How Italians Eat Pizza and Pasta Daily and Remain Thin
Italy – the mecca of all things carbohydrates, namely pizza and pasta. We have the Italian immigrants of the late 1800s to thank for introducing pizza and pasta to the states. When the Italian immigrants came to the United States, specifically New York, searching for jobs, they brought their culinary culture along with them. And it’s a good thing they did as you probably can’t imagine life without pizza or pasta. They’ve become integral foods of the Standard American Diet. I mean, who doesn’t love a thick crust oozing with cheese or pasta laden with a creamy sauce? From the way pizza and pasta are prepared in the states, you may wonder how Italians can eat the same foods yet remain thin. Yes, everything in moderation is the classic saying, but the answer to this question is much deeper than that. We have to understand the cultural differences between American and Italian pizza and pasta, the Italian lifestyle, and their eating and cooking habits.
American vs. Italian Pizza and Pasta
Let’s start with American vs. Italian pizza and pasta. Italian pizza has its roots in Ancient Greece where they simply ate flatbreads with oil and herbs (1). Traditional Italian pizza is made with a thin crust, pureed sauce, and minimal toppings compared to America’s pizza characterized by its thick crust, marinara sauce, mozzarella cheese, and overload of toppings. Italian cooking is driven by fresh ingredients that are in-season, so you’ll likely find a pizza with sliced tomatoes instead of marinara sauce. Since marinara sauce is processed, many times it contains more sodium and even added sugars. The more whole foods you eat, the more nutrients you get such as vitamin C and potassium from tomatoes! Italian and American pasta dishes greatly differ as well. Compared to the sauce baths we see in American pasta dishes, Italians actually don’t drench their dishes in sauce. Nor do they accompany their meals with bread – the typical bread service we receive at restaurants in the states is uncommon in Italy (2). You can get bread at restaurants in Italy, but it will show up on your bill. The main difference between Italian and American pizza and pasta is the portion size. In fact, in Italy, pasta is normally served as a course and not the main meal, limiting the amount of carbohydrates Italians consume from the pasta.
Italian Culture and Lifestyle
Now that we’ve seen how these dishes are prepared in the states vs. Italy, let’s take a look at Italian culture and their lifestyle. Because it’s not just what you eat, but how you eat it. The typical American working professional prioritizes convenience. They’re always on the go, eating in the car to save time, allocating less time for eating meals as well as spending less time cooking at home. Everything seems to be happening in the interest of time and even waiters at restaurants are trying to turn over as many tables as they can in a shift. Compare this to Italian culture where dining is very leisurely. Italians enjoy time over a meal while socializing and eating slower, which can not only reduce your total food intake but also regulate your hormonal response to food. In a study where obese adolescents ate more slowly, ghrelin was measured, and a negative correlation with meal duration was found. This means that the longer the meal, the less ghrelin in circulation (3). Ghrelin is known as the hunger hormone – higher ghrelin levels increase food intake and lower ghrelin levels result in less food intake. Additionally, study participants stopped eating once they were full. In America, the common phrase “clean-plater” encourages diners to finish their whole plate, sometimes feeding themselves long after feeling satiated. This is mainly a problem to do with portion sizes, and in Italy, portion sizes are much smaller than in America (4).
The Mediterranean Diet
Even with the occasional consumption of pizza and pasta, Italians still maintain a balanced diet, primarily the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet is characterized by the consumption of whole fruits and vegetables, nuts, beans, whole grains, healthy fats, mainly olive oil, and decreased dairy and red meat intake. You’re probably used to dipping bread in olive oil at Italian, or even American, restaurants. Even though olive oil is a healthy, monounsaturated fat, it should still be consumed at moderate levels. Made from pure, cold-pressed olives, extra virgin olive oil is of higher quality than regular olive oil and is used to add flavor to dishes; it’s not intended to be served as a pool for bread. Keeping this in mind, Italians are able to benefit from the properties of olive oil. Olive oil contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids which can increase good HDL (high density lipoprotein). The function of HDL is to transport cholesterol out of cells and clear it from circulation for excretion in the urine. In a study where cardiovascular risk subjects consumed cardioprotective foods, such as olive oil, fruits, and whole grains, the consumption of olive oil was associated with increased cholesterol efflux capacity (5). Since cholesterol efflux is the main function of HDL, this research supports the association of olive oil and increased good HDL.
Cooking at Home
Olive oil is great for cooking at home, too. Another differentiator between the Italian and American lifestyles is that Italians spend more time cooking at home. By cooking at home instead of frequently eating food from restaurants, you avoid more processed ingredients, excess sodium, fats, and sugars, and large portion sizes – you’re in charge and get to see everything that goes into your meal. Preparing one’s own meals is another way Italians stay healthy. Now that we’ve broken down the reasons why Italians can eat pizza and pasta without getting fat, I hope that you appreciate the benefits of a lifestyle consisting of fresh food, a Mediterranean Diet, consumption of indulgent foods in moderation, cooking more at home, and time well spent at the dinner table.
For healthy Mediterranean recipes, try this couscous salad or Roman-style artichokes.
Written by Megan Huff
Reviewed by Kelly Powers, MA, RDN, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who takes a holistic approach to nutrition and health. Kelly is a recipe developer with a food blog highlighting whole foods, simple recipes, and her life in San Francisco. She’s the creator of 52 Weeks, a weekly meal plan program that helps users get back in the kitchen and feed themselves well. Kelly is also a co-founder of Olivaio.
Image Credit: unsplash.com/@Ivan Torres
Frequently Asked QuestionsQ: I know cooking at home is better for my health, but I don’t have much time on my hands. What are some tips to make cooking less of a hassle?
A: Meal prepping is a great way to cook in batches on one day and have your meals ready to grab and go for the rest of the week. Check out Kelly’s 52 Weeks meal-prep program!
Q: How big is a normal portion size for pasta?
A: Most restaurants serve you a whole box’s worth of pasta which can be up to 4 serving’s worth (around 8 oz). A normal serving size is 2 oz. of uncooked pasta. Keep in mind that the size just about doubles after cooking.
Q: What’s the difference between Italian and American pasta?
A: The main differences are that Italian pastas are served in smaller portion sizes, are not drowning in sauce, meat and cheese, and they have more vegetables.