Eat smarter not harder: appreciate your food

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Eat smarter not harder: appreciate your food

Michelle Reagle | Staff Illustrator

Michelle Reagle | Staff Illustrator

Michelle Reagle | Staff Illustrator

Michelle Reagle | Staff Illustrator

By Stephen Caruso | Contributing Editor

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One of the first observations my friends and family made when I got off the plane from five months in Europe was unexpected, but flattering.

“Stephen, you look great!”

Why? How could anyone lose weight when spending four months in Italy — the home of pasta, pizza and parmesan? But a friend’s goading forced me onto a scale which revealed that I was 40 pounds lighter than I had originally thought.

I’ve written about my body image before, and this drastic change shocked me. Far from starving, I felt I ate the best of my life while studying abroad — because of Europe’s entirely different attitude towards food.

From the ingredients themselves — usually fresher and less processed — to how Europeans eat — slower and in multiple courses — the environment made for healthier and tastier living.

According to a 2016 study by BMJ Source, Americans get 57.7 percent of their calories from “ultra-processed” food, which the medical journal defines as “industrial formulations which, besides salt, sugar, oils and fats, include substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations.”

In other words, Americans get over half of their food from the factory — not the farm — using chemicals to fake freshness and natural elements, while being pumped with flavors that have all been linked to addiction in multiple studies.

The usual findings? Binging on high fat, high sugar and high salt products leads to dopamine releases, creating a pleasurable feeling and reinforcing the behavior.

The end result? Obesity. According to the World Obesity Federation, 40 percent of American women and 35 percent of men are obese. This places the United States among the fattest countries in the world.

Not that genetics don’t play a role — but this isn’t a debate about whether weight comes from nature or nurture. Both will factor into what the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has called a “major health threat.” But it’s worth noting how fats and oil take up 10 percent or more of our calories since 1970, and that 74 percent of packaged American foods now have added sugar in them — including things like yogurt, bread and pasta sauce.

American cuisine then takes these processed ingredients and layers them on top of each other. When you think of how many things can be dipped in chocolate, drizzled with cheese or covered in chili, it’s easy to lose track of how unhealthily we eat on a daily basis.

Europeans though — especially Italians — create food with great care and highly prized fresh ingredients. But this doesn’t result in higher prices, which is the common excuse for why so many American foods are artificial. By buying local and in-season ingredients, transit costs are lower for fresh food. Also, many Italians shop at open markets and shops with limited hours and supplies. By reducing the pressure on food retailers to always have everything, prices come down. Five euros — or $5.64 — could get you fresh bread, veggies and sausage, with enough for leftovers.

With recipes, Italians valued simplicity. Pizza usually didn’t have tomato sauce — just halved cherry tomatoes. No room for added sugars or salts there. And while an Italian hoagie in the United States is replete with pepperoni, ham, salami, provolone, lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo and oil, no real Italian sandwich would ever stuff so much in one place.

As my study abroad school’s head, a native Italian, said, “make sure you savor each flavor.” By that mantra, Italians would likely just get wild boar salami, arugula and hot pepper olive oil in their sandwiches.

Simple, fresh eating means lively and active taste buds. I can still remember tramping through a street market in Florence with my camera when a local vendor noticed me. Seeing I was a tourist, he broke into a huge smile and offered me a locally grown strawberry. In his limited English, he intoned “Our strawberries are the best strawberries.”

My head told me it was good. The juices poured out and its texture was firm but had give. Yet my overly sugared tongue — more used to strawberry Jolly Ranchers than a real one — was not impressed. The sugar rush hadn’t been tripped.

My brain could understand why it was tasty — but my tongue just didn’t notice. I was disappointed that I couldn’t honor this man’s enthusiasm for his profession with an equal enthusiasm for his food.

For as much as Americans love to fetishize food —  gorging on deep fried oreos, bourbon bacon bread pudding, double bacon cheeseburgers with grilled cheese for buns — we don’t respect it. Our relationship with food is an empty regard. It’s not a respect for a natural strawberry, it’s “let’s see how many flavors we can shove into one place.”

Eating wasn’t a task of maximizing energy and flavor. It was an experience to savor life’s little things and share them with loved ones. A minimum of an hour should be set aside to sit down with family for a meal. The food will come in courses — usually four — and be savored, whether at home or at an restaurant. This gives the chemicals that regulate hunger and fullness time to act. The pacing meant I never left a meal feeling like I’d eaten too much.

Food is something we need for survival, sure. But food is also a way to honor our heritage — personal and collective. I can remember my mom showing me a recipe, handwritten by my great-grandmother, for potato salad — she’s Polish, not Italian. I made it, and as I ate it I felt this connection to her I never had before. A recipe from the internet could never recreate that emotion.

Food isn’t just subsistence. It’s recipes passed down for generations, it’s ingredients carefully cultivated by a thoughtful farmer, it’s the joy of cooking with a loved one for a loved one. This is what Italy still understands, and helped me understand.

How do we bring this back to America? Shop small and thoughtfully. Little grocery stores, like their European counterparts, still exist with fresh local ingredients. Don’t buy frozen chicken and condiments to cover its processed taste.

Just in South Oakland, there is Groceria Merante and Las Palmas. Both carry fresh fruits and vegetables at fine prices. You can get a zucchini, a loaf of fresh bread and a homemade Italian sausage for less than $7 at Merante, while Las Palmas will always have avocados and lime for about $4 to make a cheap and quick guacamole.

Shopping at a food co-op — like the East End Food Co-op near Wilkinsburg — also helps support local, fresh and sustainable ingredients. Availability will vary, and a few products might be more expensive, but the improved quality will more than make up for the difference.

Also try to take time out to really cherish and appreciate meals. Set aside a few nights to cook. Invite friends over for dinner parties. If your first attempt at homemade meatballs goes awry, your misery will enjoy the company — hopefully.

Food should be a fun experience, from picking the ingredients to eating the results. It’s a simple pleasure, one that the emphasis on convenience of modern America has lost.

Take a page from the old country, and live la bella vita.

Stephen Caruso is a Contributing Editor for The Pitt News. He primarily writes on social and economic issues.

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