Eat Like an Italian!

You’ve probably heard that the Mediterranean diet, based on the cooking and eating style of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, is good for your heart thanks to its focus on good-for-you fats, small portions of meats, fresh fish, lots of veggies, and even regular enjoyment of heart-healthy red wine.

Research shows that the Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease. An analysis of more than 1.5 million healthy adults demonstrated that following the diet was associated with a reduced risk of death from heart disease, as well as a reduced incidence of other diseases.

This holiday season, we spoke with nutritionist Lisa Stollman to find out which healthy eating habits you should borrow from Italians to help your heart.

1. Become a veggie lover.

Veggies are loaded with vitamins, minerals and fiber, in addition to being the lowest-calorie food group. Eating lots of them can benefit your waistline as well as your heart, says Stollman. Orange red, and yellow veggies (e.g., squash, peppers and carrots) are packed with carotenoids, fiber and vitamins to help your heart. Nosh on veggies first at every meal so you’ll have less room in your stomach for pasta and meats.

2. Drizzle some olive oil.

Olive oil is a heart-friendly fat that may help lower LDL cholesterol (the kind that’s bad for your heart). It also increases HDL levels (the good cholesterol). Since oil is high in calories and fat, measure out a teaspoon or two before you drizzle it on veggies, salads or pastas.

3. Keep meat portions modest.

Meat is not the focus of the meal at many Italians’ tables. Limit servings of meat, fish or chicken to 3 ounces cooked per person, and base the meal around vegetables. Also consider Meatless Mondays, or other ways to swap out multiple meals including meat, so you can enjoy it more when you do eat it.

4. Dine with family.

Studies have shown that families who eat together tend to have healthier weights. And a healthy weight puts less stress on the heart, says Stollman. Quality family time and a healthier life? We’ll call that a win-win situation.

5. Engage in conversation.

Conversing with family and friends while eating is a strong focus of Italians’ meals. Pace yourself during the meal by putting your fork down and taking part in chatter. Sip water while listening to others and chew slowly when you are eating. This will help you tune in to your body’s “feeling full” signals so you don’t overeat.

6. Eat with the seasons.

When you choose fruits and vegetables that are in season, the produce is even more nutrient rich, says Stollman. Visit your local farmers' market to purchase just-picked fruits and veggies. You should find that they taste much better than their store-bought counterparts, which were probably picked weeks earlier. If you’re unable to buy in-season, opt for frozen varieties -- they’re just as healthy!

7. Nosh on more whole grains.

Italians enjoy lots of fiber-filled foods, including whole-grain breads, cereals and beans. These “provide fiber, which not only helps lower cholesterol but provides a feeling of satiety,” says Stollman. Two easy ways to get more fiber daily: Choose morning cereals that are high in fiber, and add beans to your salads.

8. Toast with a glass of red.

Enjoy a glass of wine with your meal. Red wine is rich in reservatrol, a potent phytochemical known for its heart benefits. Keep in mind that for good health, you should stop at one glass (4 ounces) per day for women and two for men; this is the recommended serving size. You can also find phytochemical reservatrol in red and purple grape juice.

9. Eat fresh fruit for dessert.

If Italians have cakes or pastries, it’s only a small serving. Instead, they focus on fruits, like cantaloupe, kiwis and strawberries. Cut up your favorites and make a colorful fruit plate to serve at the end of the meal. Many fresh fruits contain potassium, which relaxes blood vessel walls and may help lower blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association.