Finally: The Secret To How Italians Are So Healthy (And Happy!)
1. Eat hyper-local.
"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."
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.
"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."
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.
"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."
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.
"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.
"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.
Liz Moody is the host of the top-rated The Liz Moody Podcast, author of bestselling books Healthier Together: Recipes for Two—Nourish Your Body, Nourish Your Relationships and Glow Pops, and a popular online content creator who has helped millions of people transform their lives.
Her new book, 100 Ways to Change Your Life: The Science of Leveling Up Health, Happiness, Relationships & Success draws from Moody’s more than a decade of experience in the health and wellness world, serving as a new kind of personal development book—one that empowers readers to craft their unique, best life based on the habits they want to form, the problems they want to solve, and the parts of their life they want to take to the next level.
A longtime journalist for publications including Vogue, Marie Claire, and goop, an online creator with a social media following of more than 1 Million, and the founder of Healthy Convo Co, a conversation game company designed to facilitate fun and life-changing conversations, Liz previously served as food director for mindbodygreen, where she led content strategy for the food section. A regular speaker, panelist, and podcast guest, Liz shares her own deeply personal anxiety journey that led her to where she is now as well as actionable, fun, and science-based ways for everyone to live their best lives.