The Mediterranean Diet is touted as one of the healthiest in the world. Diet culture is rampant in North America, and other parts of the western world and it hasn’t done us any favors. It has created a culture focused on body image and the goal of achieving perfect health. There is probably nothing more stressful because it is in our faces every day; it sits with us at every meal. We have lost touch with our own food culture which includes the traditional foods that sustained our ancestors. All of these factors have led to a rise in anxiety and depression that are not as widespread in cultures that have a strong food identity, such as Italy. Yet it is important to understand that there are many factors that play into why The Mediterranean Diet, which is based on the foods of Southern Italy, Greece, and Spain. I wish to share a personal story to help illustrate some of those intricacies in order to add nuance to the conversation.
Three years ago, we were in Sardinia visiting family. Before leaving on the trip, I had been on the Paleo diet for some time. Touted for its anti-inflammatory properties, and its straightforward eat this but don’t eat that approach, it seemed simple enough. Before that, I was doing grain-free and before that gluten-free. I was on a quest to feel my very best physically and mentally. I was dealing with some health issues and believed very strongly that through diet, I could heal myself. I’ve always believed in the power of food. I still do.
I thought about food all the time, what to eat, and especially what not to eat. I was stuck in a dogmatic world that was very inflexible. Even though I loved food, wrote about food, created food, it was my enemy. Even when the diet didn’t make me feel all the things the books and blogs said I should feel, instead of chucking it in the dustbin like I should have, I blamed myself and punished myself by eliminating more foods from my diet.
One day during this Sardinian vacation, I sat down at a restaurant facing the glimmering Mediterranean Sea trying to figure out what to eat for lunch. I had just been to an Erboristeria (Herbalist) looking for something to relieve my dust mite allergy that was making me miserable. The herbalist there gave me a blackcurrant tincture. He also told me to stay away from shellfish and when my gluten allergy came up, he suggested I might want to stay away from dairy as well because those two allergies can sometimes be linked.
I almost had a meltdown at the table reading the menu. There was all this beautiful food on it that I couldn’t eat – all the gluten-laden pastas, pizza, and bread. But then there were all the amazing cheeses and of course, being on the sea, tons and tons of shellfish, my favorite.
In that moment it became too much. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream in frustration. I wanted mussels in marinara.
My Italian family couldn’t understand my distress. They were probably thinking “crazy Americana!”.
I remember looking across the table at my husband Roberto and saying: “I feel like a self-flagellating nun in the land of decadence and debauchery”. That was an a-ha moment, a moment of truth. He ordered the mussels and a glass of wine; he made me eat the mussels and drink the wine. I felt better.
In that moment I realized I was the one who was making myself miserable. Most people would have ordered the mussels without a care in the world. But not me, I had to be perfect; I had to follow the rules at all costs.
I look back on that moment now, and want to say to that woman in distress: “Guess what? None of us are getting off this planet alive, so eat the mussels, drink the wine, enjoy the beautiful day with your family and stop trying to be perfect all the time. You are too full of life and have too much to offer to remain small, and too adventurous to be perfect; it doesn’t suit you”.
For years I woke up every morning with the belief that I was “unhealthy”. I was angry with my body that it wasn’t behaving the way I wanted it to. I was exhausted and so tired of looking for the “magic bullet” that would turn my health around; when I would look and feel like the books and blogs said I would. Then I understood this problem had been going on since my girlhood. Back then, it wasn’t my health that made me turn on myself, it was my image. I was always taller than my peers and looking in the mirror I always felt too big, too full. I wanted to blend, make myself small.
From that moment I looked at my inner demons for what they were and knew I had to be the one to take control of this situation. I had to let go of this perfect image of myself, the life I was supposed to be leading. I had to break free of the cage I was holding myself in, the cage that separated me from my voice and my power.
I was in the middle of a healing crisis from unhealthy thoughts about food and my body. So what did I do? I immediately began to eat gluten-free pasta and bread every day for the rest of the trip and even enjoyed several gluten-free pizzas. I also had a Coke for the first time in 20 years (in Italy they are still made with cane sugar).
It was cathartic.
Do you have a history of dieting? Explore some of the reasons you have for going on a specific diet.
Do you have a history of dieting? Explore some of the reasons you have for going on a specific diet.
No Guilt, No Shame
Since that time my relationship with food really changed. I also realized what a powerful effect the island of Sardinia held in my heart. I stopped worrying about being perfect all the time with my choices and focused more on enjoying whatever I was eating. I started acting like an Italian. Being in Italy does that to you. Italians love to eat good food and they do every day. It is a given. They enjoy their food. When they eat, they eat with gusto; there is no shyness or shame involved. I’ve heard Italians say they don’t like certain foods, or maybe have a hard time digesting something, but I’ve rarely heard them talking about diets.
Since moving to Sardinia, what I have found so interesting is that there is no guilt-based food advertising here. There is no marketing to special diets. There are special foods for medical conditions (lactose intolerance, sugar-free for diabetics and gluten-free for celiac and gluten allergies) and you can find those special foods at the pharmacy. Most people are of the opinion that you wouldn’t want to deprive yourself of those things (cheese, bread, pasta, sugar) unless you really had to, and in turn, people who have to be on those diets are not shamed either as they often are in the states. They are not ridiculed for “making up stories”. It is not seen as a fad here because it is still rare to find people who eliminate whole food groups from their diet in the name of health.
How does the food you eat make you feel? Do you feel guilty? Do you enjoy it? Dig into those questions and figure out why certain foods make you feel the way they do.
Eat Fresh and Local
Italy has a rich and strong food culture, they founded the Slow Food Movement after all, and Italians are devoted to Italian food, especially their own local, regional diets, and for good reason. Italy was not Italy until 1861. Until then it was a bunch of city-states, all with their own histories, art, culture, and foods. It was their identity, and for the most part still is today. People eat what is available in their regions, and fiercely hold onto all their traditions. Regional foods are still a big thing here. Cuisine changes, even drastically from region to region. Regional dishes use local ingredients and recipes. Bloomberg named Italy Healthiest Country in the World in 2017, so they are definitely onto something.
What foods are local to your area? Do you think about buying mostly foods in season?
Look to the Past
It has been this way for thousands of years, and it is unlikely to change anytime soon. When you poll Americans and ask their favorite cuisine, you often hear responses like Italian, or Mexican or Chinese. But in Italy, when you ask this question to Italians, it is always Italian, of course!
“You can pry the pasta and bread out of their cold dead hands thank you very much. And don’t even talk to them about how you can’ t cook with olive oil.”
America doesn’t have a food culture, not really. Yes, there are many regional delicacies, but we are a nation who has largely forgotten how to eat, not to mention, cook. Somewhere along the way we lost those skills brought by our ancestors who crossed the shores from distant lands, or those who never left but where here from the beginning. Maybe they wanted to blend too, just like I did, to go unnoticed for fear of rejection, or worse.
If I have any advice for any American that doesn’t know how to eat healthy, look to your ancestors and what they ate. It will give you grounding and a place to start.
Banish the Scale and Clothes you Hate
I have noticed a few other things, about myself. I haven’t thought for a single second since moving here that I shouldn’t eat something. I have even tried eating gluten again. I have heard the wheat is different here, as there are no glyphosates or GMOs in the food. Other Americans I know who couldn’t eat gluten in the states, can eat it in Europe. So I thought, why not try? So far, I can have small amounts, but not every day. I don’t push it, but I also don’t turn down an opportunity to try a special treat on a holiday or festival day. I don’t have celiac; I have an allergy and in the same way that I have a bad dust mite allergy and still wear wool, I am not always perfect about it. The other significant thing I’ve noticed is that I haven’t thought once about weighing myself nor have I obsessed about how I look in my clothes. Not once. Wow. I don’t have a scale, and I literally don’t care. Nor do I have a full-length mirror. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this in my life, at least as long as I can remember.
In the past, I didn’t want to stand out. I was afraid of rejection. I’d still rather blend, like the deer in a forest, but not if that act cuts me down. Life is messy and chaotic. It is beautiful and fierce and sometimes it feels unkind, but it helps us grow into who we must become.
Feel free and let go of clothes that don’t make you feel awesome. I have a very small wardrobe, but I love every single piece of it. If you want some inspiration, pretend like you are moving internationally and can only take a suitcase full of clothes. What things would you take? What would you leave behind?
To become we must be strong. I eat pasta and bread every day. It is what people do here. When I tell friends and family back home, you can see the looks on their faces. Carbs have been maligned at home. I believed the hype too. But now I just shake my head at the thought and what I put myself through. Pasta is inexpensive, filling and delicious. If you told me 3 years ago that I would be eating like this, I would have been horrified and sure that I would be feeling very badly by now. But it is quite the opposite. I feel quite well.
Look to the Land
Since that day 3 years ago, I have held an unwavering faith that living in Sardinia would help me more and more to become the person I am and to continue to rid my mind of unhealthy thoughts about myself. It has not disappointed. I have grown so much in the past 4 months and feel more myself than I have in years. I have lived through many struggles over the past 2 years, so many that one day I may need to write a book about it. Those struggles have been painful and have stripped me to my core, and now a beautiful sapling is beginning to grow there, stronger than the old and brittle tree that was there before. She bends and sways in the strong winds of this rugged island, and just like the rocks that have been shaped here over millions of years of those winds; I am also being shaped by Sardinia.
There is a strength here that feeds me. It is an old island and she doesn’t suffer fools, and it tests your resolve to make a life here. Unemployment is rampant, people scrape by most of the year, but the ones that are here must feel called to this place like we were. I pray that the strength of this island, her history, her integrity, and character fill my children with her gifts as they grow here, strong and unafraid to let the world see them for who they are.
What do you struggle with in life? Does the place you live help or hinder you in your pursuit of happiness?
- Part 2 of this series: Eat Like an Italian: Part II: The Real Mediterranean Diet (What About The Carbs, The Olive Oil and The Gluten?) straightens out some misconceptions about The Mediterranean Diet and so-called Paradox Diets
- The third part of the series Live Like a Sardinian: The Key to Longevity connects the dots between food, land, and tradition, and discusses and answers your questions about the Blue Zones and The Mediterranean Diet.
- If you are curious about real life in Sardinia, check out Taking a Walk in Our Sardinian Neighborhood.
- If you want to read more about why we moved to Sardinia, you’ll find the full reveal in Why We Moved to Sardinia.
- To read more about how to appreciate times of struggle check out my post, The Sea Provides: Appreciating Struggle.