Finally: The Secret To How Italians Are So Healthy (And Happy!)

Photo: @valentinahortus

Valentina Solfrini is an award-winning recipe developer and writer.  She grew up in the Italian countryside before moving to New York City to study design, where she quickly found her health reacting to the new city in a less-than-ideal way. As she says, “When you grow up in the countryside, you get privileges that you do not realize are privileges until you actually leave the countryside.” Upon returning to her Italian roots, she began feeling vibrant and well again and in her new cookbook, Naturally Vegetarian: Recipes and Stories from My Italian Family Farm, she shares some of the fresh, healthy Italian food that she nourishes herself with daily.  “With Italian cooking, it’s easy to fall into the pasta/lasagne/prosciutto stereotype,” she says. “But while it is nice to sit out in an osteria with a bowl of spaghetti and a glass of wine every now and then, most meals in Italy are homecooked and include tasty vegetables.” We reached out to Valentina to learn a few more Italian secrets to vitality and happiness that anyone can slip into their daily lives, no matter their location.   

1. Eat hyper-local.

Photo: @valentinahortus

"Italy has an incredible variety of indigenous produce and grains, which vary a lot by region and which we are in the process of rediscovering. These local varieties are often sold in their whole-grain version and usually contain little gluten," Valentia says. "Italy also has over 15,000 different kinds of indigenous produce—think: over 350 different kinds of grape varieties alone. This kind of variety gives life to many recipes involving vegetables, especially in middle and southern Italy."

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2. Seasonal food is king.

"Italy still has a strong feeling for seasonality, especially given the frequency of weekly markets and farmers markets selling organic and local produce at great prices," Valentina explains. "When something is out of season it usually comes from abroad, and I (and many other Italians) prefer not to buy it. What’s the need when we have so much to choose from? Seasonality also determines Italian rituals: There is no way Italians will make grape focaccia in months that are not August or September, or pumpkin risotto when pumpkin is out of season."

3. Don't make mealtime stressful.

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"The Italian attitude to stop and enjoy meals is a big part of our healthy eating credo," says Valentina. "On Italian islands or rural areas, some of which can only be reached by boat, local produce will always be the top (and sometimes only) choice, and junk food is more difficult to come by."

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4. Mediterranean food is the healthiest.

"In spite of the huge differences between northern and southern Italy, most people in the country eat some version of the Mediterranean diet, which is said to be one of the healthiest in the world," Valentina says. "Its abundance of healthy fats and total lack of processed foods is credited with one of the lowest incidences of cardiovascular diseases."

5. Put extra-virgin olive oil on EVERYTHING.

Photo: @valentinahortus

"The best-known element of the Mediterranean diet is extra-virgin olive oil," says Valentina. "In central and southern Italy, it is a real staple, and we go through bottles and bottles of it. In my household, no other kind of oil has ever been used. It can be used for low-heat stir-frying, dressing pretty much anything, or even for baking and sweets (it pairs especially well with chocolate and citrus). There are many varieties of olives throughout the country and each kind produces a different oil, which can be made out of a blend of varieties or from a single variety. When unheated, unfiltered, and freshly pressed, extra-virgin olive oil is at its best: It has an insane amount of antioxidants, vitamin E, and healthy monounsaturated fat. Great olive oil should cause your mouth to tingle because of all the antioxidants, to the point of feeling like very mild chili and should be murky and emerald green. EVOO is a real blessing from nature and, once you try it in its purest state on a piece of sourdough, or raw vegetables (or anything else, really), you will know what I am talking about."

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6. Ignore imported foods to inspire creativity.

"For a long time, I thought the lack of exotic foods like coconut water or mangos was a big minus for Italy, but now I realize that it is not: It is really easy to overeat even "healthy" food, or food that is labeled as healthy, when given the availability," Valentina explains. "Having less imported food teaches you to make the best of what you have and realize what you actually need and what you don’t. Italians still have a thing for getting in the kitchen and get a little more creative with flavors, even if they just end up assembling a salad."

7. Use every part of fruits and vegetables.

Photo: @valentinahortus

"I love to buy vegetables that I can use even the scraps of: I sauté beet tops in garlic and olive oil; use fennel, carrot, and celery tops to make a tasty pesto; and I roast pumpkin peels so they get crisp and chip-like," says Valentina. "This way, I get 100 percent of my money's worth. I only buy dairy products if I can get them from a local farmer. My only exception to my 100 percent local rule is avocados: I usually buy one once every week or every other week, so I couldn’t be happier that now I can find avocados from Sicily!"

8. Stick to a few great staples.

"Italy's food staples have always been rather healthful," Valentina says. "Extra-virgin olive oil is used the most and is present in every cupboard, especially in the countryside, where many people still buy local stone-pressed olive oil. Seaside areas have the advantage of getting lots of local fish, mostly mackerel and sardines, which are high in healthy fats. And, obviously, an incredible variety of vegetables, which are included in many preparations, whether fresh, preserved, pickled, cooked, or raw. Legumes are another important staple throughout the country, and recipes of legume stews and soups with vegetables are many."

9. Use tons of herbs in EVERYTHING.

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"Italian cuisine uses an array of fresh herbs: Balconies and gardens are full of parsley, walls are lined with rosemary and sage, and the Ligurian and Tirrenian rivieras abound with the most fragrant basil. And then there's thyme, marjoram, oregano…all used on a daily basis," says Valentina. "Herbs are incredibly loaded with a vast array of vitamins, minerals, and health-promoting nutrients, but are most of all helpful in flavoring foods without using too much salt, sauces, or artificial flavorings. I love to add lots of chopped herbs (or, even better, torn) to bring all my recipes up a notch."

10. Eat at the table, not on the couch.

According to a chef Valentina knows, "'every Italian meal is a chance for exchange and for building relationships.' It is very true, and I have always eaten at the table and nowhere else. Taking our time when sitting at the table, whether in a restaurant or for a dinner with family and friends, is important to the process of enjoying your meal and relaxing. Sure, life is fast and crazy, but learning to take a few minutes to actually sit for a meal is, in my opinion, a huge part of healthy eating. Eating slower also aids digestion and makes you feel full eating less food."

Want more healthy eating secrets? Check out Sarah's Melbourne secrets, or these French secrets from writer Elizabeth Bard.

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