Italian food is indisputably delicious, arguably the best of all cuisines. But eating microwaved lasagna in front of your favorite sitcom re-run is hardly eating like an Italian — that's a very American habit.
While Italy is the land of pizza and pasta, it's also the healthiest country in the world, partly because of its food. Healthy fats, fresh produce and, yes, delicious pastas all help contribute to its low obesity rates. There are so many good reasons to adopt healthy Italian eating habits as your own. Here's a few easy ways to get started:
Take a moment to enjoy your coffee.
For those of us who have a cardboard cup permanently affixed to our hands, the sensation of not carrying a hot coffee while commuting may feel strange. On a recent trip to Milan, the jet lag was winning and I really craved a Starbucks. There are currently zero Starbucks locations in Italy, though the company plans to open a café in Milan come 2018. There wasn't even a Dunkin' (Italy does not run on either) to help me out, so I had to go to a café and drink a shot of espresso out of a tiny mug while associating with other humans.
While American coffee culture has led us to apps where we can order sugary foamy drinks before we even get to the drive-thru, Italian coffee culture is more about relaxing and actually enjoying your coffee, even if it's just a few minutes for a quick-sipping espresso at a proper coffee bar in the morning. Italians' days are defined by coffee drinking, so consider syncing your schedule with optimized coffee breaks and chats over espresso throughout the day. Research has shown that drinking coffee can help reduce stress, improve memory and boost mood, so stop shuffling between errands with a hot tumbler in hand and just enjoy a few moments with a mug as you sip up a less stressful life.
Know that pasta can be an everyday occurrence.
If you're eating pasta only once a week, you're doing it wrong. According to survey data by YouGov and Bertolli, 90% of Italians eat pasta multiple times a week, while only 23% of Americans eat pasta more than once a week. Better yet, about 25% of Italians eat pasta every day, while only 2% of Americans fessed up to eating pasta daily. Even so, Italians aren't shoving boatloads of pasta into their mouths on the reg, which may help explain their lower rates of obesity.
The key to a daily pasta dose may be in the portion size: Italians adhere to a 100 gram (3.5 ounce) pasta serving (that's 4.5 servings per package, if you're buying a 1-pound box). Pasta is often the first course during larger meals rather than the main, meaning a mountain of spaghetti isn't fueling Italian diners but preparing their palates for protein.
In Italy, millennials are the leaders in pasta consumption, with 32% of Italian millennials eating pasta daily compared to just 4% of American millennials. We can all do better.
Go for bigger meals at lunchtime and smaller ones at dinner.
Italians who traditionally work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. typically break for lunch from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. as a tasty part of an average 36-hour work week. These breaks are beneficial: Studies show that taking a break can actually improve productivity, and that's not including the creativity a nice plate of baked ziti might evoke when you slip away from the office for a 90-minute retreat. Research has also found it can be better to eat more earlier in the day and less at night — you need more calories while you're active, not sleeping — so a long lunch not only benefits your personal schedule but also your overall health and sleep cycle.
Make it family-style.
You'll want to embrace this Italian custom if you're the kind of dinner mate who always suggests splitting several menu items. According to YouGov survey data, 70% of Italians eat family-style, while only 31% of Americans regularly practice communal dinning. Sharing means you can order both the lasagna and the spaghetti puttanesca — and maybe even the penne arrabbiata — and get to enjoy them all versus being stuck with a single pasta dish. Plus, the tradition could boost your well-being: Studies show prioritizing social relationships may help your mental health, morbidity and mortality, while eating with others may make you more altruistic.
Equate eating with leisure.
Just 42% of Americans think eating is a legitimate way to relax, while 57% of Italians believe it to be a leisure activity. Why not think of eating as meditation for your mouth and stomach, or at least a calming activity that's meant to be enjoyed? Studies show that eating more slowly may make you feel full and satiate you faster, meaning you'll need a smaller portion to obtain just as much enjoyment from your meal — all while ensuring you're not shoveling an unhealthy quantity of chicken parmesan in your mouth in the first five minutes of that Friends re-run.
If you're not into socializing over every meal, consider adapting mindful eating practices — think focusing on chewing and enjoying your mouth full of food before pushing more on your fork instead of simultaneously chowing down and reloading — which will also help your mind and stomach unite during your meal.
Embrace the Mediterranean diet.
You probably already know the Mediterranean diet is known as the healthiest in the world, so why are you wasting time on sub-par burgers and hot dogs when you can embrace a much more delicious, life-extending meal? The diet native to southern Italy is high in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and olive oil, and contains moderate levels of fermented dairy products, fish, poultry and wine and just a small amount of red meat. In other words, we see a lot of spaghetti with clam sauce in your future.
Choose olive oil.
An essential part of any Italian dinner table, olive oil is rife with flavor and health benefits. Consuming olive oil — which is high in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids — is believed to lower your risk of depression and osteoporosis and protect your brain tissue against Alzheimer's.
Free yourself from strange ingredients.
You may find anchovies as foreign as Italians find neon-yellow cheese powder, but eating like an Italian means eating more real, whole foods and leaving the preservatives, additives and all-around fake foods behind. In fact, nitrates, aspartame, MSG and high-end molecular gastronomy ingredients — think dry ice or liquid nitrogen — are banned from Italian restaurants. You can bet that when there's a flurry of fresh pasta, produce and fish around, Italians aren't microwaving a can of Chef Boyardee for dinner.