Heart Health Italian-style

Rocket SaladCiao Friends (ciao, I found out, is a greeting reserved for close friends and colleagues)! Most people are driven to Italy for the rich history within the Vatican, Basilica, Sistine Chapel for Michelangelo’s paintings, St. Peter’s Square and Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia Gallery.

Me? My two weeks in Italy was a divine immersion into the Mediterranean Diet – the food. We food treasure hunted for pasta and gelato in the Trastavere area near Piazza Santa Maria. Pizza-hunted in Rome. Rocket salad in Capri and Positano. We were never disappointed.

I’m used to wine at dinner yet it took a few days to settle into wine at lunch – and an aperitivo of Prosecco before dinner to stimulate your appetite. Wine to Italians is like Coke to Americans. Children are introduced to tastes of wine when they are very little (and spew it out with a loudly exclaimed ‘ew’), hence, there’s no issue with teenage alcoholism.

Another new idea for me was espresso. Americans drink barrels of caffe – Grande and Venti mocha lattes, for instance, yet even with strong roasts, there’s a lot of water in Americano coffee. It’s pleasant having espresso shots with steamed milk. You get a buzz and health benefit of caffe without the bathroom trips.  Espresso Macchiato

The taste of fresh, homemade, al dente pasta has no words. Portions are smaller than at home, thank goodness, because the texture of the pasta and freshness of the sauce could be addictive in large quantities. Ravioli

Pizza, while not necessarily an Italian dish, would have a tough time standing up to American-style pizza like Pizzaria Uno’s deep dish Chicago-style pizza. Italian crust is thin and light, toppings fresh with very little cheese. Polishing off half a pizza is supremely easy in Italy. With the 5-ounce glass of white wine, of course. And, the pizza is small, no weight gain.

So what’s the deal with the Mediterranean Diet? How can eating pizza and pasta and drinking wine and coffee be so danged heart healthy? It’s been touted to extend life, lead to a healthy weight, improve brain function, lower cancer risk and heart disease through lowered LDL-cholesterol and blood pressure. There are fewer symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, a crippling disease in the U.S. It’s also been shown to reduce diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

Here are some strong threads in the Mediterranean Diet tapestry that induce a loudly shouted Bravi!

  • Fresh vegetables, fruits and grains are the foundation of this eating style. They are minimally processed and grains are mostly whole grain.
  • Olive oil – rephrase that to ‘extra virgin olive oil’ (EVOO) first cold expeller-pressed – a must to retain the healthful quality of the green olive. Olives are eaten at mealtimes and foods are cooked in olive oil. Salads are liberally doused with this golden delight. Our tour guide at a Tuscan dinner told us if she saw any one of us dipping our bread into the olive oil, she would bite us. That’s because olive oil is revered for other uses. Pasta drenched in EVOO with freshly sliced basil is an entry to heaven itself. Italians are not fat phobic yet there are few obese Italians.
  • Nuts, beans, and seeds are regular participants in Italian meals. They offer healthy fats and protein in a diet where meat is an adjunct.
  • Milk, cheese and yogurt are only eaten in moderation. Restaurants, of course, offer buffalo mozzarella as an appetizer, but at home, it wouldn’t be eaten daily.
  • Italians eat dinner very late, 9-9:30pm, so are not hungry for breakfast. They grab a coffee and maybe a very small pastry, and eat lunch around 1:30pm. It’s an interesting timing for us, isn’t it, when we’ve been told not to eat after 6pm. Yet, they eat with friends and family, not alone. There’s much to be said for fellowship in creating a long and healthy life.
  • Fish and shellfish, like tuna, salmon, calamari, swordfish, mussels, clams and shrimp are rated higher than beef, pork, lamb, goat and poultry. These choices have more omega-3 fatty acids instead of saturated, heart-clogging fats.
  • Eggs are used quite often in meals in place of meat – only in the American breakfasts, however, were eggs offered.
  • Sweets, called dolce, are not a high priority, considered optional, and are enjoyed in small amounts .
  • Wine, typically 5-ounce glass at lunch and dinner is often not finished. Evening meals may end with a swallow of lemoncello or sambuca as a digestive aid. Caffe is never served after a meal – it makes you too full.
  • The Mediterranean Diet is presented in small portions. There are usually 4-5 courses at the evening meal yet no one on our trip was stuffed after the last course. Antipasto is just a small serving of crostini, thin slices of salumi and cheese, and olives. That’s followed by the primo course – bean, spelt or veggie soup or small amount of pasta. Secondo is small serving of meat, poultry or fish served with contorno, the side dishes of fresh vegetables or potatoes.
  • Activity is a daily occurrence. There is more biking and walking than riding scooters or driving cars, although scooters prevail in Rome! The amount of exercise that’s a part of their daily lives off-set their modest portions.

Incorporating more of these ideas into our own lifestyles takes a bit of effort yet once your palette has been tickled with the tastes of Rome, you just might not go back to burgers and fries. Remember, when adding olive oil to your meals, you must reduce butter and other fats (better yet, get rid of them altogether) or you’re just adding more calories and not receiving the full benefit of the olive oil. Generously pour olive oil over fresh vegetables, lettuces, tomatoes and olives. One of my faves is lightly steamed fresh green beans, drizzles of EVOO, lemon zest and a dusting of finishing salt.

Bon appetit!

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