After spending 2.5 weeks here in Italy, I can happily say that for a girl who never wanted to escort a man to an Italian restaurant in Australia given the meals never seemed that appealing, Italian food is delicious!

Amazing first dinner in Milan

I had been warned, and proven correctly it seems, that the way the Italians make their food is very different to the westernised version you find in Australia, and a lot of American venues too.

Great tasting and well presented seafood was everywhere in Italy

Fresh fish, seafood and vegetables are everywhere on the menu, pizzas are thin and topped with only a small amount of cheese, pasta dishes are served in entree sizes (in America this is the appetiser), and the general trend is to use whole foods rather than packaged.

Amazing grilled seafood was everywhere!

Fast food venues are definitely not seen on every street corner, with local cuisine constantly being the main feature on the menus, and street vendors supplying fresh fruit and nuts at all times.

Fresh food stocked on food carts around Italian cities

There were a few key cultural practices that I picked up on that may be worth noting that are likely to help with weight management:

1. Water, tea and other beverages are always served prior to your meal coming out (I know this sometimes takes place in other countries, but here, it is always the case). Coffee is not served until the end of your meal (unless you ask for it earlier), and coffee is not traditionally served with milk following breakfast time, it is black for the rest of the day.

Iced coffee- served black with a tiny bit of foam at the top unless asked for otherwise after our meal in Italy (notice the touch of class putting it in a cocktail glass!)

Amazing salads (arugula was everywhere in Rome!)

2. Salads (even salads ordered as a side dish) are always served prior to your main course coming out.

3.Salads do not come dressed- you never receive a salad drenched in additional calories/kilojoules, every single time, the balsamic vinegar and olive oil are placed on your table, and you are left to add the healthy fats and glycemic lowering vinegar to your meal.

Balsamic vinegar and olive oil placed in the centre of the table whenever you order a salad so that you can dress it yourself in Italy

3. Portion sizes of heavier dishes such as veal, pasta, lasagne etc. are always served in entree/appetiser serve sizes.

Healthy and appropriate serve size of lasagne for lunch in Milan, Italy

4. Siestas are taken somewhere between 1.30pm and 4.30pm, meaning people are well rested and lunch is a long and slow meal (I am guessing for some, their main meal of the day, with dinner being a much smaller lighter meal).

Amazing grilled fish and huge salads that come undressed for you to make up yourself to your liking!

5. Whole natural ingredients are promoted everywhere. Even at the ice cream shops you see them advertising the use of whole milk, natural cream and no preservatives.

Zero sugar and zero fat gelato being promoted (this was a one off though!)

6. Packaged foods are kept to a minimum- the supermarket is not stocked with pre-packaged meals, they seem to sell products that can be used in cooking in conjunction with other whole foods.

Wholefoods offered inside a supermarket

7. Meals do not come out drenched in thick sauces and lots of additional calories. I found that everything is lightly dressed and even dishes that I would usually read off a menu and potentially avoid because they would be so heavily creamed in other countries, proved safe to order, with meals coming out quite light and fresh.

Creamy yoghurt sesame chicken with salad in Rome, Italy

8. Diet products are hardly anywhere to be seen. The Zone diet was the most heavily promoted in the pharmacies, and I am guessing this may be the case as it may seem unheard of for an Italian to be on a completely low carb diet which often features heavily in other countries. I did manage to track down an Italian brand of protein/weight management bars in Rome which nutritionally appeared quite good in my eyes, being high in protein and fibre and relatively low in calories from a brand ProAction.

Diet products sold at the pharmacy and no where else really- zones diet is the most popular here it appears

Lots of Zone diet products available in pharmacies in Italy. You don’t find many ‘health food’ or supplement stores around the cities.

The main negative in the food supply I picked up on was the extensive promotion of products as ‘sugar free’ or ‘no added sugar’ that were all made from refined carbohydrates e.g. biscuits, cakes, crackers etc. These would still have had a high glycemic load and high glycemic index. I think this is quite misleading and it was apparent across a range of brands, that were all heavily packaged with marketing claims.

No added sugar products that are made from refined high glycemic index carbohydrates- not so healthy, yet being marketed that way!

More ‘no added sugar’ cookies made from refined white flour in Italy

I also found that there were many times that I found parts of my meal to taste quite salty. The breads they served with your meal, the flavouring on the seafood and fish, and the cooked boiled vegetables, did sometimes taste so salty that I (and my family) had to put down the food item from a lack of desire to finish it. I guess with salt, once peoples taste buds come to expect that higher level (of salty flavour), all the restaurants have to keep cooking with that same level or the customers may not be happy, thinking their meals taste bland.

All in all, I think the main take on the Italian food supply was that they really did focus on sticking with the cuisine that they know best, their local specialities, and using fresh ingredients rather than packaged foods to keep them full.

I made it to an Italian market in Rome city centre- lots of fresh herbs, olive oils, balsamic vinaigrettes, nuts, vegetables and pastas

From my understanding diabetes incidence has been creeping up here, and I did find that the provision of white breads over whole grains appeared to be the case at all times. I think the glycemic load would be quite large for those selecting pastas, pizzas, foccacias and gelatos as their staples, however given there really are enough fresh healthy food options readily available (that are insanely tasty), I don’t really see why the population doesn’t just stick with these options!

My HUGE plate- predominantly vegetables, plus some thinly sliced beef, chicken salad, baked eggplant with tomato, and a quiche..the plate was demolished (with a side of mineral water)

One interesting experience I had was at a cafe I went to for a lunch meal, they had a buffet that you could select any dishes from and they would serve the food for you and make up one plate with your selections. It was amazing that the tourists were provided with a larger (and I mean huge) dinner plate, whilst the locals were allowed to order on a smaller plate (more appetiser style size).

When I asked whether I could have the smaller plate, they said unfortunately no! My mouth dropped..that was one sure way of assisting travellers in gaining weight whilst on holidays I  thought..I was not so impressed!

Oh well, I made do and simply ordered more and the waitress even had a laugh in the end together about how I somehow managed to still top my plate up completely and consume everything that was on it (sometimes its about composition of the foods your eating rather than simply the volume!).

So there you have it, Italy food in a nutshell!

Fresh hot nuts being roasted in Rome on the side of a main street

Hopefully that will leave some of you health enthusiasts a little more confident about the food situation over here should you wish to travel to this beautiful part of the world.

Off to Finland tomorrow…yey!

For now,

The Travelling Dietitian x

About The Author

Kara Landau aka "Travelling Dietitian" is an Australian Accredited Practicing Dietitian based in New York City. She is a world explorer, healthy foodie, social butterfly, and barre class lover. When she isn't trying new cuisines, researching new product innovations in the health food space, or speaking to the media on behalf of her food industry clients, she can be found quietly conjuring up her next idea in how to make this world a healthier and better place.

2 Responses

  1. Nourish.Surf.Exert.

    Hello ! Just Want to say I love your blog ! When I travelled America i constantly was searching for healthy foods ! It’s just so interesting to me! I always wanted to study nutrition but decided on doing p.e teaching . Thinking of doing a post grad !
    I always thought about travelling tend searching for the best of the best in nutritionally sound food…

    • Travelling Dietitian

      Thanks Brooke, thats so kind of you to say! Glad you are enjoying reading the posts 🙂 Studying nutrition will be very rewarding if you have a passion for the area. Travel and food tend to be very popular and enjoyable ways to spend ones time, I’m sure you would have a ball if you set out on a similar personal mission! Stay in touch, Kara 🙂

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