The Italian Mediterranean Diet according to an Italian

The Mediterranean diet, the healthiest diet according to science

spoiler alert, it's all carbs!

Some say that Italy offers a food experience that is unique and without comparison. That tomato sauce has the same miraculous effect of holy water. That the mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest in the world and that’s why italians look so happy all the time. But is it really true? Let’s review very quickly how these claims originated and track back how we started talking about concepts like the blue zones and “the mediterranean diet pyramid”. If you are familiar with this concepts and are here just for the fun stuff, please, skip this paragraph all together.

Back in 1993 the Harvard School of Public Health, Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, and the European Office of the World Health Organization introduced the Mediterranean Food Pyramid in an effort to explain the differences of the mediterranean diet with respect to western diet and standard American diet. They found that populations around the Mediterranean Sea, while having different cuisines, do share some dietary habits. These are not just based on ingredients of the Mediterranean diet or foods to eat like fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains, fish like sardines and anchovies (rich in omega-3 fatty acids), olive oil (polyphenols, antioxidants), small amounts of dairy, and red wine, but also include more complex and layered effects like the social aspect of eating together and a more diffused habit of daily walks for errands and everyday activities. 

Since then, there has been a growing interest in the Mediterranean diet for its beneficial impacts on heart health and its ability to lower the risk of chronic diseases. Again, this isn’t just about eating Italian food; it’s about embracing a full dietary pattern that includes a balanced intake of nutrients and emphasizes plant-based foods, quality proteins, and healthy fats. It’s a diet that’s both delicious and nourishing, fitting perfectly with a lifestyle aimed at wellness and vitality. Just recently, a study published by JAMA the consumption of more than 7 grams per day of olive oil was associated with a 28% lower risk of dementia-related death compared with never or rarely consuming olive oil, irrespective of diet quality.

The Mediterranean Diet: Reality vs Expectations

Science has spoken. The research and data are out. But what does it really mean to embrace the Mediterranean diet? To live it everyday? Well, as an ex ex-pat who moved back to Italy with a 100% American-made wife, who became an extra virgin olive oil producer, I have something to say about it. I have been accustomed to the fact that many of my American friends would refer nonchalantly to something I would do or say as “So European!” but I have always resented that remark. What do they mean by that? Do I look Swedish to you? Conversely, I have always found the use of “Mediterranean”  as a geographically reppresentative adjective, but one that is culturally vague. What is Mediterranean food, and where does it come from? Does the South of France have a Mediterranean diet? Mmm, nothing memorable comes to mind. Do all Mediterranean countries contribute to the Mediterranean food equally? Is feta cheese more Mediterranean than pecorino cheese? Clearly this is not helping solving the mystery. I’ll stick to what I know and that’s Italian Mediterranean food.

So let’s move on to other funny misconceptions. Our favorite one becomes obvious every time a friend comes to visit us from the States. After eating one last carbonara, amatriciana, cacio e pepe, pappardelle al cinghiale, gnocchi ai quattro formaggi, they kick back on their chair, pop a button of their pants and exhale: “how do you stay this skinny eating this stuff? It’s a mystery!” Well that’s because we don’t eat like this. Yes, we do eat pasta every day, even in portions that are not necessarily small, but rich sauces like ragù are something saved for special occasions, like Sunday lunch with the family, that’s it. Food like that is a prize, a reward for a long week of hard work. So, while it’s very common for servings and courses to go off the rails during special celebrations, the rest of the week is all about small portions.

“But you don’t eat red meat and prefer lean proteins, or chicken or fish“. Nope, another fake news. While Mediterranean regions have easy access to a wide variety of fresh fish, we do love our monounsaturated fat, especially red meat. But as with many other guilty pleasures, we do it with moderation. 

“Traditional Mediterranean diet uses high-quality ingredients.” While this is true for many products, when it comes to meat, Italian cuisine is historically based on cheap cuts. Back in the day, not a lot of people could afford the prime cuts, and many, if not every, traditional recipe is based on turning 2nd or 3rd choice cuts into something delicious. Oxtail, tripe, tongue, shoulders, and bellies, are turned into juicy pasta sauces, spezzatino, meatballs and an almost infinite variety of cured meats (more on that later). 

“Italians eat a lot of whole grains.” Not. Bread, pasta, rice and our beloved breakfast pastries (cornetto, brioche or croissant) are all refined cereals: white! Yes, we do have whole-grain flour, but it’s definitely a new entry and not the norm.

“In Italy you drink less alcohol.” Yes, but no. While Italians are not heavy drinkers, we do like to start early. In Veneto, it’s pretty common to have a 10am sandwich (tramezzino) with a small glass of white wine (ombra) during work breaks. It’s also very common to drink at lunch in working days and when 7pm arrives it’s always aperitivo time.  

Last but not least, “In Italy they don’t eat processed foods.” Well then how do you explain cured meat? Is mortadella not processed? Sure, good prosciutto doesn’t rely on preserving agents, with the exclusion of tons of salt, of course. Pancetta, guanciale, lardo di Colonnata, are all made with lots of salt, spices, some secret, holy ingredients and unconventional aging processes, like marble tubs and sometimes dungeons. Cotechino (or zampone), a phenomenal salami from Modena and a staple of every Christmas dinner across the country, was invented in 1511 while the city was under siege and its made by stuffing lard and less tender part of meat inside a pig’s foot. Sounds pretty processed to me, but delicious for sure.

Pasta and Bread 

I want to dedicate a separate paragraph to the best complex carbohydrate combination ever created. Yes, I said it, I eat pasta and bread together. Of course I do. Actually I have a hard time having any meal without bread. I guess this paragraph is going to be mostly about bread; a milestone of human evolution and a measure of civilization. And I am not alone in the bandwagon of bread enthusiasts; this whole country is hooked up. If you show up at the grocery store or at the bakery too late in the afternoon you’ll be greeted by empty shelves. And that’s not because of a shortage in the offerings. All regions of Italy are blessed by an incredible variety of bread that are all very specific to the area and the culture: heavy, rich breads in the south, saltless in the center and kinda meh in northern Italy. While there is an unjustified, ongoing war on carbs that is propagating like a wildfire across all western civilization, Italy is still an enclave of refined, white flour. That is mostly because bread is the foundation of how Italians eat and, I think, also a cardinal point in understanding how the Mediterranean diet works. We eat a lot of bread! And a lot of pizza, focaccia, schiacciata, sfincione, panzerotti, gnocco fritto, piadina, crescia, torta al testo, friselle and grissini, to name just some of the bread derivates you can find in different areas of Italy. Historically, at least at one of the three daily meals would involve a variant of those baked goods paired with a savory ingredient in a very small quantity. So a couple of olives and a slice of bread can become a meal, maybe with a bite of cheese and a slice of prosciutto. A little bowl of ricotta and a bag of pasta can feed the entire family. In summer time, when I was a kid, my grandma would feed me a very simple snack made of fresh tomatoes from the garden and olive oil on a slice of bread. These days the options and opportunities are greater but the simplicity and moderation remain the same. 

Creating a Meal Plan,  foods to eat to eat like Italians

Meal plans are another concept that is not really present in la cucina italiana. Americans love it because it optimizes prepping time, makes grocery shopping easier and cuts cooking time down. It’s logical, it’s smart. But food for an Italian is not a completely rational process. So even trying to create a grocery list of ingredients is more often than not a daily activity inspired by the actual mood rather than a thoughtout process. So, to make starting the Italian Mediterranean diet as easy as possible, instead of creating a grocery list that includes everything you’ll need for a week of delicious, healthy eating, I will share a different list. One that you don’t see that often anymore. That would be the weekly menu of the typical Italian trattoria. Once, they were family-owned restaurants for the working class, now they are trendy spots to experience traditional Italian dishes with Instagram accounts that would put into shame many influencers. The weekly menu was a piece of paper, sometimes laminated, that was taped to the door with the “specials.” And by specials, I mean what the lady in the kitchen cooked that day and, therefore, what you should order. Mind you, besides special occasions like Easter or Christmas, this list would stay the same, forever. Some regions in southern Italy would have local variations while their counterparts in the northern part of the country would incorporate different ingredients, but the approach remains surprisingly quite similar.

Here it goes:

LUNEDI: bollito (boiled meat, sometimes from making stock) or polpette (meatballs)

MARTEDÌ: CHIUSO (day off)

MERCOLEDÌ: frattaglie (liver, brain, tongue, kidney, tail)

GIOVEDÌ: gnocchi

VENERDÌ: baccalà (or other fish)

SABATO: trippa (tripe)

DOMENICA: lasagne, cannelloni (or other baked pasta)

Extra Virgin Olive Oil - The elixir of italian cuisine

If you think that being an olive oil producer we have a vested interest in writing about olive oil you are only partially right. As a matter of fact, extra-virgin olive oil is undoubtedly a main component in all parts of the Mediterranean. The most frequent question we have been asked is how much olive oil we consume here in Italy. I do not have an exact number but I can say that is a lot. We go through a bottle of oil in less than two months. Apparently, according to recent studies, for most Italians, it is the main source of fat. And that’s a piece of information that nobody really ever cared to know, including Italians. But it turns out that these delicious monounsaturated fatty acids we cannot get enough of have many health benefits and incredibly positive effects on a number of diseases such as coronary heart disease (CHD)/cardiovascular diseases (CVD), obesity, type-2 diabetes, cancer, asthma, and allergies. It almost looks like the Mediterranean diet is the healthiest diet in the world despite what we eat and thanks to EVOO. 

Benefits of the mediterranean diet, the "Paradox Diet" 

While writing this story I came across this article on Medium that made me laugh about Italians eating habits and the distorted perception that most people who live in the rest of the world have about it. The author has many funny stories about her experience as an expat who moved to Italy, but she makes a point that is quite remarkable. How is it that, she asks, despite the generalized consumption of so called “forbidden” foods that are actually staples in the Italian diet, like animal fat, refined grains, sugar, and alcohol, why is it that many Mediterranean countries experience a life expectancy that is longer while the impact of earth related disease is drastically lower than say a population that relies on the typical American diet? Isn’t this a paradox? 

My personal opinion on this is probably another paradox, based on zero data other than what I see and live every day, and I have to do more with the experience of food. While it is a general opinion that part of the Italian food culture is the social aspect of it, the idea that family gatherings or dining out means not only sharing food as much as it is an exercise of sharing humanity and connections. This would represent an underlying healing factor that makes you live longer. Well, I’d like to push it a bit farther and be even more ridiculous. I think, and I am reminded of it all the time in my friends and family, that we like to eat so much that it becomes a very personal experience, a pleasure we cannot contain and goes out in the world, influencing other people’s experiences and spreading joy.  

Probably the more rational explanation, though, is that the way Italians shop for their food, set time aside to prepare it, cook it, and eat it is driven by one strong motivation: Italians love variety. You can say that we are easily bored and we like to switch it up. So while the Sunday tagliatelle with grandma’s ragù is an immovable rock of certainty, for the rest of the week, anything goes, especially vegetables. A plant-based diet or vegan diet is very easy to achieve in Italy, with the fresh produce available at an affordable price year round and with a great emphasis on seasonal produce. As for a vegetarian diet it would be even easier with the rich variety of cheese with many low fat options like ricotta, primo sale, robiola, stracchino that you can find fresh any day and cheap at the local grocery store.

f fact, extra-virgin olive oil is undoubtedly a main component in all parts of the Mediterranean. The most frequent question we have been asked is how much olive oil we consume here in Italy. I do not have an exact number but I can say that is a lot. We go through a bottle of oil in less than two months. Apparently, according to recent studies, for most Italians, it is the main source of fat. And that’s a piece of information that nobody really ever cared to know, including Italians. But it turns out that these delicious monounsaturated fatty acids we cannot get enough of have many health benefits and incredibly positive effects on a number of diseases such as coronary heart disease (CHD)/cardiovascular diseases (CVD), obesity, type-2 diabetes, cancer, asthma, and allergies. It almost looks like the Mediterranean diet is the healthiest diet in the world despite what we eat and thanks to EVOO. 

Practical Guide to Adopting the Italian Mediterranean Diet - final thoughts

I hope you didn’t take this post too seriously; it was meant to be for recreational purposes only. Food can be a very divisive subject for Italians, and somebody will always get their panties in a bunch and jump on their soap boxes, telling you that’s not the proper way, exact recipe, authentic or like their grandma would make it. The idea is to have fun and enjoy your food explorations with curiosity and an open mind. Having said that, natural wines are a disgusting abomination and should be banned. Now go forth and consume your TBSP of EVOO per day and it’ll all work out.

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