Two years ago my husband and I returned from a trip to Italy. It was during that trip – the last of many visits and long stays before that – when I had an epiphany about food (a topic that had been prevalent in my life since I was a pre-teen being told to go on my first diet because I was getting fat; I will write more on that in a later blog). You see, it had been 22 years since I lived in Italy, and 27 years since I had lived in Spain for a Summer during high school, and during those, and all of the trips since that time, I noticed that my experience of food – and more importantly, my physiological experience of food – was very different than it is in the US. For so many years I merely wondered about this, but 2 years ago, it dawned on me that something was seriously different about the food in Italy (aside from the obvious since we all long for it), that caused my body to react entirely differently when I ate what seemed to be similar looking food there, versus eating those foods here in the US (bread and pasta being prime examples).
I recalled one of my first experiences, living in L’Aquila, in the Abruzzo Region of Italy, when I was 20 years old. I was living in the Casa Dello Studente (Student House) at the time, and one of the cultural memories I will always recall with such clarity is that of experiencing the typical Italian town ‘market’ for food. No, these were not Supermarkets with long aisles dedicated to every color and shape of breakfast cereal that could possibly be imagined by the Kellogg’s marketing department. These were small markets with fresh staples – a little produce from a local farm, some bread or pizza bianco made by hand that day, perhaps from prociutto and fine cheese, newly milled flour, sugar, milk, yogurt, eggs… the staples. Of course these markets were merely there as a supplement to the daily ‘farmers’ markets in the Piazza Duomo, where all of the ‘Mammas’ went to purchase the ingredients they would use to cook for their families on that day. That was something that always perplexed me as a student living in Italy: why did we in the US need so much excess? This way of life seemed so simple, and so at ease (not to mention, the food cooked by those mammas was damn good and I have food sensory memories to this day when think of it!) But it didn’t really dawn on me so strongly until this trip 2 years ago.
It all started coming together when we took our last trip to Rome in 2010. We sat at a table in a restaurant on the cobblestones, and Michael had the bottle of Fanta he typically chooses when in Rome. Incidentally, another wonderful lesson I learned while living in L’Aquila so many years back – having grown up in a family of Diet Soda drinkers – was that water is the best beverage of choice for hydrating my body and quenching my thrist. I struggled for a while – longing for my cold Diet Coke or Pepsi, but that just didn’t exist in my small Italian town, so I adjusted to water over time, and I have never looked back (which is a very good thing, because soda is just an unhealthy choice all together – and Diet Soda may even be worse in many ways).
So, we sat outside in a restaurant in Rome, and Michael had his bottle of Fanta. I picked it up to look at the label: in italian, it read: carbonated water, orange juice, sugar. Three ingredients. I took a picture of the bottle and the label. Purposefully and like a detective, I returned home and made a special trip to our local Safeway (Super)Market, to look for that same bottle of Fanta. I picked it up. Looks the same. But I turned it around to look at the ingredients, only to find something like 50 unpronounceable ingredients, including high fructose corn syrup, artificial coloring, artificial flavoring, and a whole bunch of other stuff for which the purpose was a mystery. Why was the Fanta in the US so different than Fanta in Italy?
So before we returned to Italy 2 years later in 2012, I had really started my journey in Clean Eating. I wasn’t completely there yet. I was still doing a number of things without really thinking about them: eating frozen yogurt (high fructose corn syrup) like each one was going to be the last frozen yogurt of my life, chewing sugarless gum (aspartame), wheat, corn and dairy were still in my diet from time to time although not with any regularity, perhaps I hadn’t yet become religious about organic or wild salmon. I hadn’t eaten red meat since I was 12 so that wasn’t an issue. I was long since someone who ate sugary sweets (other than that frozen yogurt), and I never ate fried anything. I had already learned that eating some fat was good, so olive oil was my oil of choice. I had begun to use organic juice cleansing every so often to help detoxify my body. I was predominantly eating a plant-based diet, with a little fish and chicken.
We visited Tuscany and Sicily on our 2012 visit, and were treated to some of the highest quality foods anywhere – real food, straight from the farm to table. Everything was beyond words delectable, and for someone who always seems to be worried about gaining weight, I still could’t help but eat as I typically do in Italy. Everyday I ate pasta, pizza, bread in some fashion. And every night I had my gelato before my leisurely walk back to our hotel. But the funny thing is – and has always been on my trips to Italy or Spain or France – I never gain any weight while there. In fact, I tend to lose weight on these trips despite all of the eating. Oddly, if I ate those same types of things everyday in the US (pasta, pizza, bread, gelato), my body would (and has in my lifetime) reacted VERY differently! I gain weight by looking at these foods in the US! Why would that be? Something just isn’t the same. And I thought back to that experience with the bottle of Fanta 2 years prior.
So when I came home from that 2012 visit, I really began to look at the US food source closely. I became intimately connected with the way we grow wheat and corn, the the connections between farming subsidies and the FDA. I read Wheat Belly, by Dr. William Davis, an grew very concerned about the way our crops have been altered in effort to grow them faster. I became very aware of the Monsanto corn and soy, the farming of our chickens and fish, the chemical processing of packaged foods and the marketing dollars and departments of people being paid to food US citizens into think they are making healthy choices. I became outraged by the preservatives, the chemicals, the additives, the pesticides, the hormones and even tranquilizers being used in a harsh majority of what Americans eat! And why? Well, think about it! It’s driven by big businesses and big industries making BIG money. And as much as I understand the way business works – after years in technology – cancer, heart disease and other forms of illness are entirely too prevalent in our world, and I refuse not put my health on the line for the benefit of anyone’s business success, or any industry (not the agriculture, not the healthcare, not the insurance not the pharmaceutical, not the packaged foods industries; and NOT the FDA connected to all of them).
I choose to do what I can to live the healthiest and longest life that I can, by choosing to put clean food into my precious system! It’s the only one I have!
And from there I also made some choices of my own. I chewed my last piece of gum. I gave up my beloved frozen yogurt right then and there. I decided if it wasn’t organic, it wasn’t for me. And that went for chicken too. No more farmed salmon. No wheat. No dairy – I discovered the wonders of Almond Milk! I would choose untarnished, colorful, true foods, and I would find ways to accomodate that lifestyle no matter what my circumstance. I would now become knowledgable about the food I was choosing – more than ever before. I would seek to understand the nutritional properties of different whole foods (in spices and different oils, vegetables, grains, nuts, legumes and fruits…) Labels would be my friend, and if there were more than 5 ingredients, I would question whether or not it was a choice for me. Now this sounds pretty harsh – and believe me, my family wanted to shoot me at first – but it turned out that I never before had more energy. After years of coping with breakouts, my skin was clear. My eyes were bright! My weight wasn’t an issue. And while it’s taken some time, even my family – my Mom (and Dad by default), my husband, several cousins, have made some important changes.
I developed a set of guidelines that I began to share with others around clean eating. Surely, I couldn’t keep this to myself! Why should other friends and family that I care about NOT be informed about their food choices, or the choices they make for their families? I started the process of educating others, and ran a few 30-Day Clean Eating Challenges to help friends and family across the country to learn and to observe. Many of these folks noticed amazing changes just by choosing true foods – renewed energy, a glow, greater sports performance, weight-loss… So this has become a great passion for me as a result of so many years living and traveling abroad. I have even recently started a year-long course curriculum with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City, to help to reinforce my knowledge, and to formally certify myself as a Health Coach. Other big things are to come – this is merely the beginning of this new part of my life-long journey with food, and of helping others to become truly healthy too!
So today, we travel back to Italy – it’s 2014. I am excited to observe my experience with some of the foods I haven’t touched in over 2 years. For the first time since we left Sicily in 2012, I will eat pasta, bread, pizza and gelato. I will choose with care, but I will choose some of the foods that I have given up. I am very interested to take the next step in my personal physiological experiences with how my body is effected when I eat these foods that have gone through very little processing since they were once their simplest of components. I’m also a little nervous! But if my theory rings true, my passion for change in the way we have completely modified our US food source, and for helping to educate as many people as I can on ways they can make TRULY healthy choices (not just the ones the big food marketing departments tell us are healthy), will only get stronger.