It’s In the System

I’ve been reading some of the latest weight loss tips and diabetes prevention tactics from diet gurus and nutrition experts. It’s all based on recent studies, the most up to the minute research. It never fails to surprise me how much these great scientific revelations mirror the food knowledge already contained in traditional food cultures. Since I live in Italy, I’ll compare what I learned this week from science with what Italians have been doing for centuries.

The experts have found that starches and refined sugars enter our bloodstreams very quickly and cause our sugar levels to spike and our insulin levels to rise. All of this causes us to put on weight and puts us at risk for diabetes. A few years ago the experts were telling us not to eat starches and sugars. Now they’re telling us it’s how we consume starches and sugars that cause our problems. The advice they’re now giving is to have a small fatty snack maybe just 20 or 30 minutes before your meal because the fat triggers something in the pyloric valve that slows the rate of digestion and this slows the glucose absorption into the bloodstream. Then whatever you eat afterwards has to wait to make its way from your stomach on down through your intestines.

The Italians call this antipasto. In a restaurant while you are thinking about what to order for dinner, or even at home while waiting for dinner to cook, you and your fellow diners share a plate of salami, prosciutto, cheese, some olives, some beans in olive oil, etc. Just a little to whet the appetite. One of the diet experts actually suggested that you make “antipasto bags” as snack bags to eat in the car or when you’re on the go. While I’m glad he acknowledged the antipasto aspect, I think putting it in a bag sounds disgusting. Sit at a table and eat from a plate, for Heaven’s sake. We’re human beings not horses.

Many of the other suggestions were to eat some protein with the meal. Well, there is some protein in the antipasto, the pasta sauce in the first course sometimes contains a little bit of meat or legumes, and the second course is usually a small piece of meat or fish and lots of vegetables. Another suggestion is to include vinegar, though I’ve heard brined vegetables are good too, for slowing the conversion of starch into sugar in your bloodstream. Olives with the antipasto should do the trick or other brined, mixed vegetables that are commonly served in Italy.

A glass of wine, we are all relieved to know, causes the liver to produce less glucose while we eat. Italians have always had wine with a meal – traditionally, it was just a little wine sometimes with water added to it – and they don’t drink wine without food. I don’t imagine anyone before thought much about the glucose produced in the liver. They likely noticed that warm happy feeling that comes over you as you eat, take a sip and chat.

The Italian system of eating is about pleasure, it’s about prolonging our time over the table so that we can be with our friends and family longer, enjoying our food, talking, arguing, living. It’s not about fuelling ourselves to get on with the next task, the next chore, or raising the country’s GDP. The American model is all about intellectualizing food and digestive processes and creating a scientific mystique about food that makes us think we need expert advice and specially designed food products.

North Americans don’t need to eat an Italian, a French or a Mediterranean diet to be healthy. We don’t have to eat prosciutto and olives specifically. But, we need to build up local traditions and foods and create healthy structures that might share certain elements with the traditional food cultures. We need rules about when to eat (at meal time), where to eat (at a table), what to eat (real food, not food products) and why to eat (to enjoy life).

More than anything, we need to stop looking to scientific experts for help, and we really need to stop talking about our digestive processes while we’re eating.



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7 responses to “It’s In the System

  1. Jeannie, I really like your post – it completely captures my current philosophy on food! The Italians know this intuitively, but we here in the US have lost this in our appetite for quick, easy processed foods. In my cooking classes I try to introduce this to my guests; it doesn’t have to be hard or complicated – just wonderful, fresh ingredients with a minimal of fuss.

  2. pobrian

    Reblogged this on Simple! and commented:
    Here are some excellent thoughts about food and how we eat written by Jeanne Marshall. Thanks Jeanne.

  3. So much good information, although I have to disagree with you on the “rules” bit. I think people have to find their way their for the love of it. No Italian sits down to the table to eat between 12:30 and 1pm for lunch or insists that kids, as soon as they start eating have a spoonful of parmaggiano regiano and a spoonful of olio extra virgine crudo because it’s a rule, but because they truly believe in it. We used to do the same right here in river city (aka USA)–not the parm and olive part–but we’ve been led away from it by food business that would like us to believe that faster, more convenient, bigger, food that lasts forever in a package is the best way to live.

    • Thanks for your comment. But, really we agree. Italians (hate to generalize like this, but for the sake of argument) don’t do any of these things because they consciously think it’s good for them. They do it because it comes through tradition and tradition is a series of habits passed down through generations. Many such rules are passed down because they are healthy, though no one really remembers that part of it. Regardless, it’s a great way to approach the table.

  4. Ben

    Nice post.

    The traditional Italian ways of eating and drinking are not just better for how we process food but alcohol as well. As you mention, Italians rarely drink wine without food and don’t generally drink just to get drunk. This was on stark display at a recent wedding I attended in Tuscany where most guests were local, but some were Canadian guests of the bride. Those Canucks were the only ones to hit the bottle to point of ridiculous drunkenness.

    All this said, it’s not a simple matter to institute these “Italian” ways when living somewhere like North America. I live in New York, for example, and unless I had thousands of dollars to dine out at restaurants, there is no way I can be at a table for a slow and sensible dinner every night. Our culture has developed in the opposite way, and it takes a lot of effort and sacrifice to step outside this. That’s why I’m not totally against trying to find ways to incorporate these ideas in a way that works for people who don’t live in sleepy, traditional, rural Italy. Though, antipasto in a bag? I’ll pass on that!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m Canadian, too, so I know what you mean. I certainly didn’t grow up with the idea of making a glass of wine last most of the night, not to mention the long dinner that should go with it. But, I see the benefit of it now. Things change slowly, but I hope they will change for the better.

  5. AP Hovasse

    I need to recover some of my French eating habits, which is a bit problematic living with someone from China. However, the two cultures meet in the middle: Xiuling is a non-stop consumer of greens and fruits, and I have brought her the joys of wine, cheese, saucisson, and French salads with my Mom’s vinaigrette!

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