I've always struggled with health and fitness. Sometimes I do better than others, and my weight has always fluctuated. Living in Italy had a direct effect on my health, and when I think about it, my time there was probably one of the healthiest times of my life. For today's post, I wanted to focus on why I think this is so.
1) In Italy, the town that I lived in had hardly any fast food restaurants. There was actually one McDonald's, but it went out of business! The only "fast food" places near where I lived sold pizza by the slice, and I hardly ever went to places like that. Here in the States, I find myself buying fast food more than I would like to. This basically has to do with working long hours and having two jobs and has to do with the fact that fast food places are pretty much everywhere. I mean, on days when I teach and then go to my other job it is just very convenient to stop for fast food, and this what I more or less have to do since I wouldn't even have enough time to go home and make something. I have been TRYING to go to healthier places like Panera so that I can get soup and salad, but that gets to be expensive. Face it, typically the cheapest items on the menu are the worst for you. When I stayed in Italy, I wasn't tempted to get fast food because there were hardly any places to go to, and I never really felt like I had to do that because the family I stayed with and I would always eat our meals together. A great deal of people that worked got to go home for lunch and enjoy a nice, home cooked meal. They would open in the morning, close their shops around 1-4, eat lunch, have a nice siesta, and then return to work. I feel like in the States, many people go to fast food places on their lunch breaks since they only have a certain amount of time to eat and like to get out of the office.
2) Going out to eat in restaurants is less common than it is in the States, at least in my experience. When I go to a restaurant in the States, I tend to eat a lot more than I would if I had just stayed home. Since the portion sizes are so big in the U.S., even if I take some of my meal home in a box with me, I still consume more food than I would have if I didn't go out. The family I lived with in Italy never went out to eat unless there was a special occasion like an anniversary or birthday. The only other time we ate in restaurants was when we traveled to other towns because we were out for the whole day. The other exception to eating out was to go to a pizzeria and get a pizza since the restaurants had the special wood fired ovens, which many families did not have in their homes. The Italians I met explained that practically everyone had someone in their family that could cook Italian food very well, so why would they go out to a restaurant and pay more money for something they could enjoy in the comfort of their own home? It makes sense... If I was an awesome cook, I think I would go out to eat less, too. Also, many times when I go out to eat here in the States, I go to restaurants that serve different kinds of ethnic foods that I do not know how to make. In Italy, the majority of Italians stick to cooking Italian food and do it well. It's not like how it is in America where there are options for Mexican, Greek, or Chinese food, to name a few. Where I lived in Italy every single restaurant was an Italian one with the exception of one Chinese restaurant. (I was informed that the Chinese restaurant also eventually went out of business.)
3) The family I lived with would make daily trips to the grocery store and would go to the butcher's and to fruit vendors to get fresh food. I think most families in the States go a lot less frequently to grocery stores and buy in bulk. I know that now I end up buying processed foods because they last longer and will save me future trips to the store. Also, I buy my food all in one place...there isn't a butcher close to me and to go to a fruit market to just to get my fruit every week seems like a time consuming pain. Since I don't go as often to the grocery store, usually I eat up all my fresh foods first or else they go bad, but either way there will be times when I don't have any produce in the house! How utterly unhealthy! This never occurred when I was living in Italy.
I remember my host mother was asking me what types of fruit I liked so that she could pick some up for me. I told her strawberries in the dead of winter and she looked at me like I was crazy. She said that no place would carry strawberries now because they were not in season. I told her in America strawberries were always available for purchase, but that we just might pay more if they were out of season. Since many types of fruit were only eaten when they were in season, the fruit I had there was so incredibly fresh. In the U.S., I never really was big on cherries, but oh my goodness...in Italy this was not the case. The strawberries and cherries there just were so full of flavor. It made the ones I had in America seem tasteless. Even my American pal, who is still living in Italy by the way, remarked, "You just can't get cherries like these in the States."
Oh, and speaking of fresh...since Italy is a peninsula surrounded by the sea, it is very easy to get fresh seafood. I lived right by the sea (could literally see it out the window), and my friend's husband would go out fishing and then my friend would invite me over for lunch. You can't get any more fresh than that!
4) The majority of the town got out and would walk around, and so would I. The main street in the town I lived in was for pedestrians only, and that was where most of the shops, restaurants, and bars (coffee shops) were. On Sundays, everything in town was closed except for maybe a few tobacco shops, but after church in the morning, families would stroll up and down the main road (Corso), stopping to socialize every so often. At night, people walked up and down Corso and shopped or they would walk to the square which was basically the town's meeting spot for anyone in high school to age 40.
I know that I walked around a great deal because I didn't drive over there. I would be walking a couple of miles every day because the family I stayed with didn't live right in the center of town, but they were close enough. Where I live now, I would not really feel safe walking around at night alone. Also, it would be weird here and I feel like I'd get hit by a car or something since there aren't many pedestrians out and about.
5) The largest meal of the day was lunch. Dinners were very light and we usually had something like insalata caprese or insalata con tonno fresco (fresh tuna salad). Here in the U.S., dinners are usually the biggest meals of the day since that's usually the one time that everyone is home to have it together. In Italy, I never ate a big meal at night, but here in the States, I'll eat a big meal and then go to bed a few hours later which is not the healthiest.
6) We drank sparkling water with every meal. With dinner, we would have sparkling water and sometimes Peroni, but we would always have water, not soda! I think this is where a lot of Americans get into trouble. I hardly ever buy soda, but my problem now is that it is free for me at work, so since it is free, I will drink some there. I just usually have one small glass per shift, but when you think about it, that adds up fast, especially if I work 5 shifts a week.
7) The meals I ate in Italy were well-balanced. Well, maybe not what I had for breakfast...but at least for lunch and dinner they were. For lunch we would always have pasta first, and this usually had some type of vegetable or sauce in it. The second course was always meat like sausage, hamburger (without the bun), or meatballs. Then, we would finish off the meal with a piece of fruit. The family I stayed with was pretty big on not skipping the fruit... One time I was eating with the my host family's extended family and the kids' grandpa handed me the banana saying, "Lisa, prendi la banana." I told him no thanks, I didn't want to have a banana that day and that I wasn't feeling very well. Then he kept handing it to me and got kind of forceful with me telling me over and over that I should eat it. The daughter of the family told him to leave me alone and that I was too full and then he started muttering curse words about me in dialect that I couldn't understand. I told the host mom later that her dad offended me and she got so scared asking what he did, and once I had explained it she started laughing saying that I should take it as a compliment because he only tries to force people he cares about to eat healthy food and that he does it to her all the time.
8) The meals were prepared that day and consisted of simple, fresh ingredients. There's that word again...fresh. I think this is the #1 difference between my diet in America now and compared to how I ate in Italy. Here I know that I eat too many processed foods. I try not to, but it's just hard because I'm not a good cook and processed foods are just the easiest ones to make. I never saw any member of the host family I stayed with make a meal from a box!
9) Olive oil is used in dishes more frequently than butter. As you probably know, most health experts say that olive oil is a better alternative than butter is, as it has less cholesterol and is full of antioxidants.
10) I got more sleep! If I ever felt tired during the day, it was totally acceptable to doze off and have a nice nap. Here in the States, I feel like naps are for old people, babies, or for when you're sick!
I just feel like it was easy to live a healthy lifestyle over in Italy, but in the U.S. it is easier for me to fail. It is definitely much more of a challenge to stay healthy in America--that's for sure. Maybe I should buy a Mediterranean diet cookbook!