Italian meals are commonly associated with gluttony: Large, heaping bowls of spaghetti and meatballs, giant pizzas topped with everything but the kitchen sink, and trays full of gargantuan lasagna portions. But, miraculously, even after all of that pasta, Italians are healthier than Americans.
Approximately 21 percent of Italians are obese, according to the World Health Organization. That may sound alarming, but it’s peanuts compared with the United States’ staggering 33 percent. Italy even beats out the United Kingdom (26.9 percent) and France (23.8 percent).
Why is Italy’s obesity rate one of the lowest in Western Europe? The answer lies in the culture surrounding the popular Mediterranean diet. We spoke with Valentina Cecconi, head nutritionist for Buitoni Pasta, in the Italian food company’s very own pasta kitchen nestled in the heart of Tuscany at the Casa Buitoni.
Italians eat very differently from health-conscious Americans. Whereas much of the Western world swears by high-protein and low-carb diets like paleo and Raw30, Italians eat pasta every day and get much of their energy from complex carbs and heavy starches like bread and pasta. In a healthy diet, Cecconi suggests, just more than half of your daily calories would come from carbs like pasta and bread. Unsaturated fats like olive oil and fish should take up 30 percent. The rest of your diet should come from meats and cheeses, a fairly small percentage.
“Glucose is the main source of energy for our muscles, tissues and brain,” Cecconi said. “High-protein diets have low carb intake, which means that the level of glucose in the blood stream is low. When you’re on a diet you want to burn fat. If you are on a high-protein, low-carb diet, you’ll end up losing weight, but after a few weeks you need to go back to regular Mediterranean diet to balance out your system.”