When I traveled to Italy in 2019, I found out that a healthy lifestyle is very much a part of what makes up la dolce vita (the sweet life) in the Italian culture. My trip spanned 11 days, starting out in Venice and ending in Capri, and it included the best food (quite literally) that I have ever eaten: gelato, Caprese salad, fresh lobster and clams, San Marzano tomatoes, cacio e pepe, 30 year aged balsamic vinegar from a family-owned balsamic vinegar factory, I mean, I could go on and on..but I think you get the picture.
Aside from eating delicious food, some of my favorite things about travel are: immersing myself in another culture, watching how different people prepare food, learning another language (or trying to, at least), and speaking to locals. The Italian culture is so enthralling and beautiful, that it’s one place I could totally see myself relocating to if the circumstances were right.
Traveling to Italy gave me a different perspective on life and what it truly means to live a healthy lifestyle.
Before traveling there, I could never understand how the majority of Italians (living in the land of pizza and pasta) managed to maintain a healthy weight and live such vibrant lives. After traveling there and observing their culture first hand, I now have some insight into just why that is.
Not only do the Italians live longer than Americans, but they also tend to have a better, healthier quality of life even into their older years. Italy has the 7th highest life expectancy in the world, while the Unites States ranks 49th. In Italy, people can expect to have about 72 years of full health before disease or disability sets it, while Americans can only expect to have about 66 years of full health. So what is it about the Italian lifestyle that not only makes it so sweet but also helps to keep Italians healthy for a longer amount of time?
These are the healthy lifestyle lessons that I took away from those 11 glorious days in Italia:
1) Quality & quantity are key.
What Italians eat is very different than what you may find in an Italian American restaurant. They don’t have deep-dish pizza swimming in grease, or huge pasta portions drowning in alfredo sauce. Most of the food they consume consists of locally sourced, fresh, seasonal, whole foods. There aren’t too many processed foods or additives in their diet, and most of what they eat is made from scratch. Because the quality of what they eat is so good, their recipes tend to be simple – they don’t overcomplicate food. Typical Italian meals consist of multiple courses – Antipasti (appetizer), Primi (typically pasta or risotto), Secondi (meat or seafood), and Contorni (vegetables served with the meat or seafood). While this may sound like a LOT of food, the portions are small, and they stop eating when they’re full. Italians eat a little of each course, which means they’re consuming a well-balanced variety of foods with many different nutrients.
2) Take time to relax, be more easygoing, and have a positive outlook on life.
Italians have a slower pace of life and know how to live in the moment. You won’t see Italians rushing down the street with a to-go coffee and their breakfast flailing in their hands. First, they don’t do to-go coffee – espresso is meant to be leisurely sipped at the espresso bar (yes, even during the workweek), they only eat at the table, and they don’t rush anywhere. They take a siesta in the afternoon, they spend time enjoying themselves, and they find pleasure in the small things in life. Simply put – they are just not as stressed out and frazzled as Americans.
3) Don’t diet.
You won’t find any low-fat, non-fat, sugar-free, or low-carb diet foods anywhere in Italy. Italians just eat well and enjoy occasional treats in moderation. When I say ‘eat well’, I mean their meals are full of vegetables, fruits, fish, beans, whole grains, and olive oil. They take time to leisurely enjoy their meals, and socialize and relax while doing so. When they have a treat (say, some gelato or tiramisu), they have a small portion, truly enjoy it, and don’t feel guilty or stress about it. They don’t go on fad diets, they just move on with their lives, and the next day they keep eating their healthy, balanced diet (with that occasional treat).
4) Spend more time socializing, interacting, and spending quality time with others.
Italians really value famiglia (family) and friends, and it’s very common for the entire family to come together for Sunday dinner. They also like to gather in town at different areas like piazzas (town squares) and outdoor mercatos (markets) and socialize with other locals. Being socially connected to others has a positive impact on our mental and physical health. Studies have shown that being more social can help to boost your mood, ward off depression, increase your cognitive function, and sharpen your memory.
5) Walk more & don’t overcomplicate exercise.
The majority of Italians walk everywhere, and it’s just a part of their everyday life. They walk to get to work and to do errands, but they also walk for pleasure. They walk to piazzas (town squares), throughout the beautiful streets, and most evenings in Italy include a passeggiata (a leisurely walk or stroll) before and after dinner. Studies have shown that walking has been associated with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer. A lot of people in Italy don’t go to the gym, lift weights, or run marathons (or even 5 Ks) – they simply just walk. They don’t overcomplicate exercise (or even think about it much for that matter), it’s just incorporated into their everyday lives. I know many of our environments here in the States don’t allow us to walk everywhere, but there are ways we can still incorporate more movement into our lives. Try to take a few small (say, 10 minute) walks throughout the day, park farther away from the entrance when you drive somewhere, take the stairs instead of the elevator, and get up from your desk every hour to move around a few minutes. Those steps will start to add up in no time!
If you like this post, check out my recipe for Caprese Salad (one of the delicious foods I ate in Italy).