cheese is shredded on top. The third course is fish baked in a packet, or a bone-in veal chop, flavored with herbs and a little olive oil. A few slices of potato are on the side. If you have some wine left, you may finish it with a few bites of cheese. For dessert, you have an espresso and some raisins soaked in grappa.

I’m not making these meals up. I’ve had both on different occasions. If you compare the calories and fat in the two, the difference is tremendous. The time you take to eat the first is about 30 minutes. The second is about an hour and a half. There is time between courses. You eat slowly and enjoy every morsel.

The American interpretation of Italian food is what is making us fat. It’s not the cuisine, it’s the preparation and portion sizes. If you were eating either of these meals at home, you are likely to buy sauce in a jar or a can of soup. Italians make these meals fresh.

A Mediterranean diet consists of lots of fresh, natural foods and fewer processed ones. They eat lots of vegetables, fruit, fish, beans, nuts, and small portions of pasta, rice and bread. They flavor their foods with herbs like oregano, basil, parsley, thyme. They use shallots, onions, garlic, black pepper, and olive oil. Meats, eggs, and cheese are eaten in smaller amounts. They generally use olive oil which is a healthier source of fat than other oils or butter. And they drink red wine, not in large quantities, but often.

When you eat your next meal, try to emulate the Italians. Buy fresh food and prepare it yourself. Keep the portion sizes moderate. Eat slowly. Don’t rely on prepackaged meals, jarred sauces, or high-fat desserts. Instead choose a piece of fruit for dessert. Try a cup of tea or a small espresso instead of a milky coffee drink. See if you feel any different by eating this way.

Good nutrition makes you feel better, look better, and live better.

You can live the sweet life without sacrificing. Buon appetito.

What is your favorite Italian food?

Click here to read the entire La Dolce Vita Series.