Before moving to Italy, I always thought a big downside of leaving the UK was that I could kiss goodbye to my size 1o figure; with the pizza, the pasta, the wine and daily trips to the gelateria, gaining weight seemed inevitable. During my first month in Italy, I did put on some weight from gorging on all the amazing food on offer, but then something quite unexpected happened, my weight gradually started to go down until it eventually plateaued at about half a stone less than when I arrived! For some time I couldn't work it out but then I started to reflect on the Italian diet. Italy has the second lowest obesity rate in Europe after Romania at just 9.3%, whereas, in the UK, obesity is currently at 23.9%. Yes, there is a lot of wonderful food in Italy, some of it rather carb-heavy to say the least but is it really any worse than what I’d been eating back in the UK? And had my change in lifestyle affected my eating habits? After giving it some thought I came up with 10 reasons why I think Italians manage to eat so well and yet stay so slim, so here they are…
1. They eat at lunch
A lot of Italians, including my boyfriend’s family, eat their main meal at lunchtime meaning that they have all day to burn off the energy. Having a substantial meal early on in the day also reduces the temptation to snack, so come 4 pm I no longer fight to resist having a sneaky biscuit (or 5) with my afternoon tea.
2. They have primo and secondo
The format of primo and secondo means that Italians first eat a small amount of carbohydrates (the primo) and then fill up on meat and vegetables (the secondo), ensuring that their diet is balanced. The pause between courses also gives you more time to register that you’re full meaning that you don’t overdo it and then regret it 10 minutes later when you’re feel like you've eaten the Christmas turkey!
3. They eat less butter
Italians don’t butter their bread nor use butter for cooking anywhere near as often as us Brits. It may seem like a small change but over an extended period of time it could really make a difference. Saying that, I still haven’t quite come to terms with the idea of an un-buttered sandwich!
4. They have less of a sweet tooth
For a country that’s in love with food Italians certainly seem to lose their mojo a little when it comes to desserts. Puddings are rarely served at home and the selection of traditional Italian desserts is extremely limited when compared to Italy’s extensive savoury repertoire. Tiramisu and panna cotta are great but when that’s about all that’s on offer, it gets easier to say no after a while!
5. They eat less processed foods
Probably the most fundamental point of all is that Italians make most of their food from scratch. The ready-meal aisle of the supermarket quite simply doesn't exist in Italy; after all, what could be quicker to cook up for dinner than a bowl of spaghetti? I showed the Dolmio microwavable pasta advert to my Italian friends and they thought it was a joke!
6. They have a healthier attitude to food
Fad dieting is nowhere near as big in Italy as it is in the UK. Rather than binging and dieting, a constant and moderate diet is favoured by most. When I suggested cutting out carbs to my boyfriend his reaction was, ‘but a carb-free diet makes people grumpy’. I guess he had a point…!
7. They don't drink as much
Another hugely influential factor has got to be the booze. Italians generally don’t drink outside of meals and, when they do, they only have one or two. There is still quite a stigma attached to heavy drinking in Italy, especially for women, so whilst for Brits having a few too many and staggering home at the end of the night might be funny, for Italians it’s probably an embarrassing story that they’d rather keep to themselves. The size of a glass of wine in Italy is also much smaller, to the extent that my Mum once thought the glass our waiter had poured her was just a taster!
8. They have a warmer climate
Cold weather undoubtedly plays a part in increasing appetite so when the summer in Italy lasts for so much longer and the temperature is so much hotter it’s no wonder they don’t eat as much. As lovely and refreshing as a rocket salad is, I’m not sure it’s ever going to cut it for dinner during a British winter!
9. They have to get their bodies out in public
On a related topic, the fact that, for 3 months a year, Italians regularly go to the beach with friends and family is a huge motivation to keep an eye on their weight. In the UK we can quite happily stuff our faces knowing that, with the help of some loose clothing, our friends and neighbours will never see the effects on our body (thank goodness)!
10. The bella figura
Italians place a huge amount of importance on appearance and are a nation that celebrates beauty. With fashion brands such as Gucci, Prada and Dolce and Gabanna at the heart of Italian style, maintaining a slim figure is all part of the Italian bella figura. For us Brits, appearance, although important, does not define a person in the same way as it does for Italians. So although of course it’s nice to be slim, maybe we should celebrate the fact that in the UK, it’s OK to indulge in that third glass of wine, to order the jumbo fish and chips or to have an extra biscuit with your cup of tea… after all, you only live once!