Culture, Italian Food, Life in Italy

Why are Italians so thin when they eat PASTA every day: Italy thin, America fat.

Since before I ever moved to Italy I always knew that I would run into some serious girl competition, but I never realized it would be against older women! Let me tell you, Italian women have it together when it comes to their weight, and from what I’ve seen they don’t even try. For a long time I was so confused on how they stay so thin and why many American women are overweight. It can’t possibly be just from walking more I thought to myself. Don’t Italian women have hormone changes that affect their weight, busy schedules, or depression that make them gain a few extra pounds? I used to be very confused, but now it is all very clear.  There are SEVERAL reasons they are thinner, it is not just in their genes to be beautiful Roman women with goddess looks and locks to kill. I’m going to break down my epiphany into headings so it’s easier on the eyes.

Food: what they eat, when they eat it, how long they eat it…hence it’s important 

Yes it’s in the food. As I mentioned before, I used to live with my in-laws for 7 months before I got married. I would follow Fabio’s mom around the kitchen every day and take mental notes on how she prepared food. I slowly started to realize that Italian cooks choose to miss or just miss some main, staple, American ingredients: mayonnaise, cream, salad dressings, pre-packaged seasonings, pre-made dinners, many canned goods, and butter. This was my number one observation. They cook without these things very often. When I would look through my recipe book and make something American I realized that it always contained mayonnaise, canned something, and butter! Well guess what, preservatives are in cans, and packaged seasonings, and those make you gain weight. If it preserves the food you better believe it will preserve you. Since I realized the pre-packaged seasoning thing I stopped using them and decided to just use fresh spices and combine them. Instead of using butter I use olive oil for everything. Instead of using canned things I just deal with the fact that I have to eat vegetables that are in season.

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Eating vegetables in season has benefits. If it’s in season this means you can buy your veggies from the market and it will most likely be organic. In Italian supermarkets you will have dry periods with certain vegetables and fruits missing because they sell what is in season. This is highly annoying but it also makes sense.  One benefit Italians have is that everything they eat is organic. They are not a mass producing country and most of their veggies and fruits come from their own farms. One exception to this is tropical fruit like avacados and mangos which I’ve seen come from Peru. Eating organic is just natural. Thank God it’s affordable in Italy, in America it is not.

It’s not just what you eat, it’s how you eat

One cultural thing about Italy is that Italians value family life and food so much that the whole country shuts down from 1-5 just to eat and relax. Of course there are exceptions to everything, but this is the bigger picture I’ve seen since here. Because they have so much time for lunch it allows them to eat at home, and actually cook a good meal instead of eating out or having fast food and eating it so fast. Fabio’s mother takes about 40 minutes to make lunch everyday which is always a pasta dish, meat, a side, and coffee afterwards. Her pasta dishes usually have an oil based sauce or a tomato sauce. She does sometimes make a sauce using cream, such as tuna sauce with speck or carbonara. The good thing about the oil and tomato based sauces is that it really isn’t that heavy. The cream is what makes pasta dishes heavy if you cook with cream.  Her meats are usually grilled or cooked in the oven, rarely fried and never made into a casserole with cream. The other trick Italians have with pasta is that they eat it for lunch, rarely for dinner. Pasta gives them the fuel they need for the day (because the coffee doesn’t hack it in my opinion). For dinner they usually eat a lighter meal than lunch. In America we do the opposite! We eat a sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner! Even though we eat at an earlier time in the States, we usually don’t do much to burn off our dinner after we eat it…so there is the problem. Anyways, during this four hour lunch break people can relax and actually enjoy their food by eating at a normal pace not being rushed. On my last visit home to the States I noticed that there was no real eating schedule. Some days we had a lot for lunch and then some days we skipped lunch altogether based around our busy schedules! Some nights we had dinner at 6:30, other nights at 9! Our bodies deserve consistency and not having it probably throws off hormones and most certainly metabolism.

They aren’t known for being organized people, but they have a serious order to eating

I was criticized once because I drank coffee at a restaurant while waiting for my meal to come. I drank coffee because I was so tired and needed to wake up! What happened was I ended up eating nothing really because I was so full from the coffee (and the cream). My husband told me he thought it was strange that Americans would have cocktails with their meals and coffee before the meal. I had never really thought about it! Since living in Italy though, I’ve started to notice an order to eating and drinking. The order of eating is

1. pasta

2. meat

3. salad

            4. fruit and nuts

              5. digestive drink

                     6. coffee with dessert

I’m still not really sure why they eat their salad after their main meal, but they do. I thought it was crazy when someone asked me after my meal if I wanted any fruit. I was like “why would I want fruit when I’ve just eaten enough for a week?” Anyhow, this is their food order. They will drink wine or beer with their meals because it enhances the flavor of food, but never cocktails and certainly not coffee!

What else makes Italians thinner than the average American?

I noticed at the gym that the majority of women did not have the same routine that I did: running, weights, a mixed agenda given to me by the owner. Instead most of them gravitated toward the classes which I felt did absolutely nothing but warm me up. However, the women doing these classes were pretty fit. I occasionally saw women jogging, speed walking, plus taking the class, but many did not partake in my variety workout unless they were younger. This made me come to the conclusion that a lot of fitness had to do with their eating and cultural lifestyle. Italians do indulge in sweets, don’t get me wrong! However, the sweets they eat are no where near our super sweets like snickers bars, moose tracks ice cream, cakes stuffed with caramel + oreo cookies + pre-made frostings overloaded with sugar. Their sweets are always pastry-like, their cakes are filled with creams, not frostings. This does make a difference. They also indulge in a variety of beverages like sodas and alcohol. But there is a difference in that as well. In Italy people drink 8 oz. beverages everywhere, even at home. You will never see a restaurant give someone a 32 oz. glass of sweet tea (or 16 oz.) or a grande latte. Also when it comes to Alcohol Italians consume so much less than the average American. There are two things about this that I want to say. First, I would say that beer is more common than wine in the US for all types of occasions just because it’s cheaper and more casual. Beer however has many more calories than wine and most Americans drink lots of beer often. Wine in Italy is more common contrarily, I would say that Italians drink more wine than beer for all types of occasions like dinner, holidays, celebrations (except soccer) just because it’s plentiful and such a huge part of their culture.  Second, Italians in general don’t drink like Americans. That’s the number one cultural bashing thing people say about Americans, is how much we drink. At a bar you can see people drinking beer after beer after beer, or shot or drink, in Italy people are generally more conservative in that area. So, they consume much less in what they drink.

Another main drinking difference is in their coffee. As most people probably know Italians drink espresso. Espresso is consumed with sugar and that’s it. Did you notice there is no cream here? American coffee has sugar plus cream. If you drink 3 coffees a day you’re drinking 3x the cream that an Italian doesn’t drink. Let’s say you put 1 oz. of cream in each cup, that is 21 oz. (2 cups) of cream a week. Over a year that is 1,092 oz. (8.5 gallons) of cream just from your coffee. That’s pretty gross if you think about it.

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They also walk more and lead a less stressful life which has been proven to decrease weight gain. This helps them maintain their weight I guess. Because of their work schedules they are allowed to eat at home, not rushed, no stress. They can relax and be rejuvenated. They walk more because cities in Italy are built for people to walk around without needing a car.

The Review

 So my main observations on why Italians are generally much thinner than Americans are: totally different ways of preparing food, eating fresh foods, eating organic foods, taking time to eat healthier at home, eating at a slower pace, eating and drinking in a logical order, drinking less amounts of everything, eating less sugary unnatural desserts, walking more, and having a balanced life/work schedule leading to a less stressful life. If I moved back to America I know that I would never be able to eat organic foods because of the cost. However, I would stick to the other things that they do such as: using oil based salad dressings made freshly from home, staying away from pre-packaged anything and instead making it myself from scratch (b/c it’s cost effective and healthier), cooking for myself always, balancing my life, eating less cream and butter, consuming less in beverages unless it’s water, and staying away from sugar loaded sweets.

Hope everyone is as enlightened as I was when I figured out their secrets.

If you’re interested in transitioning to Espresso either for weight control or caffeine control I would recommend the Traditional Mocha Coffee Maker used by every old-fashioned Italian household. In fact the Bialetti “Mocha” as Italians call the machine is readily available in the US and is an authentic product from Italy. One cup of espresso has 3x less caffeine than a traditional cup of coffee. Start today and change your life.

Want to see what I’m up to now? Check out one of my latest posts here.

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47 thoughts on “Why are Italians so thin when they eat PASTA every day: Italy thin, America fat.”

  1. Jess, great observations! I’ll add this observation though, not everyone can do all the pasta. I for example realized that a carb heavy diet attributes to my depression. I’m a lean protein veggie kinda girl and I always found it difficult to find great meat in Italy (though it’s easier in Northern Italy). Miss ya’ girl – hope all is well!

  2. Grace , vegetables are carbs
    your diet should be high in carbs , 55 to 60 percent . Italians and Asians have high carb diet , pasta ,bread, rice, vegetables and fruit , all high in carbs.

  3. Hey Jess,

    Writing good, normally i always read half of many article because they were boring, but your i keep my eyes open not to miss out. Keep posting.
    And happy married life if somehow i landed to italy I will like to eat make by you.

  4. I really enjoyed this enlightening post. My husband and I would have discussed the possibility of moving to Italy one day. Your post gave me more incentive! Thanks

  5. Just came back from Italy and immediately googled why Italians are thin? Perhaps I should create a website that links English/Americans with Italians as food coaches? Crazy idea but perhaps it would work.
    Many thanks for the post 🙂

  6. Very nice article but… Where do you live? I mean, I’m italian, I live in Trento and there is no way that we are free until 5 p.m.! The lunch break is usually between 12 a.m and 3 p.m.! 🙂
    But really nice arguments! My non italian friend always ask me why I’m do thin since I always eat like a pig 😀

    1. Hi Martina, I live in Puglia, south of Lecce, so you can’t get any more southern than that! I’m glad to know that in other areas of Italy the breaks are less 🙂 I knew that in big cities it’s very different, as well as in the North, but here it’s a 4 hour stretch, and sometimes the stores don’t open until 5:30 even (as well as one week day things are usually closed, and Sunday obviously).

  7. Thank you so much for writing this! I have wondered about it for a few years now after traveling in Italy and being amazed at how fit everyone looked. I finally just googled it and came to your blog. I will try to incorporate some of this into my life. Wonderful read!

  8. I don’t think cream is the enemy. You forgot to mention that in Italy high-fat cheeses and salame are consumed daily, as well as the butter-laden brioche eaten in the morning alongside the cappuccino (made with full-fat milk, of course) . The way you described it makes it seem like they simply consume a high-carb diet. In the past 10 years Americans consume 25% less saturated fats while diabetes and cardiovascular disease has risen 10 fold. This is not because of cream and stress, this is because of eating too much processed foods and sugars. It’s not the mayonnaise that’s the problem, it’s the corn syrup and sugar that crowd all these salad dressings.

    I think the Italian thinness is attributed to the amount of food they eat, a serving of pasta is 80 grams, always, every day, at the same hour. Their body is accustomed to the sugar rise that occurs after eating a high-carb food like pasta, but it doesn’t end there. The order of the food consumed is also important, after ingesting pasta, there’s always a meat dish, and no, it isn’t lean meat. It’s high quality protein alongside useful saturated fats. Eating in this order lowers the high glycemic index of pasta and allows a slower release of insulin. The feeling of fullness lasts longer too. I assume the salad at the end is to help digestion.

    The servings in the US are enormous compared to what you get in Italy, even a pizza is only 110 grams. Italians are chaotic but they’re particularly rigid about when it’s right to eat food. In the US you can grab a burger at 2 AM in the morning, you can eat whenever, however, as much as you want. Try grabbing lunch at 3 PM in Italy, you’ll have to settle for kebab made out of meat of some unidentified animal. If Italians want to eat out, they won’t choose fast food, it seems like an abomination to them.

    They DO have greater awareness to the way they look. They dress almost obsessively (have you not wondered why they won’t take off their coat inside a steaming-hot bus? it will ruin their ‘look’) and notice when they put on a few “chili”. The trend among women is to be thin, and those that aren’t will work remarkably hard to keep up.

    I also think there is a matter of genetics here. Italians have been eating Italian food for hundreds of years, they have refined their pasta and pizza making skills to the point that good food is art and their bodies adapted to this diet, it’s what they are accustomed to eat.

    Sadly, factory farming has found its way to Italy as well. Due to some EU regulations it’s a bit better than US factory farming, but still, that food you find in the market isn’t always “organic”. It depends on your region and what it is capable of producing.

    In the end, if you eat less you’ll be thinner, if you eat too much, you’ll be fatter. The more you eat, the more you’ll have to work to get rid of it. Italian lifestyle is well-balanced, they eat as much as they burn, they don’t shock their bodies with an endless flood of carbohydrates.

    1. I’m Italian, I don’t have salame nor cheese every day. I don’t even eat pasta every day. I have it twice or three times a week, just at lunch. I just eat a plate of pasta and is never followed by secound course as meat or fish.
      I DO take off my coat inside a steaming hot bus. I’m not so obsessed by what other people think of me, and I don’t get weird looks. Here in northern Italy everybody mind their own business, don’t stare at others and if you take off your coat in a steaming hot bus, nobody cares. I’m thin, not because I follow the trend but because I like to see myself healthy.

  9. really well written post thank you!

    I hear over and over again it’s all about lifestyle choices, including what you eat and how you carry on your daily life. I think stress and overwork is a huge contributor to American lack of health. here is one more confirmation 🙂

  10. Thank you for writing this blog. It makes so much sense plus you explained it in a way that doesn’t knock America. I wish our organic foods didn’t cost so much. Very frustrating!

  11. This is an interesting article, there are certainly parts of the article I can agree with. But one of my biggest pet hates is the generalisation that Italian people are slim and British/American people are fat. I’m British but I have been living in Naples for the past few years and I’m constantly reminded by the locals that their diet (which they call the Mediterranean diet) is the healthiest diet in the world. Despite this reminder from the locals, it seems to me that many of them are noticeably fat, much more so than I would notice in the UK.

    I certainly agree that the italian focus on organic foods is something that British people need to adopt, and even the way that Italian people put more emphasis on lunch rather than dinner. However in Campania, the consumption of carbohydrates is much higher than in other regions, and I’m not necessarily talking about complex carbohydrates such as vegetables and rice, but refined carbs like pasta and bread. The locals however, still refer the their diet as THE Mediterranean diet, failing to accept that the word Mediterranean covers other areas of Italy, let alone other nations. Moreover, it is common for people in this area to have siestas after eating lunch, allowing the newly absorbed carbohydrates to manifest themselves nicely.

    I would really like to see a study which looks closely at each italian region, as their diet, habits and daily routines differ massively. The following article comes close to doing this, dividing italy into North and South, with a noticeable jump in childhood obesity from 7.5% in the north to 16.6% in the south (over double) – http://bit.ly/1izetRz

    As for British and American obesity levels, these are often based on BMI indexes, which I find incredibly inaccurate as they don’t take fat percentage or muscle mass into account. Meaning that healthy gym goers often find themselves adding to the percentage of obese people.

    As can be seen from my post, this is pretty much an attack on the people of Naples as I’m tired of being told that they are much healthier than I am, despite the fact many of them are clearly overweight and although I do tip the scales myself at over 100kg, I have a reasonably low body fat percentage at 11%. For this reason, I’m desperate to see a more localised analysis that takes body fat and muscle mass into account.

    Let me know your thoughts.
    Louis.

    1. Hi Louis, thanks for your input. I find it funny that people from Naples consider themselves healthy when all of Italy considers food from there extremely unhealthy! Everything is fried and people from Naples are generally more overweight than the rest of Italy! It’s true that the med diet is full of carbs-more than what they need per day which isn’t healthy, but I’m saying overall their (the Italians) diet is way healthier than the American diet in my observations. Their siestas don’t compare to the lack of activity in the American style of life. We drive everywhere and sit everywhere. You would never find a social activity in America without people loaded up in rows with their lawn chairs even if the event only lasts for an hour. Americans would never go out for a passeggiata that requires walking for a few hours unless they mentally prepared themselves for a “hard walk”…that’s the average American that I know. As far as muscle mass goes, Americans are just genetically, physically bigger than Italians. We are taller, more robust while Italians are petite in body. Body mass is partially due to workouts but majority due to diet (preservatives, hormones etc..). My husband told me as soon as he went to the States for his 2 year pilot training that he gained 10lbs in mass from just eating normally-that’s because all the junk in food that isn’t natural. I went to the pediatrician for my child’s one month check up and he was above the charts in weight (according to the Italian charts) but normal in the American charts because of race so he says. I don’t know what to say about Brits but all I know is what I see daily and I make comparisons on people in my life in the US and here and there is a major difference in eating style and life style even though ironically Americans have such a deeper knowledge of health and facts when it comes to food

      1. In northern Italy we don’t have time for La passeggiata during the working weekend, furthermore according to online websites the average American and the average Italian are the same height. We’re not short in northern Italy. And we’re not petit in body.

  12. There are a variety of ways to do this. I think the less stressful lifestyle and walking more is good. For me a vegan diet works ethically, but also has helped me lose lots of weight. Once a week I do have pasta, but it is light because I make nice veggie based sauces for it. I do drink coffee, but I only put the sugar free almond milk in it, which is really good. Also, I ride a bike for transportation, so I think this helps. People in America can have a more relaxed lifestyle, it just depends on what you want to give your time to. Around the holidays I see a lot of people running around saying they have to go to this party and that, and some people admit they do not even want to go to certain parties. We might not have the luxury or a four hour lunch, but people anywhere can say yes and no to activities that will make them happier and healthier.

  13. You are the first American that have read right things but we eat dessert then coffee and to finish a digestive drink ( usually bitter liqueur)
    For there rest its okay

  14. You are the first American that have write right things but we eat dessert then coffee and to finish a digestive drink ( usually bitter liqueur)
    For there rest its okay

  15. Yeah, that’s way different than here in the USA. I do NOT have enough time in the day to take 40 minutes to make lunch, then more than an hour to eat it. I’m lucky if I get half an hour for it, and sometimes I can’t even sit down during lunch (have to keep working).

    And you’re very right about the organic foods. The best place to get them price- and taste-wise is farmers markets, but those are open only a couple months of the year at most, are very small, and hard to find (if you have any near you).

    In the USA, if you take that much time to relax and cook and de-stress, you are called lazy. It’s very counterproductive.

    1. That’s true Lyla and sad about our culture. Every time I go home I have reverse culture shock about our perspective of food, how to eat it, how to prepare it, how it’s prioritised..etc. I was just home for 5 weeks and there was no schedule for eating at all. We ate lunch at 11 one day and 2 the next day. Some days we skipped dinner and other days we ate like pigs. No one has time or thinks they don’t, not even to prepare lunch to take with them to work later. Even the baby food aisle was all prepared junk and snacks. Of course I get it being an American myself, it’s almost cheaper to eat out than to buy groceries these days and we’re a convenient group of patriots. Convenience however can kill you.

  16. It is true. Italians do eat so much and they are slim!! All over Europe too. Italians are the thinnest. People say small portions. NO NO NO! They eat a lot! They can have a several course meal. 1 person might have 1/4 pound of pasta but have chicken or veal plus bread and cheese! They eat! British many of them are slim too. They drink so much and they are slim too. Some are 40 or 50 or 60 and they have the same builds as 13 year olds who are slim. I do not understand it.

  17. I’m Italian, I appreciate your blog but I’d like people to read my comment.
    Habits change according to the region of Italy, for example here in northern Italy only shopkeepers and drugstores stop working from 1pm to 3:30pm (not 4:30pm) to have lunch break, most people during the working weekend have a free hour, from 12pm to 1-1:30pm for lunch. When I was a child my mother didn’t come back home for lunch, my grandmother cooked for me and in my adolescence I cooked by myself after school. I don’t eat pasta every day, just twice or three times a week, just for lunch, never at dinner unless it’s a feast day and I have tortellini. I only have 100 grams of pasta, the sauce can be meat ragù or carbonara or with seafood, the thing is I only eat this plate of pasta. I don’t eat appetizer, second course and dessert every day nor on Sundays.
    I can explain the way we eat salad. We consider it as a side dish. Side dishes are always with second course, never with pasta or rice. Salad is rich in fiber and it’s considered as vegetables. Salad with meat or fish is healthy.

  18. I’m from Italy and no, we don’t eat pasta every day. But the pasta we eat is, first of all, good pasta made in Italy. If you go to other countries (not going far, let’s say Spain) you’ll find crappy pasta that can’t even stay together once it’s cooked.
    I believe that here in the north of Italy most people are naturally gifted with a high metabolism. Unlike the Germans who love fitness, we don’t really spend much time at the gym or doing sports. We do use fat products like cheese, butter and animal fat, but we don’t use processed foods. Plus, the food controls in Italy are by far the strictest in Europe. I guess this helps us stay thin! 😀

    1. Definitely! Well, where I live everyone eats pasta every single day. I live in Puglia, all friends and family eat it every day as well as all the moms in my mom/baby group feed their babies pasta every single day! I feel like a fish out of water

  19. The thing is this, CARBS DONT MAKE YOU FAT! Most people in Asia eat shitloads of rice and still are thin.

    Look up people like dr Mc Doughall, Cardwell Esselstyn, and others. Hell, you can reverse heart dissease on a high carb diet.

    I a’m lean as can be, my diet is almost completely made up of carbs: Rice, pasta, fruits, veggies. I sometimes use a little bit of olive oil or a tiny bit of cheese for taste, but thats it. I eat as much as i want everyday.

    Now, i was not always as lean as i am now. I was overweight, eating shitloads of meats/cheeses/milks an fryd foods. I slowly became sick!

    Now on a high carb diet, lots of pasta etc.
    I’m lean as fuck and my blood values are perfect again..

    So there you have it, the reason why many italians / asians are slim!

    Wacht Forks over Knives, you maybe learn something that could change your life. I know it changed mine.

    1. Why is there always some Bozo, that has to add profanity to someone else’s website?
      When I’m in the company of a low class person, I can talk the talk, but around good people, I have something that is called “respect”.
      Instead of running profanity at every opportunity, maybe you could brush up on your forth- grade grammar.

  20. Thank you for sharing your insight. I have visited Italy twice and live in Canada. I agree with your observations. If we can even adapt to a few of those smart choices we will definitely benefit . I miss being there and would love to live there too !
    One day!

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