Well, well, well. We meet this subject again. If you've been following my Instagram, Facebook, or this website for any length of time now then you're already acquainted with my strong bias in support of producing food at only the highest sustainable quality. However, I will do my best to push that aside and do an objective report on how the food in Italy has affected my body over the past 7 weeks. This is usually referred to as an "n=1 study," since I am only testing it on myself. These are usually super effective for people trying to figure things out for themselves and their health, because I am in my body and only I am in tune with that enough to feel what it feels and see how it is being affected: by clothes fitting a certain way or how heavily I'm breathing after certain activities. So that being established, this is going to be a compilation of how I've felt with this drastic diet change while in Florence for the summer.
The diet change I'm referring to is this: at home, I eat primal (no legumes, only rice sometimes if grains are consumed, no processed sugar, moderate dairy, LOTS of veggies, high protein, a little bit of fruit, lots of healthy fats). Here, I've pretty much only stayed away from gluten and soy because they really bother me. Pizza and pasta and gelato and milk chocolate that exists without soy lechitin as an emulsifier here have been very present in my body.
I will place here that there are also other variables. One is that I've walked at least 5 miles a day, usually more. My workout routine went from lifting 5-6 days a week plus at least 4 cardio sessions on top of that to 3-5 HIIT & body weight workout sessions per week, not lasting longer than 45 minutes. So, I will do my best to explain what happened as a result of that. But first, I think a little Italian food history is in order.
In the Italian cooking class I took the first week I was here, the chef got on his soapbox for a few minutes about how when the US really started pumping GMOs and hormones into their food, Italy went the opposite route. He talked about how the laws here are really in favor of organic produce, grass-fed and free-range meats, and full-fat foods without the sugar added to reduce it. I decided to do a little poking around on the interwebs and found some cool stuff in these regards.
For instance, Italy not only rejected the idea of GMOs when they first became popular in the US, they still stringently fight against them. As recently as 2015, the country opted to reject 8 strands of GMOs that the EU was promoting for its countries (1). In 1993, the year before the first GMOs hit grocery stores in the US (2), Italy was not super focused on organic farming, either. They were pretty exclusive to small northern markets near the farms that produced them. However, as the "organic" title began implying the meaning that a product was also "non-GMO," it seems that my chef was right about Italians' push back against GMOs. Production of organic produce increased 200% between 1997-1999, with production still increasing yearly, though not necessarily at that high a rate each year (3).
After hearing the chef & reading those things about Italy's unique perspective on food production, I was more confused about this place than ever. If you've ever been to Italy, you know they love their sugar. Gelato or a granite (basically a slush) for breakfast is the thing to do in Sicily, and up north it's not much better with sugared tarts or croissants paired with your sugared-down cappuccino first thing in the morning. Pizza or a bread-heavy sandwich for lunch. Gelato as a cool afternoon snack, followed by a 3-course dinner of pasta, meat & veggies, and dessert. Oh, and always wine.
The realization that the people are very concerned about food quality & sourcing here was interesting to me, since I've crusaded against processed sugar for the past 2 years and haven't consumed any other than the tiny bit in dark chocolate back home. I was even more interested to see if the fact that even though there is a lot of white cane sugar in Italian food, high fructose corn syrup is rarely used. In fact, the population in Italy consumes less than 1 pound of it per person per year (4). Compare that to the 35 pounds per year the average American takes in (5)!
Okay, enough of the research. What did my time here teach me?
The first week, I was in full "vacation mode." Eating out for almost every meal, gelato at least once a day, and skipping breakfast. I didn't work out because at that point I was allowing a week off since my training was vigorous for a solid 4 months leading up to coming here. Plus, I wasn't sure if I was going to join the local gym or not and wanted to check it out before "settling" for using the staircase in the hallway to our apartment. It's 98 steps, by the way.
The second week, I could feel it. My normally-low-carb body was in full revolt with bloating and breakouts galore. The reintroduction of excessive white sugar was definitely the culprit, in my opinion. Because of these crappy feelings, I began inventing HIIT workouts on the stairs and turning it into my little gym. I went to the local market and got fresh, preservative-free cheeses & meats and lots of produce. Another great thing on the produce: Italians are snobs about eating in-season. So a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of peaches was €2 since they're a summer fruit, whereas apples were closer to €5 per kilogram. Still way cheaper than America for ANYTHING organic, in-season or not. But it's cool to see that most farmers refuse to even sell things that aren't in-season.
Cooking for myself definitely helped. I made sure to remember probiotics and prebiotics daily, only discoverable here in the form of full-fat yogurt and the tub of Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides I brought along with me (thanks, Sarah!). I still ate out plenty of times, mind you. Lots of GF pizza. And gelato was still a very regular occurrence. But here's the interesting part: those HIIT sessions invigorated me. Walking everywhere rarely felt like a chore. I began loving the constant movement. I ate until I was full, and then some. If I was exhausted from visiting 2 museums and rehearsing Shakespeare and writing too much all in one day, I let myself not worry about missing a workout. This resulted in the 3-5 times a week exercise schedule. Sure, I lost some muscle since I wasn't lifting weights like back home. But my core is much stronger now from the functional nature of the workouts I've been doing. My acne went away and the bloating reduced. My clothes still fit, so I haven't gained that much weight, if any. I'm actually scared the number went down because of muscle loss... I was very hypertrophic from over-training when I got here. My abs are hiding a little more than my first week, but honestly not as much as I'd expected.
And you know what? My mental state is better than ever. I love the routine I've got at home: I kick ass on a primal diet there. But I needed this break more than I knew. Italy taught me how to enjoy dessert again without guilt. But I strongly feel that the simplicity, care, and quality put into food production in this country made all the difference between how I do feel and how crappy I would be feeling if I ate like this regularly at home. I've eaten like this before in the States. It's called the no-diet plan. Or if you're on one, IIFYM. And I was always depleted, constantly had cravings, and got irritable very easily. My brain got foggy. Maybe because I was eating pounds of HFCS without meaning to. Maybe because I wasn't exercising for stimulation and health. But whatever it was, I've never felt this good on a lifestyle considered so "unhealthy" back home. Here, I've filled a journal and written more than 30 letters just on this trip.
Again, I credit the food quality and lack of hormones, GMOs, and preservatives. I'm luckily very in tune with my body and am a hippie snob with chemicals as a result. But you can take from my n=1 experience what you will. :)
(1) Tropia, C. (September 28, 2015). "No a 8 produtti ogm, l'Italia contro l'Ue." il Salvagente Test. Retrieved from https://www.testmagazine.it/2015/09/18/no-a-8-prodotti-ogm-litalia-contro-lue/2714/?v=cd32106bcb6d
(2) Shireen. (March 10, 2013). "GMO timeline: a history of genetically-modified foods." GMO Inside Blog. Retrieved from http://gmoinside.org/gmo-timeline-a-history-genetically-modified-foods/
(3) n.a. n.d. "Italy." FAO Corporate Document Repository. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/docrep/004/y1669e/y1669e0a.htm
(4) n.a. (December 4, 2012). "Countries with the greatest use of high-fructose corn syrup also have more diabetes." Yahoo! News. Retrieved from https://www.yahoo.com/news/countries-greatest-high-fructose-corn-syrup-more-diabetes-182823674.html?ref=gs
(5) Gucciardi, A. (June 2, 2012). "Americans eat 35 lbs of 'stupidity' linked high fructose corn syrup on average." Natural Society. Retrieved from http://naturalsociety.com/americans-eat-35-lbs-high-fructose-corn-syrup-average/
(6) n.a. n.d. "home." Pranzo Fresh Italian Food to go. Retrieved from http://www.pranzo.uk
(7) n.a. (2016). "Our passion." Gelato Giuliana. Retrieved from http://www.gelatogiuliana.com