The Case for Carbs: Why Italians Get to Eat + Still Stay Slender

The cobblestone streets were illuminated by the warm glow of candlelight and brick ovens. Slender shadows danced along the window fronts as hypnotic hints of garlic, semolina and fresh basil danced through the aromatic air. 

This was my 9th night in Italy. I could feel the nostalgia creeping in already as my throat tightened in sadness. I tried to avoid the reality that this was my last night in the most beautiful, enchanting country I've ever experienced. 

There's so much to learn from Italians. History, breathtaking backdrops, a simple way of life, and oh, the food. The word eating does not quite capture what is actually occurring when these home-cooked meals are mingling with your tastebuds.

And yet, as I looked around, I couldn't help but wonder how all these Italians didn't weigh 300 lbs. Especially since eating isn't just a life-sustaining necessity for Italians, it's a religion. Work, worship and play is wedged between the hours spent sipping and snacking.

So why is it then that Americans are so overweight, overstressed and have a life expectancy 10 years shy of Italians? This question popped into my mind often as I indulged in not 3, but 6 or 7 meals each day. 

My breakfast consisted of sugary sweets. A behavior I would avoid at home, just like I'd avoid sitting bare bottom on a public toilet seat. I'd wash it down with coffee, which I never drank, and I'd more than willingly inhale all the secondhand smoke of passing cigars, which is something I very passionately abhor when I'm stateside. Since sugary sweets don't satiate your hunger very long, I'd move on to my second breakfast - a pillowy panini filled with thinly sliced prosciutto and sharp, pungent provolone cheese that was likely aging in someone's basement since the time of Caesar. 

We'd walk, snap photos, people watch. I'd run my fingertips along the dilapidated doors and smooth, time-worn stone. And before long, I was hungry once more.

First lunch was often a pasta dish adorned with fresh caught crustaceans, washed down with white wine, prosecco and desserts. A snack slice of tomato pie to help hold off until dinner. Then we'd dine on more pasta, bread, fresh fish and pastry.

And still, the scale would not tip. In fact, to my surprise, it dipped.

Here is what I learned about the dining habits of Italians and how they stay so slim: the key is fresh ingredients, no preservatives, very light sauces, no condiments, little stress and walking wherever you go. I'm pretty sure I passed a 3,000 year old man as we climbed the sloping steps of Sorrento. Fresh food + physical activity + low-stress = longevity. This may sound like a lot of things to limit, but really it's a way simpler form of living. 

Americans have demonized gluten and grains. Most of the pastas, pizzas and desserts we reach for in the States are loaded with preservatives to extend the shelf life of products, resulting in bloated and inflammation-filled consumers. Bread is not the problem, preservatives and portion sizes are. Enjoying whole, natural ingredients is healthy. Additive-filled foods are not.

So my suggestion for the next time you're craving pizza or pasta? Do as the Italians do - make it fresh. The dough part can be a little time consuming, but if you make enough for a later date it freezes well. Limit your cheesy toppings, opt for sliced tomatoes instead of sugary sauces and skip the spicy sausages and pepperoni, as many American meats are preservative-rich and a leading cause of stomach cancer, high-blood pressure and weight gain (sorry!). Meaty vegetables like zucchini and eggplant make for nice alternatives. 

Mangia!

A few photos from my time in Italia

 frutti di mare

frutti di mare

 quite possibly the best pizza on earth

quite possibly the best pizza on earth

 a daily stop to see 'The Panini Lady'

a daily stop to see 'The Panini Lady'