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Taste of Italy—the Mediterranean Way
Gelson’s is celebrating the Taste of Italy in October and my role here is not to just create a delicious new salad for our stores, which by the way is called Jessica’s Tuscan White Bean Salad. (If you haven’t tried it yet, get yourself over to Gelson's service deli for a sample!) My job is also to educate our customers and listeners about the health benefits of Italian food. Before we go any further, I need to clarify what I have in mind when I talk about Italian food because I know that pasta, pizza, and gelato are the first things that come to mind when most people think of Italian food.
Those are absolutely foods that Italians enjoy, but they are a small part of their overall diet. Portion sizes are much smaller than the portions of pasta and pizza we eat, and they are usually a small portion of a meal, rather than the center of the plate.
Traditional Italian food is very simple. It emphasizes local ingredients which are very fresh and high quality. The foods that are eaten daily are vegetables, fruits, herbs, extra virgin olive oil, beans and lentils, grass-fed cheeses, and small amounts of grains. These primary ingredients are combined to make simple, delicious dishes.
In doing my research for this podcast, there were several recurring themes that I picked up on that seem to make us some rules of Italian eating.
The cardinal rules of Italian cuisine seem to be:
- Eat locally
- Eat seasonally
- Eat high quality, minimally processed food
- Eat at a leisurely pace
- Eat with other people
It seems like Italians eat a lot less than we do, and I think that has to do with the quality of their food. It’s minimally processed, it emphasizes a lot of vegetables, and meals tend to be balanced and follow a certain order. All of these factors seem to contribute to the satiety of the overall diet. Breakfast is very light: just a coffee and toast. Lunch is the largest and most important meal of the day, and it usually includes 3 courses. Dinner is often simple, maybe just a bowl of soup or a salad.
Perhaps most ironically, the most healthful way to follow the Mediterranean Diet with an Italian emphasis is to eat like a peasant, since this keeps the emphasis on plant foods, rather than meat and processed foods which traditionally were more expensive and therefore eaten less often than vegetables, beans, nuts, fruits and whole intact grains. Think of a hearty minestrone soup made with beans, tons of vegetables, fresh herbs, and pasta or grain, like barley, and topped with some pesto or a shaving or parmesan cheese. Doesn’t that sound so delicious? Soups like this are believed to be one of the key dishes that contribute major health benefits to the Mediterranean diet.
And that’s that an important motivator for following a Mediterranean diet eating pattern. The food is delicious and enjoying your food is one of the key principles. Food that tastes good and is satisfying is important, especially if you want to permanently adopt an eating plan. The Mediterranean Diet is the healthiest way to eat. It has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, certain cancers, Alzheimer's, Parkinsons, overweight, and obesity. It can also be used to reverse heart disease and prevent second heart attacks.
The Mediterranean diet is a framework for healthful eating. It’s a plant-based diet, which means that it is composed mostly of plant foods, but it doesn’t exclude anything—it emphasizes certain foods to eat daily, but it minimizes processed foods and meats.
On a daily basis, eat two meatless meals, use extra virgin olive oil as your main fat, and make at least half of your plate vegetables at lunch and dinner. Include the following foods each day:
- Extra virgin first cold pressed olive oil
- Vegetables and fruits, including fresh herbs
- Whole intact grains and starchy vegetables
- Beans and legumes
- Nuts and seeds
- Yogurt and cheese
- Wine (optional)
You should include the following foods on a weekly basis:
- Fish and Shellfish (at least twice a week)
- Poultry (up to three times a week)
- Eggs (up to seven whole eggs a week, up to four if you have diabetes; egg whites are unlimited)
- Sweets (two to three times a week)
Limit red meat, including beef, pork and lamb to up to 4 times a month.
I know you’re probably still wondering about pasta and pizza, and I’d like to end by talking about it a little more now. Contrary to popular belief, they can be a part of your healthy diet, especially pasta. Yes, eating too much pasta can make you fat, but eating too much of anything can do that too. Keep in mind that research shows that your overall eating pattern is what impacts weight and health more than any single food. Therefore, if you want to eat pasta, you need to make sure that your overall diet follows the framework of the Mediterranean diet: plant based, with two meatless meals a day, plenty of vegetables and liberal amounts of extra virgin olive oil. If you have that pattern in place, then you can include small portions of pasta fairly regularly. A portion is ½ cup of cooked pasta, and the sauce is generally light, and mostly vegetables. The same thing goes for pizza. Crust should be thin, maybe even cracker-like, and cheese and other toppings should be kept very light. Of course, portions are small and it is usually eaten as part of a light lunch meal on a weekend.
Research on pasta shows that it is a low-glycemic food, when prepared correctly. It must be cooked al dente, or slightly firm. When it is over cooked the starch breaks down and it will raise your blood sugar, so be sure not to over cook it. Additionally, you may recall from my podcast about satiety, eating carbohydrates at the beginning of a meal can help you feel full sooner and satisfied longer. Traditionally, pasta is eaten as a first course, at the beginning of a 3 course meal, and is often followed by vegetables and protein, and then fresh fruit, to make a very satisfying and delicious meal.
You can enjoy delicious and healthful Italian food! Approach it in the larger context of following a Mediterranean diet pattern where you emphasize certain healthful plant-based foods daily and come to Gelson’s to see all of the delicious ways we celebrate a Taste of Italy.
Tuscan Garlic Soup with with Kale & Eggs
Ricotta Toast with Pears & Fennel
Pesto Roasted Halibut