Eat the cake and other Italian food lessons
Last week I cooked pasta. For myself. Home alone, my husband away for work, I pulled the ribbons of pappardelle from nearby Garfaganana from the hand-tied packet, measured out 100g, and chopped and stirred away with some onion, garlic, tomato: fresh, semi-dried and tinned (yes, three kinds of tomatoes, because just like in English the Italians also say non c’e due senza tre – there’s no two without three). I threw in a couple of anchovies because I love them. I arranged it in a bright blue ceramic bowl I’d bought the week before and threw some basil from the garden on top. I reckon the whole thing took me 15 minutes.
Scrolling through Instagram while I sat outside and ate it (not mindful eating, but sometimes a girl needs a break between mouthfuls…) a post from my hometown popped up. The picture was a smoothie: salted caramel, protein powder and peanut butter with almond milk combo. It was being marketed by the company that sold it as a health food.
The discord struck me so hard. Go back even two years, and I didn’t eat pasta. Three years and no gluten. Eight years and no meat. Ten years and it was alternating between eating way too much and barely eating at all. I know, I know, I married an Italian. Italy: where food, discussion around food, dissecting food, buying food and of course eating food, are national past-times. The irony. Funnier still that it’s only really since coming to Italy last year that the decade-long slog of healing my relationship with food and with my body has accelerated. The icing on the cake (no pun intended for this sweet tooth) is that I always put on a little bit of weight here, and always lose a little bit when I’m in Australia. My mother in law asked me the other day what I put it down to and the answer came pretty easily: more carbs, drinking a little wine every day, eating dinner later and the sheer quantity of food here. It can be a tricky affair to navigate.
But here was a product that I was pretty sure was a calorie bomb (protein powder, salted caramel and nuts…in a drink), and possibly full of sugar, being sold as healthy. I immediately identified with anyone who’d ever bought one, having spent years and years going from diet to diet, exercise program to exercise program, in a vain – in more than one sense of the word – effort to change my body. In effect I just spent so long smashing it around with weird, disordered eating, supplements, vitamins, poor sleep and ineffective workout patterns that it almost gave up on me.
My point is this: it can be so bloody confusing to work out what to eat and how. We are constantly bombarded with information about what we should be doing to be our fittest, best, most beautiful selves. None of that, by the way, seems to be focused on what’s going on inside, which is where the biggest battle ground lies. We are always looking for something that will help us cut prep time or give us an edge, and rightly so, because we live in a world that places massive expectations on us. We trying to be super in every respect: supermum, supermodel, super employee – and get to yoga too.
While nothing that’s marketed to us is probably that untrue, it’s usually only part of the equation. While raw desserts might be unprocessed, they have a whack amount of calories. While paleo might be good for weight loss, what’s the impact of the body of eating so much meat and cutting out grains? Short answer? Not that great, according to the experts. Bliss balls might be better than chocolate cake, but not if you eat them every day. You get the drift. Sometimes you are, actually, better off just eating the cake.
At the last yoga retreat I taught at, in the hills of Lucca, the conversation turned to Instagram and food. One of the ladies told us how her daughter lamented the lack of ‘normal, real’ people she could follow there. Everyone was pushing an agenda, a lifestyle, a product, or perfectionism, extremity or obsessiveness. There was no middle path, no voice of reason.
And I think there we hit the nail on the head. Moderation might not be a sexy, saleable message, but it might be our best chance at living longer and better. I guess coming to Italy forced me to face my food fears head on. You can’t escape it here. Food, produce and cooking are as integral to life as sleeping and spending time with family and outdoors, some of the other big-ticket priorities. Having distance from the cacophony in Australia around what good eating actually means, plus watching my family here so well, without becoming overweight or obese, crystallised what I’d been grappling to understand for so long (and also what I’d been resisting, because I’m nothing if not totally stubborn and a bit resistant to change, or admitting I’ve got things wrong).
What have I learnt? Vegetables and grains make up 70 per cent of what we eat. And my digestion works better for it. I feel calmer now that I eat less sugar and my cravings for sweets have nosedived. If we have dessert at home, it's usually some fruit. That said, nothing is off limits. But if you overdo it, ease off the next day. A little bit of wine at dinner never hurt anyone. Eating unprocessed food is the best thing to make your body really feel good. Go back to basics: salads, pastas, grains, all good quality. None of this is rocket science or news to any of us but with all the life hacks going around we think we can hack our health too. We can't.
When we go hiking, we can eat the fruit straight off the trees. One of my husband’s favourite rules? No dish needs more than four or five ingredients. Olive oil and gelato are food groups in their own right.
Mostly importantly though, I'm learning to cast off all the shadows that held me hostage and with clarity, take back the power to make good, healthy decisions about what I'm putting in my body. Moderation, trusting our bodies - messages that might not sell, but might save us. And even more than that: food is joy, communion, life, and there's nothing to be gained by constantly depriving ourselves. Which is why that simple bowl of pasta made just for me was such a big achievement.