We just returned from a week’s vacation in Rome and I seriously can’t stop thinking about our out-of-this world-delicious Italian meals. Just when you thought you had the best dinner of your life, the next night’s meal would be even better. Each meal seemed to be more scrumptious than the last. Culinary excellence and real Italian meals proved to be synonymous, which I suppose was not a total surprise. I was however surprised to learn clean eating was also an Italian “thing.”
REAL Italian Meals are REAL Healthy….
It was ridiculously touristy of me, I know, but nevertheless while we were in Rome I photo-documented just about every single one of our very memorable Italian meals. I included just a few in the collage above. If you take a close look at the photos you’ll notice one common denominator: fresh produce. Although here in the United States we think of Italian food as being super rich in pasta, bread and doughy pizza, the reality turned out to be that an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables was a much bigger part of real Italian meals.
In general, the Italians are also slimmer than we are over here in America. Sadly though, not all Italians are eating real Italian meals anymore though. Consequently obesity rates across Italy have been on the rise in recent years. The rise has been attributed to Italy’s growing taste for fast food and a more sedentary lifestyle. In fact, author Jeannine Marshall examines Italy’s shift away from the country’s traditional Mediterranean diet to a more Americanized coke-with-your-extra-doughy-pizza type diet in her book, The Lost Art of Feeding Kids: What Italy Taught Me About Why Children Need Real Food.
But, if you ignore America’s (terrible) fast food influence and you breakdown what makes up real Italian meals you learn a few Italian Diet Secrets that helped keep the nation slim and healthy back in the day.
6 Italian Diet Secrets From Traditional Italian Meals
1. There is No Protein Emergency in Italy.
In addition to not seeing a single protein shake or protein bar promoted in any of the supermarkets, cafes or anywhere else in Italy, I couldn’t help but notice the protein portions were much smaller. When you go to a restaurant in Italy the protein component of the meal (fish, beef, shellfish, etc.) is offered as the second course. While you might think that eating multi-course Italian meals couldn’t possibly be healthy, the reality is the protein portions they serve in the restaurants in Italy are considerably smaller than what you get at a standard American restaurant.
If you have our Clean Cuisine book then you know we are not vegans but we are also not big fans of eating excessive amounts of animal food, so we were happy to see the traditional Italian diet was easy to follow in regards to protein intake. We were also thrilled to see that fresh seafood seemed to be a very big part of real Italian meals too.
2. Real Italian Meals Include LOTS of Vegetables + Green Salads.
One thing is for sure, Italians do not skimp on their vegetables! When we go out to dinner here in the States I almost always have to ask for extra vegetables. Many times I don’t even see vegetable side dishes on the menu here at home! Not so in Italy. Almost every restaurant you went to offered “un piatto di verdure di stagione” (a plate of vegetables in season) –and it was a very large plate! Even if you ordered a pizza with vegetables, it would arrive swamped with veggies and you didn’t even have to ask for extra. There was also an abundance of different cooked greens as well as green salads on the menus.
Since we strive to eat 7 to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables everyday, we were especially happy about the vegetable situation in Italy!
3. They Use REAL Italian EVOO.
If you heard the 60 Minutes report on how the Italian mafia is ripping-off American consumers or if you have read the book Extra Virginity, then you may be suspicious of whether or not the extra virgin olive oil in Italy is really extra virgin. Well, it is. Apparently the mafia is not trying to rip off the Italians because the Italians know better. I can assure you that at least in the restaurants they only serve real extra virgin olive oil in Italy. In the United States you might have an olive oil bottle that says its extra virgin when in fact it is really just highly refined vegetable oil with food coloring. But real Italian meals use real EVOO. And that makes a big difference health-wise because real EVOO is super rich in antioxidants, phytonutrients and special monounsaturated fats that boost your body’s ability to utilize the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, all of which plays an important role in reducing inflammation.
I also found it interesting that EVOO seemed to be the only thing Italians used for salad dressing too. And it always came on the side. There was never an option for alternatives such as ranch or french dressing (both of which are conventionally made with highly refined, empty-calorie ingredients here in the United States.)
4. Pasta Portions are Small + Pizza is Thin Crusted.
Unlike the Italian meals you might eat here in the States, in Italy the pasta portions are not big and the pizza is incredibly thin crusted (at least in Rome.)
And they don’t just eat pasta either! Nutrient-dense whole grain farro is also incredibly popular (If you have never cooked with farro, here’s a super easy Tuscan Farro Minestrone Soup recipe to try!)
5. They End their Meals with Fresh Fruit.
Here at home I rarely ever see fresh fruit served on the menu unless I happen to be at a very fancy restaurant that maybe offers fresh berries with whipped cream as a dessert option. But in Italy, I was pleasantly surprised to discover fresh fruit often had its very own section on the menu! And it wasn’t just limited to fresh berries either.
6. They Only Drink Water or Wine with Their Meals.
It is true modernized and fast-food style meals served in Italy may include coca cola, but that’s not the case with the traditional meals. Traditional Italian meals are not served with soda. They aren’t even served with milk or juice (for the record, I am not a fan of juice.) Instead, they are served with either water, sparkling water (yes, the Italians do drink lots of Pellegrino!) or…you guessed it…wine.
If you have our book, you know moderate wine consumption is a part of Clean Cuisine, so we were of course happy to include vino with our meals. We also noticed that compared to the Italian wines sold here in the United States, the Italian wines sold in Italy were considerably better by a long shot. I don’t know why Italy ships us over their less-than-good wine, but they definitely are keeping the good stuff over there. We were amazed at how wonderful inexpensive bottles of wine were in Italy. Italian Barolo is my new favorite!
As a side note, I was happy to learn just before the trip that a new study shows drinking wine with seafood boosts your body’s ability to absorb the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats. So, between the wine, seafood, EVOO and lots of fruits and vegetables I was definitely able to keep inflammation at bay while still enjoying mouthwatering authentic Italian meals. It was all good =)