Happy new year, curious readers! You may have noticed if you follow me on social media I’ve been in the states, and of course hopping way through Los Angeles, Seattle and now San Francisco. This “staying healthy in the food industry” is a topic I’ve long wanted to go into depth about and what better a time then when we’re all touting our resolutions and intentions, some of which health driven.
Americans are spending billions more on going out to eat than they are on groceries, and (according to the article I linked ^) millennials are the largest generation in history with an appetite for eating out- on average going out to eat nearly 4 times a week! There are additional factors which contribute to a staggeringly well-oiled restaurant industry, like a nearly double fold increase in women in the workplace since the 1950’s (grazie to sorta kinda gender equality- nothing is mentioned about equal pay). There are websites that report solely about restaurants and I get paid to write for some of them- dining out culture is a huge thing- but at what cost to our health?
While traveling, it is inevitable that you’ll eat out more. I admittedly fall into that statistic of at least 4 times a week, if not 5 from a combination of work, convenience & as part of my social life. Eating out nearly every day is not only expensive, wasteful of resources & unsustainable on so many levels- it simply is not healthy. Oil (and not the scrupulous high quality kind we select for home use) and copious amounts of salt are just 2 of the sneaky rascals after our diet.
Travel is jarring healthwise since you aren’t in your kitchen nor in your routine, you’re around transport which emit either gas fumes or small levels of radiation, and are more likely to eat out more. This post will provide some useful tips and personal experience for how I as a food writer stay (or try to stay) healthy.
This is a personal blog post and not intended to give “health advice” or assert new agey food claims to saving lives and preventing disease. These are my opinions for nutritional wellness based on experience- so take it all with a grain of (sea) salt!
One of my goals since I’ve had since last year is to strike a balance with my dietary lifestyle. No matter where I turn- I’m faced with temptation and it’s a constant battle to make healthy decisions. I’m periodically invited to press lunches, business dinners or need to check out new restaurants & staying on top of my food tour stops & restaurants I include in my food guides. Not to mention, the litany of gelaterias literally taunting me every 5 minutes. Plus, I just finished Italian sommelier training. And in face of all of this, I am trying to shed some excess weight I’ve adopted over the last few years.
In sharing something personal, truthfully I’ve struggled with weight my entire life. In this irony, I find many food professionals with a likewise unique history & relationship with eating. I was overweight as a child, obesity & cardiovascular disease is common in the family. I don’t feel we are destined to our genetics- but some of us have to fight harder than others to defy health woes.
If anyone tells you obesity has nothing to do with genetics- they are 110% wrong and ill-informed. The western diet & lifestyle is an environment which puts those with a genetic disposition to obesity are more susceptible to express those traits. In college, I studied food politics and this documentary convinced me the gene factor coupled with the spread of the western diet & sedentary livestyles in the world obesity epidemic.
So imagine the challenge in the battle when food is something you not only love (we all love food, right?) but something you actually work with every single day.
But in a strange way, like the masochist I am, gladly have accepted this challenge to not only get healthier, but to shed weight while still a food writer. I’ve come this far in my life and beat lots of odds, why not have my (portion controlled) cake and eat it too? At the same time, I have over the years embraced the body positive movement.
After a lifelong struggle with weight, I have surrendered and now more concerned with just being as healthy as possible. All I can do is exercise regularly and eat happily & healthily- it is the best I can do while also being kind to myself. I realized anyone who had a problem with me had a fragile ego and perception of themselves they were trying to project on me. Once someone told me they were surprised I had the stamina for a 20 mile bike ride. I could write a book about the insensitive and selfish comments & attitudes I have witnessed. Some bodies are designed to be the way they are supposed to be and I am happy with all of them. Are you?
My first accomplishment over the last few years was getting into a rigorous regular exercise habit to justify the occasional excess calorie intake as a food & travel professional. Part of being healthy is to avoid excess calories, sugar and alcohol. Prior, I’d slipped in and out of exercise fads: bodypump, zumba, kickboxing, bike riding, running- everything except bootcamp and crossfit. Walking, albeit great, is simply not enough. I really wish people didn’t think “oh, Italians can eat pasta, cheese, pizza and drink whatever they want because they walk everywhere!
Firstly, Italians have an uncanny awareness of nutrition and will indulge in a Sunday full course meal- on Sundays. Or if they have pasta, pizza and cheese everyday- it’s a small portion or dressed simply- not loaded with a million calorie laden ingredients. I know very few Italians who eat out more than once or twice a week proper full on with buckets of wine and generous helpings of meats, cheeses & pasta. They know if they indulge, the next days they make up for it and they grow up participating in sports and exercise. Granted, part of this comes from a superficial and vain place, nevertheless I appreciate the Italian’s common sense approach to diet and exercise.
Luckily, I have never been sedentary, even if it isn’t until the last couple years I’ve been working on a fitness routine. In Seattle, I biked to work, university (hey Burke Gilman trail) and to get around- Seattle is a hilly town so a work out in it of itself! I took public transport, went hiking and walking regularly. I still worked in the food industry and always have been curious to learn new recipes. Now even deeper in the food industry than ever, I still am active plus clock in 3-4 days a week at the gym- and with some adjustments to diet- I manage to loose a couple measly pounds per month.
Thankfully, my older sister is an amazing functional nutritionist and has been immensely helpful along the way. Although there is some irony we both work in food in opposite ways.
Striving for balance is hard work but at the same time, it’s made me a better food “critic.” I’m more discerning than ever where my calories go, I’m selective about press meals and new openings. After the first month of scaling back calories, my palate became more sensitive. I wasn’t bombarding it daily with sensory overload so when I did allow myself a meal out- I became not only more appreciative but more sensitive to its nuances. There have been a couple weeks where I fell off the wagon with one too many forks of richly prepared pasta or weeks where I had articles back to back, but exercise never wavered.
Here are my “hacks” which help me as a food & travel writer, maybe they can be useful to you as well if you travel a lot for work or are looking to travel a lot for leisure but want to maintain a balanced lifestyle
Never skip exercise. When I come to the states, I find a local gym and get temporary passes. 24 Hour Fitness has been affordable & convenient, albeit grimy. I can’t stand doing one thing which is why I prefer a gym with classes and equipment so I can switch it up. If you’re into yoga, spinning, running- find a studio or a group! San Francisco has this cool thing called Class Pass and it allows you to join fitness classes around town. If you’re into dancing- find a local dance studio. With the internet and all sorts of social apps- there are no excuses for staying still.
When I was in the Basque Country this August, this was tricky because they don’t have much of a gym culture. Instead, I found lots or urban hikes & stairs to do uphill as this is a surefire way to get heart rate up and not needing to run (still hate running- tried to love it and even did a 5K to prove I could do it but never again) My friend Shari does yoga lessons in Florence for those of you who’d like to move your muscles in flows!
When I was in Iran, I threw diet & exercise out the window. I ate kebab, oily stews, mounds of buttered rice nearly everyday and walked around at a leisurely pace. Hey- I’m not a monster. But that was 2 weeks I let myself completely go. I made a deal though when I got back to do some serious damage control. It’s all about making deals too. If you want to splurge for a week, the next week stick to yogurt bowls, salads and soups & plenty of exercise.
Choose one meal for a splurge and the other 2 be conservative. If I am working on a guide, this is the roughest week. I consistently rotate out to restaurants in Florence so I have a working list, but if I am working on a guide with a deadline, I have to make restaurant rounds if I haven’t been in a while (usually more than 3-6 months). When eating out, ask what’s available for half portions. I’ve been surprised that restaurants have been really accommodating. If you have plans for dinner out, eat really lightly for breakfast (like wasa rye crisps & a thin spread of honey and a hard boiled egg or greek yogurt with nuts and a drizzle of honey) add some extra cardio at the gym and only choose one meal for an outing and eat a lean protein & fiber rich salad or a vegetable rich soup for the other meal.
Negotiate splurges. Of course I want to try the local specialties and the lauded eateries! This is what trains my palate too. But you can’t have it all: pastries at that famous bakery and heavy brunches, big lunches, dinners out and drinks on the town. Maybe one or two days of my vacation can be like this- but everyday no. I make deals & decisions. If I want to try a bakery- that’s my splurge for the day and it must be combined with either loads of walking or a visit to the gym. My sister advised me that “treat days” still should not exceed your daily limit of calories as to maintain an overall calorie deficit, if weight loss is one of your goals.
Always pack gym attire and exercise-friendly shoes. This will also make you exercise since you’re like “well, I packed it- better use it!” Look into active tours where ever you travel like bike tours, hiking excursions, weekend yoga retreats, etc. In Florence, I work with I Bike Italy/We Like Tuscany who provides awesome active bike tours, and running tours too!
On menus- try to load up on vegetables, lean proteins, legumes, soups and salads. Avoid fried and things cooked in (too much) cream. Order fish, lean meats, legume plates and try to stay away from the bread basket unless it’s Cibreo’s nourishing bread. Share everything. A good gauge for a restaurant is sometimes how well they do basic items like veggies, salads, soups and fish- it’s easy to overcook fish and to make bland soups or vegetable dishes uninspiring- those are sometimes my benchmark. If you see a frittata or egg tortino- this is a good main course compromise to a heavy meat stew or rump steak.
Drink loads of water. A lot of hunger or senses of hunger is triggered by dehydration. I drink loads of water in between meals and at least a couple glasses before meals. Coffee (and tea) is dehydrating- make sure to drink plenty of water after caffe.
Drinking alcohol- keep it to 2 servings per day. This was the hardest habit to balance. This has been a struggle as I love wine & craft cocktails, so I have allowed myself one day a week where I have a little more. Since I’m always discovering more about wine, as now an almost sommelier, I also ask for half glasses of wine. I’m also a beer lover so ask for half pints or 4 ounce tasters. Consider alcohol is dehydrating- so for every drink you should rehydrate with 3 cups of water. I now always have a tall glass of water with every drink so I space out drinks. On cocktails, look for low alcohol cocktails. My favorite drink is a negroni or boulevardier and they of course happen to be some of the highest in calories- the combo of spirit, bitter and vermouth is a calorie bomba. Thanks to a very patient friend Julian Biondi of Mad Souls & Spirits, he got me on vermouth sodas with dashes of bar bitters (not the same as Campari-like bitter which are full of sugar.) I also found this article very helpful in compromising on low-sugar libations.
If you’re like me- I love having something besides water with meals. So I make kefir water and have kombucha with meals on my booze-free days. Kefir water is extremely easy to make and I prefer making kefir water to kombucha (fermented tea), and they are both dry and slightly fizzy so they substitute (by a long shot) the desire for a beer or bubbly. Plus, they have beneficial gut bacteria & yeasts- which again help to balance the digestive stress alcohol & sugar consumption can impose.
Eat pasta and fat. I can live without pizza and most all baked goods, but I cannot live without pasta. Pasta is not necessarily the problem, but rather the serving size and how it’s prepared. Pasta plates of 150 grams of pasta made with cream, pancetta, rich sauces or tortellini filled with a high fat pork product filling essentially cooked in butter is more of the calorie culprit. I weigh my pasta and if I eat pasta at home, I use a high fiber, whole grain pasta. I do make pasta at home and for a while was in a buckwheat flour pasta kick, for which I made with a sauce of broccoli rabe and mackerel. I try to stay at 60-80 grams of pasta per serving. If you eat pasta out- ask for half servings and look for the option with the simplest of dressing or anything fish based.
Avoid butter & cream rich sauces but instead stick to tomato & vegetarian bases Think mushrooms, broccoli, zucchini flowers, etc. If at home, I make tomato sauce from scratch and add half a sausage for flavor and load up on steamed vegetables on the side with quality olive oil, lemon salt and pepper. Another way I trick pasta into healthy is tons of arugula, a few dollops of raveggiolo or stracciatella cheese, cracked pepper, pistachios and a bit of crumbled sausage. If I am feeling bored, I’ll get small shrimp from the market (gamberetti) cook in a garlic, wine and parsley finished with lemon. I measure my oil and butter too. One tablespoon of olive oil contains about 120 calories and 14 grams of fat- a tablespoon is tiny! Once I started measuring food (pasta, bread, salt and oil) I realized how much I was overeating and how much restaurants must be adding to make their food delicious. Check with your nutritionist or doctor but 50-70 grams of fat per day should be plenty.
Fat is not a bad guy- but calories are calories and excess calories = weight gain and high blood triglycerides. Also, the type of fat is important. My pantry always has several (organic) types of ev olive oil, unrefined coconut oil for high temp cooking, ghee and farmstead butter and toasted sesame oil. Sometimes I have hemp and flax seed oil for dressing and omega 3 boost. I never purchase soy, canola, corn or peanut oil. These oils are highly processed & refined, usually sourced from genetically engineered crops, are highly oxidative (i.e. free radicals) when cooked, are treated to a toxic level of agricultural chemicals and/or have a poor ratio of omega 3-6-9. I also keep my pantry stocked with anchovies as they are little saviors of omega 3s AND with mega umami superpowers. A portion-mindful plate of whole grain pasta with anchovies and a squeeze of lemon & olive oil is a delightful healthy dish!
Yes, we’re all going die one day but I want to have the highest quality of life possible, to have my cake and eat it too within balance. My chemistry teacher in college once said “what kind of death is one by hot dogs?”
Look for accommodations with kitchen access. If I am traveling, I always stay somewhere with a kitchen. I buy small bottles of evoo and a little bit of butter for cooking. In the states, I always make breakfast where I am staying since I’d rather eat a nice meal out as my one treat for the day. I stock up on sprouted bread because it is high in fiber with a bit of protein and full of nutrients, I use nut butter for essential fats and another added boost of protein- but thinly spread! Add one hard boiled egg and hunger won’t attack until 1 or 2.
Eat bread & crackers with the most nutritional bang for your caloric buck. I eat bread (and measure servings- 65-80 grams max) nearly every morning unless I splurged the day before then I have greek yogurt with fruit & nuts for breakfast. Since in Florence I can’t get sprouted bread, I get breakfast bread from a bakery who makes “pane proteico” which is a high protein bread made of whole grain, seed, nut and bean flour. It’s no wonderbread, but it’s high in fiber, protein and essential omega fats which help stabilize blood sugar. I put a little bit of butter and whole fruit spread plus a boiled egg or a thin spread of a natural chocolate hazelnut spread. I get tired of pane proteico sometimes and switch it up to rustic rye bread made w/ stone ground grain & natural fermentation or those blocks of european rye & seed bread.
I always have high fiber rye crisps, whole grain flatbreads, grain cakes, and ancient grain baked goods around. Carbs are not the enemy- it’s all about getting the biggest nutritional bang for your caloric buck. Fiber & omegas are what I look for in bread & cracker products. Plain white bread are pure calories with little nutritional value. Plus, I honestly prefer the earthy taste of multigrain breads & crackers.
Snacks of fruit and nuts. Instead of gelato everyday (which is easy to do in Florence) I reach for an orange and sweet Sicilian almonds or pears and hazelnuts.
Chocolate every day. I eat quality dark chocolate everyday unless its my gelato day, In Florence, I try to limit gelato to once a week and the smallest size available. Again, I now appreciate gelato so much more. If you’re visiting and want gelato every day, try to split servings with friends and embrace the art of tasting. Go to quality gelato purveyors who don’t use unnecessary amounts of sugar, I’ve found Ara e’ Sicilia by the accademia to have some of the lowest sugar gelato. I can really taste the pistachio or sheep’s milk ricotta without sugar trying to mask it.
For pastries, look for “mignon” small snack size pasties or ask them to cut in half whatever you have your eyes on and pack the other half for later or give it away. Nencioni in Sant’Ambrogio and also Serafini in Beccaria are my 2 favorite shops for mignon pastry bites.
If you’re like me and struggle with blood sugar lows, incorporating little bit of fiber & protein whether animal, legume, nut or plant based it every meal is a life saver for appetite. This helps keep me satiated throughout the day and less tempted to snack at every bakery I pass by.
Take food tours! I always take food tours to get a scope of a city’s culinary scene- the best part is they’re all bites! You can choose what not to partake in while still learning and you can experience a handful of venues without needing to do full servings. My market tour in Florence is a great way to taste bites of fresh food and street snacks around town.
This may seem like a mega intense article- but healthy balanced nutrition is something I am very passionate about. I know there is this whole thing to go after “clean eating” but realistically- all whole food like eggs, grains, butter, dairy and meats are healthy if eaten in their ideal form and at a moderate serving. Even indulgences like fried foods, negroni, salame, cheese, steak & pizza have their place- in moderation or as a treat! I do eat everything, but I use these guidelines above to hopefully strike a balance.
So in case you were curious how this food writer tries to stay healthy- here you have it!
In your healthyish trust,