As a nutrition and dietetics major with a culinary arts emphasis, I spend my days running back and forth between heavy science-based classes and cooking-intensive labs. This meant there was no way I could fit a semester abroad into my schedule. But luckily, SLU's Nutrition and Dietetics Department presents an opportunity to travel to Italy for a hands-on study of the Mediterranean diet. For two weeks of winter break, I had an insider's perspective of what the Mediterranean diet looks like.

To start, one thing that a lot of people neglect to identify is that the Mediterranean Diet is not like any other fad diet designed to lose weight. Instead, it is a lifestyle, based on the classical aspects of agriculture and culture of the Mediterranean, that allows many to reap the associated health benefits. This diet is almost an elixir of life, as it is rich in fiber and antioxidants, and low in saturated and trans fats. It is nothing like what I've read in textbooks, and it is everything about eating high-quality food that is altogether delicious, healthy, and all-natural. 

1. Olive Oil Is Sacred

herb, oil, vegetable, spinach, olive oil, basil
Christin Urso

The secret to why the Med diet is so incredibly heart healthy lies in the use of extra-virgin, cold-pressed, all-natural olive oil as a main source of fat. Olive oil is commonly used in the Mediterranean diet. It is the number one source of monounsaturated fatty acids and is directly linked to heart health by lowering LDL cholesterol and increasing HDL or "good" cholesterol as many like to call it. 

Every meal starts with a drizzle of olive oil, whether it is a hot or cold dish. A lot of people in the South of Italy also make their own olive oil, which, trust me, homemade olive oil has the most amazing flavor in the world. It tastes nothing like the cheap olive oil I get at Aldi. This olive oil has its own distinct taste and it almost burns like a shot of tequila (but not really) when it goes down your throat, in a good way. 

2. Italians Drink Wine as Often as They Drink Water

red wine, liquor, alcohol, wine, pouring, glass, Bottle
Caroline Ingalls

I know what you’re thinking. If you’re as big of a wine fanatic as I am, you’re probably saying to yourself, “I could get used to that.” And I think I definitely could, especially because our tour guide or our “Italian mom,” as I like to call her, would not let my glass go half empty at any meal we had.

Wine plays a crucial role in the Mediterranean diet. Red wine especially is rich in antioxidants, contributing to the amazing health benefits of the Med diet. Red wine has a special phytonutrient called resveratrol, that has been linked to protecting your body from heart disease. As part of the Med diet, it is encouraged to have a glass of red wine (a 5-ounce serving) with dinner every night to boost your heart health. 

3. Europeans Walk Everywhere 

Lissane Kafie

The close proximity of landmarks and the temperate climate allow the people living in the Mediterranean to walk everywhere. Southern Italy, a region of immense historical background, has very narrow stone streets, making it harder for cars to pass through. In my opinion, this is an advantage because as we know it is recommended to do 30 minutes of physical activity a day to stay healthy. Italians got that part covered, without having to go out of their way. 

4. Everything Is Homemade 

Lissane Kafie

Never had I ever seen one culture place as much emphasis as everyone in Southern Italy puts towards making fresh dishes every meal of the day and every day of the week. Pasta is always made from scratch, as well as bread and pizza, and sauce cookery always starts with a generous amount of olive oil (usually homemade) and fresh, meaty tomatoes. Recipes are passed on from generation to generation, and everybody adores nonna's (grandma's) food. 

One of the things that stuck out to me the most during my time in Southern Italy was the absence of fast food restaurants. Seriously, the most I saw was maybe a Burger King and a McDonald’s. But with all the amazing authentic Italian food readily available at every corner, why would you pick a Happy Meal from Mcdonald’s or a Chicken Jr. from Burger King? 

#SpoonTip: In Italian cuisine, simple is best. 

5. Seafood Is a Very Important Part of Their Diets

Lissane Kafie

Going on a study abroad trip to the Mediterranean South of Italy forced me to try new things. Among those things was giving seafood a try. I’ve never been much of a seafood person, but since fish is such a big part of the Mediterranean, as one of the most popular sources of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, I had to give it a try. To my surprise, I was not disappointed by its tastiness. The presence of omega-3 fatty acids in the Mediterranean diet has been linked to the prevention of coronary heart disease, adding yet another reason to why it gets its fame for being such a healthy lifestyle. 

6. Breakfast Is Often Light and Small

Lissane Kafie

It took me a hot second to get used to eating “un cornetto e cappuccino” or a “caffe latte” with a side of fruit for breakfast every day. A croissant or any type of bread roll with the authentic Italian chocolate-hazelnut spread (Nutella is Europe's peanut butter) or simply butter and jam, or cookies for breakfast is pretty much the traditional Italian breakfast. Sadly, finding eggs and bacon or a baller brunch spot for breakfast is not likely in Italy.

7. No Cappuccinos After 11 AM

Lissane Kafie

Coffee for Italians is one of those things you can’t mess around with. After 11 AM, if you walk into a coffee shop and ask for a cappuccino, you bet you will get a weird grimace or a blank stare. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen. Also, they don't order coffee with their meals, only after.  An espresso or a macchiato (an espresso with a little bit of milk or cream) is often enjoyed in the afternoon as a small “pick-me-up” before it’s time to hit the bar and get an aperitif before dinner. 

8. “Veganism” Has Always Existed

Lissane Kafie

We all know being vegan has become so much more than following your beliefs. Rather, some people view it as a “trendy” thing or some even use it as a restricting diet to lose weight. However, inherently vegan foods have been around for longer than we have been alive. That is, classical Italian cuisine, for the most part, consists of a very low presence of eggs, milk, or meat. Vegetables, legumes, and starches are in the center of every meal. 

For example, the pizza marinara is a traditional Neapolitan pizza, and it consists of a tasty marinara sauce, oregano, and garlic spread out on a crust and baked in a pizza oven. I was a little hesitant to try it at first, but I give it a shot and I literally had fireworks in my taste buds because it was so good. Or this broccoli spaghetti (pictured above) that completely blew me away. 

9. Meals Consist of a Routine and a Variety of Courses

Lissane Kafie

Eating habits are way different than what we are used to. We are used to scarfing down our meals so that we can get back to work. Italians consider that as a sin. Their meals usually take up about 2 hours and are followed by a nice walk around the street to improve digestion. If there’s one thing I admire from them is the capacity to slow down and enjoy a meal because that is how it should be. Mindless eating has taken over our society, but it hasn’t really made it over to the Mediterranean just yet, giving them an advantage we can’t compete with. 

Their meals start off with a small “antipasto,” an appetizer such as a Caprese salad or a bruschetta. L’antipasto is followed by “il primo piatto” or the first plate, which is usually pasta or soup. This plate is followed by “il secondo piatto con il contorno,” or in other words, the second plate with a side. This usually means a meat (beef, chicken, or fish) and vegetables. Every meal is finished with “la Frutta,” or fresh fruit, followed by “il dolce,” the occasional dessert, and “il caffé” (never a cappuccino). I know, it sounds like a lot; however, their plates and portion sizes are also way smaller than what we are used to. 

10. Beans and Legumes Are a Big Part of Their Diet 

vegetable, cereal, legume, meat, pea, chickpeas, garbanzo, corn
Christin Urso

Our first dinner in Italy, the first pasta dish we were served had pinto beans in it. Coming from a Central American country, where beans are included in almost every single meal, I was ecstatic, but still a little confused. Legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, pinto beans, and kidney beans, are a big part of the Mediterranean diet. Beyond adding fiber, these nutrient-dense legumes add texture, flavor, and sometimes even color to traditional Mediterranean dishes.

So, next time you’re cooking, skip on the butter and switch to olive oil. Don’t skip on that glass of wine, instead, raise your glass and enjoy it in moderation. Eat your veggies, legumes, and pasta. And last but not least, enjoy all the health benefits and outstanding tastes that the Mediterranean has to offer.