As a self-confessed fast food lover, a late-night taco bell “fourth meal” has always been my guilty pleasure. I always knew it was unhealthy, like most Americans, but it wasn’t until the last few years that I’ve allowed myself to learn how unhealthy.
In some aspects, the food we are being sold in the U.S. barely classifies as such, and it’s terrifying. It’s also a hard habit to break. There are so many times when a quick bite to eat is so much easier, so much cheaper, and so much more appealing than a trip to Vons and messing up the kitchen. Although us Americans know that a lot of our food (fast-food and in grocery stores) is processed and basically poisoning us, I, like many others, still find it hard to completely say no to what’s cheap and easy.
Living in Europe has just intensified my exposure to healthy produce, and while Spain does a pretty good job to keep its food real, Italy blew me away. During a tour with Walks of Italy, our stylish and classy Italian guide, Simona, loved testing our knowledge about Italian food and our misconceptions. Turns out the biggest misconception we have of Italian food overall is that it´s unhealthy!
From how we consume food in the U.S., to how we produce it, the Italians have us beat in so many different ways.
1. Farmer’s markets don’t have to be expensive or inconvenient
What we classify a “farmer’s market” in the U.S. is just the norm in Italy. While these markets have decreased in number since the introduction of supermarkets, they still serve an important purpose to many Italians.
We visited the Campo de Fiori market, and from socks to produce, you could pick up most things on your grocery store list. There was also a large section of artisan products and tastings for tourists. Everything was adequately priced and much of the produce was the same cost, or less, than from a supermarket.
What I found most interesting was how the market functioned. Each morning, the stall owners purchase whichever produce and products they believe their local customers will buy. The stall owners have relationships with their customers, and they buy accordingly. Everything is always fresh and always seasonal. Most of all, you’d never see anything out of season, meaning it didn’t need to be shipped half-way around the world to get to your table.
The markets have also adapted to the busy, modern lives of Italians by offering to prepare the produce in advance. This way there is no need for frozen vegetables. Say you want to make a minestrone soup but don’t have time to prepare all the ingredients. In that case, the stall workers will clean and chop the vegetables for you, then all you need to buy is the portion you’ll use for that night.
2. We don’t need to hate cheese
Simona walked us to a local cheese shop and we stopped outside.
“What’s your favorite type of cheese?” she asked us.
The consensus seemed to be on mozzarella. She made a strange, almost disgusted face.
“Well, if it’s the mozzarella you buy pre-shredded in a resealable bag, then I don’t know what that is. That is definitely not mozzarella cheese.”
We chuckled and looked at each other in embarrassment.
“Let me show you the real stuff.”
We followed her into the back room of the cheese shop and she laid out an assortment of cheeses. What we tasted was far better than the cheese I had spent so many years eating. I couldn’t believe what I was missing all this time!
We first tried the mozzarella and learned that the fresh buffalo variety is made from water buffalos and highly regulated (like most Italian products). It is soft, semi-elastic and must be sold in its own brine to keep it fresh. If not, it will dry out.
We then moved onto other various types, from salty Parmesan to burrata, a delightful mix of mozzarella and cream. All were distinctly different but they had one thing in common: each was made from few ingredients, all of which were natural. For example, the pecorino cheese itself was almost crunchy. Simona informed us that it was the actual granules of sea salt which we could taste.
After the thorough cheese tasting, Simona told us about how when people are sick or on a diet in Italy, they are given ricotta cheese. I was shocked. Ricotta cheese on a diet?! A by-product of other cheese, ricotta happens to have a low amount of fat and a high amount of calcium and minerals. She explained that it’s given mostly to elderly people and babies because it’s so healthy and easy to eat.
“I also used to give my baby the rind of Parmesan cheese to suck on when she was teething. It is soft and she gets all the calcium from it. It’s a popular thing to do.”
3. Snacks need to go
In the U.S. we have an obsession with snacks. Our pantries are full of them and most are made from ingredients we can’t even pronounce.
Italians, on the other hand, rarely snack (if at all).
Mealtimes are designated for eating, and if it isn’t a mealtime the only thing an Italian might consume is a coffee or a small gelato. While gelato isn’t necessarily healthy either, the difference is how it is served and how it is made.
For one, gelato is made with more milk than cream and has less air mixed into it during the churning process. This makes it dense and flavorful. Gelato is also served in small cups and eaten with a tiny spoon. This makes over indulging hard to do. Additionally, gelato doesn’t have egg yolks like many custard based desserts. It’s these two aspects that make it lower in fat and in calories than ice cream.
As for sugar and flavors, gelato should be made from all natural ingredients, from fruits to nuts. Sadly, especially in Rome, it is easy to get imitation gelato made from a mix. If you avoid these, then your daily indulgence would not only be smaller in size than the amount of snacks we eat in the U.S., but also lower in fat, sugar and calories.
Of course, all the walking around the city rather than sitting in a car doesn’t hurt either.
4. Large meals aren’t necessarily bad
With the amount of food I ate in Italy, I was shocked on how Italians stay so thin. If I ate a three course meal every night, I’d be obese.
But the large meal is a big part of Italian culture. They take time out of their days to spend it with loved ones over wine and various dishes. The typical Italian meal is usually from one to three courses. The anitpasto is an appetizer, the primo will usually be pasta and the secondo will be a type of meat. Side dishes can also be ordered with the secondo and then dessert might follow as well! This is not a meal you want to rush through!
Of course, Italians don’t have this full dinner every night, and often times one might just have one dish. One thing that sets Italians apart is that if they do order the full meal, they don’t feel guilty about it. They embrace a good, long and indulgant meal.
I also noticed that when we went out for a three course dinner, it was rare that I actually felt sickly full afterwards. The portions were typically smaller and the difference was in the products used. From farm fresh produce, to natural cheeses, each ingredient on my plate was real. If I learned one thing from this way of eating it’s that if you are eating healthy, home-cooked, natural food, you don’t have to feel guilty about indulging.
In Italy, food is a friend, not a foe. Now if only we could adopt these ideals in The United States.
What do you think about the Italian lifestyle? Do you think we would be a healthier nation if we took these into consideration?