The Mediterranean Diet: How Italians Stay Healthy with Food

Considering Italy consists of 25 million acres of farmland, it’s easy to see why fresh produce and other natural ingredients have become a staple in Italian cuisine. These whole, healthy foods have helped inspire the Mediterranean Diet.
Traditional Italian fare includes simple, fresh ingredients that yield delicious flavors. Tomato sauces use local tomatoes, olive oil is a staple in many Italian recipes, and the list of fresh ingredients continues in every regional dish.
Beyond including fresh produce in an Italian diet, how do Italians stay healthy with food? What foods can you incorporate into your diet that will help you align with an Italian eating style?

What is the Mediterranean Diet?

A Mediterranean diet focuses on consuming whole foods that are seen in typical Greek, Italian, French, and Spanish fare, such as legumes and fresh produce. A general rule of the Mediterranean diet is sticking to nutritionally rich foods. Beyond vegetables and fruit, this includes whole grains and ingredients that provide heart-healthy fats.

This diet intends to provide cuisine that is nutritious and flavorful simultaneously. While the diet is not restrictive, it features some key aspects one should follow. For example, those on a Mediterranean diet usually are active and minimize stress in daily life as much as possible.

Researchers noticed that those living along the Mediterranean Sea were particularly healthy, with many showing a low risk of chronic diseases. This revelation led to the creation of the Mediterranean diet.

What makes an Italian diet healthy?

Focusing on simple, flavorful ingredients helps curate healthy yet tasty meals. Many dishes include fresh produce because the ingredients are sourced locally and seasonally. Additionally, it’s uncommon for Italians to consume large quantities of red meat. Thus, most meals consist of produce, legumes (or fish), dairy, red wine, whole grains, olive oil, and fresh tomatoes.

Additionally, Italian meals are eaten leisurely. This slower pace of eating ensures Italians can stop consuming food when full, according to WebMD. Plus, meals are balanced intentionally between quality and quantity, so they are not too heavy.

So, even though most meals last at least a few hours, Italians are not overeating or consuming foods that will harm their health. Like the Mediterranean diet notes, remaining active is another key part of the Italian lifestyle. Staying active, eating simple and fresh foods, and focusing on quality meals tie together to help produce a healthy lifestyle for Italians.

Traditional Healthy Italian Pantry Staples

Explaining healthy Italian cuisine is made easier by introducing some of the staples of Italian fare. These ingredients are easy to incorporate into your lifestyle, helping you create a healthier diet and explore Italian cuisine simultaneously. Beyond the below list, you’ll also find many Italian kitchens stocked with canned tomatoes and an array of homemade tomato sauce options (such as marinara sauce).

Italian Pesto

Italian pesto is a creation from Liguria, with the first mention of this delicious sauce occurring in the mid-1800s. Traditional pesto consists of locally foraged ingredients, with the recipe (like many Italian dishes) changing depending on the region. The original recipe calls for fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, local garlic, Parmigiano Reggiano (parmesan cheese), pecorino cheese, pine nuts, and salt. These ingredients were ground with a mortar and pestle until a delicious green sauce appeared.

This versatile sauce is great for many recipes, such as pizza and sandwiches. However, the traditional way to use pesto is with various pasta or as an ingredient in fresh focaccia bread.

Italian Jam

Italian jams vary greatly from their USA counterparts, which are typically mass-produced. Continuing with the theme of keeping recipes simple, Italian jam typically only contains two ingredients – sugar and fruit. Due to the small ingredient list, Italian artisan jams offer a delicious, bold, fruity flavor and sweetness.

Like many Italian staples, jam is a versatile ingredient. It’s more than a breakfast spread in Italy. It’s also a way to create a delicious marinade for meat, an option for adding flavor to paninis, and a way to create delicious tarts in fewer steps.

Italian Tomato Puree

Italian tomato puree, also known as passata, is an essential ingredient for any Italian kitchen. Passata is traditionally made with Italian tomatoes (such as San Marzano tomatoes) and sea salt. It features a delicious, smooth consistency and a bold tomato flavor.

Like the above ingredients, there are many ways to use Italian tomato puree. For example, you can include this Italian sauce in lasagna or with various types of pasta, such as fettuccine. You can add tomato paste for a thicker sauce to pair with homemade pasta.

Italian Tomato Sauce

Multiple types of tomato sauce are available throughout Italy; each option is absolutely delicious. Some Italian tomato sauce includes tomatoes and salt, while other varieties include additional fresh vegetables. Rustic tomato sauce is similar to passata, though it has a chunky consistency with real pieces of tomatoes throughout the sauce.

Arrabbiata sauce (translating to angry sauce) is a spicy alternative to traditional tomato sauce. It features a sweet, spicy flavor that pairs excellently with pasta. Arrabbiata typically includes pureed dates (for sweetness), extra virgin olive oil, vegetables (carrots, celery, etc.), parsley, hot chili pepper, and salt.

The most common use for the above Italian tomato sauce is as a topping for pasta. Spaghetti, ziti, and linguine are all excellent choices for use with tomato sauce.

Like the above ingredients, there are many ways to use Italian tomato puree. For example, you can include this Italian sauce in lasagna or with various types of pasta, such as fettuccine. You can add tomato paste for a thicker sauce to pair with homemade pasta.


Italian legumes as a Source of Vegetable Proteins

Italian legumes have long been intertwined with the country’s cuisine. Initially becoming a staple of Italian fare in Roman times, consuming legumes as a source of vegetable protein has remained a popular choice throughout the country.

Many regional dishes include various legumes, such as pasta e fagioli (pasta with beans) and risi e bisi (rice and peas). These dishes include lentils, beans, peas, and more that help naturally boost the protein content of the dish. It’s also one of the primary foods consumed in the Mediterranean diet.

Italian Marinated Vegetables

Like legumes, Italian marinated vegetables are a part of the approved Mediterranean diet food list. They’re also commonly eaten in Italy alongside an aperitif (aperitivo in Italian), meant to help stimulate the appetite for the larger meal that follows.

These marinated vegetables include a variety of produce, from onions to peppers to eggplants, zucchinis, artichokes, and more. Depending on the vegetable, the produce may be grilled first before it is submerged into a marinade.

Aperitivo (Italian Happy Hour)

Part of the Italian meal culture includes enjoying an aperitivo, which is typically an alcoholic drink. Initially, vermouth was a popular aperitivo. However, the modern take on aperitivos includes wine and cocktails (depending on each person’s preference).

Aperitivos are typically compared to American happy hours, as it’s a set time when Italians gather to enjoy light bites of food and a drink or two. Aperitivo Italian happy hour generally occurs between 7 and 9 pm each night.

The drinks offered during aperitivo are typically bitter and usually only include a small amount of alcohol. This flavor pairs well with salty snacks, hence why items like Italian marinated vegetables are served during this time. Other traditional snacks include cured meats, cheeses, pasta, quiche, and pizza.

It’s important to note that while a variety of food is offered during Italian happy hour, it is not meant to replace dinner. Typically, Italians will gather during this celebration and nibble on these small plates. However, the definition of aperitivo is changing as the younger generation opts for a larger selection of small plates instead of dinner.


Finding Authentic, High-Quality Italian Products

A major part of remaining healthy in Italy is using seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. An excellent example of a supplier of high-quality foods is Orto d’Autore, located in Molise, a mountainous Italian region that resides along the Abruzzi region. Orto d’Autore is a family-run farm that grows various produce, such as legumes and tomatoes. This farm then uses the items grown in the garden to create authentic Italian sauces, including pesto, tomato sauce, and tomato puree.

More about Orto d’Autore

This company was inspired by an Ururi town tradition, where townspeople gathered annually to produce incredible tomato sauce. The D’Arienzo family is one of the local families who helped continue this tradition. One day, the wives of the D’Arienzo brothers decided to continue the tradition on a larger scale. Hence, Orto d’Autore was born.

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