Staying Fit and Healthy in Italy
A Guide to Enjoying The World’s Greatest Cuisine
Traveling is one of my favorite pastimes, and I’m always vaguely affronted when people drag “waistline” into the conversation around travel.
In my experience, it’s not an either-or proposition. It’s not as though enjoying food and departing from your normal routine must automatically create setbacks with weight and health. On the flip side, neither is it true that if you are a health-conscious individual that you will have to miss out on the delights that are unique to international cuisine.
The either-or proposition of American eating is that you either like food and enjoy eating…
… OR you are a “healthy eater” (or otherwise joyless fit person). This black-and-white heuristic is incredibly limiting, and indirectly implies that healthful eating and regular exercise rob one of pleasure.
Let’s consult the original Florentine himself, Leonardo da Vinci, on false dichotomies.
As Walter Isaacson, a Leonardo da Vinci expert, says of the Renaissance man’s approach to science and art, “I’m not sure Leonardo would make that big of a distinction” between the two. Similarly, my experience in Europe is that enjoying food and eating healthfully are not so sharply distinguished as they are in America. Like the blurred lines of Da Vinci’s “sfumato” technique, our total experience with food is far more than one-dimensional. In other words, eating gelato and pasta doesn’t make you “unhealthy” any more than eating chicken breast and arugula makes you “healthy,” and there are lots of shades, angles, and perspectives in between.
Plus, keeping a continuous focus on fitness and health is not something that I perceive as a chore – it’s something that, although it is not always fun in the strictest sense of the word, adds significantly to my quality and enjoyment of life. Simply re-framing healthful eating and exercise through that lens can help lessen the sense of burden or sacrifice that can accompany healthy choices.
Here are some of my important strategies and mindset tips for staying fit and healthy in Italy:
First of all, I always travel with snacks from home. I try to minimize “emergency food purchases” by having my purse and suitcase well-stocked. This time, I brought an assortment of Oatmega bars, Hippea snacks, jerky, and dried apple slices.
Side note: I am not a huge snacker, and I work hard with my clients to reduce “boredom” or “under-stimulation” snacking. These items are more for emergencies – like the inability to make a meal in transit – than they are for recreational snacking. An Oatmega bar at 200 calories, jerky at 80 calories, and dehydrated apple at 80 calories makes a nice 360-calorie meal replacement if needed. Plus, they can substitute for an inflight meal or snack if the options available aren’t to your liking.
I also packed vitamins and probiotics, which I’ll cover more extensively in the “Try to Minimize Jet Lag” section.
Secondly, anytime I’m staying in a city for more than a few days, I book an apartment hotel instead of a regular hotel. This way, I always get a kitchen and a larger living space, and this time I even got an exercise bike!
For Florence, my recommendation is Residence Hilda, which is extremely close to Brunelleschi’s dome and has an excellent front desk staff that is fluent in English but not overly commercial. This was the second time we’ve stayed there, and I loved it even more this time. We booked the executive suite, which was worth the upgrade, and we were able to make coffee and a homemade breakfast each morning, as well as some lunches. Staying in an apartment hotel automatically cuts down on how much you have to eat out, which – let’s be honest – is an important factor in healthful eating wherever you are.
Side note: why stay in an apartment hotel instead of an apartment? We have had issues before in foreign countries when there is no front desk reception. When you don’t speak the language well, have a new, foreign phone number, and are exhausted/confused, a front desk helps to cut down on mistakes and mishaps. While we have had good experiences with apartments, we have been burned too many times to keep risking it, so now we stick only with establishments like Residence Hilda that also have a front desk.
Live Like a Local
Something that we always do when we travel is hit a neighborhood grocery store for local goods. As I tell clients, grocery shopping in a foreign country helps you connect to the culture even more than eating in a restaurant.
You have an opportunity not only to experience the cuisine differently and take in the huge variety of unfamiliar foods (or different versions of foods you know), but you will also get to see how other locals shop, as well as interact with cashiers who most likely do not speak English like most restaurant servers do.
We bought greens (Valeriana is a green that I love that I can only find in Europe), yogurt, rice cakes (including the chocolate-dipped kind), eggs, tuna, lemons, fennel, tomatoes, raspberries, apples, mozzarella, ham, milk, and bread. These create easy, throw-together meals like salads, frittatas, and sandwiches.
This way, when you get a hankering for an extra snack, you can whip up a yogurt with raspberries for a high-protein, high-nutrient mini-meal.
My favorite grocery stores in Italy are Carrefour and Despar, but there is also Crai and Coop. Most large cities in Italy have at least one of these grocery stores.
Try to Minimize Jet Lag
For general health and enjoyment of the trip, I recommend getting on the “new,” local time zone as quickly as possible. On the day you leave for your trip, do some exercise in the morning to encourage better sleep later. Stop drinking coffee by the mid-afternoon. On the red-eye on the way there, don’t drink coffee, and try to sleep as much as possible and wear an eye mask to keep it dark.As soon as you get on the plane, re-set your watch and start acting as if you are in the new time zone. Try to eat and sleep at the new “right” times as soon as realistically possible, to help your body adjust your circadian rhythm and digestion to a new schedule. One of the tips that always works for me is to never nap on the first day, no matter how tempting it seems.
Once you arrive, try to spend as much time as possible in bright sunlight and get in some exercise (even if it’s just walking outside!) to jumpstart your body in the new time zone. Eat meals at normal times.
Finally, make sure to pack some probiotics. For me (and many others), the digestive schedule is the last thing to catch up with a new time zone. Taking probiotics each night will help.
These strategies for overcoming jet lag aren’t really “hacks” – they’re just smart ways to make sure you don’t spend lots of your time sluggish instead of sightseeing. Jet lag can significantly hold you back by making you feel tired, cranky, and disoriented – it can’t be entirely sidestepped, but it can be greatly minimized by getting on the new time zone as quickly as possible.
Focus on what you *are* eating instead of what you’re *not*
The paradigm of healthful eating in America tends to be more focused on what you’re not eating than what you are eating.
Is a food dairy-free? Gluten-free? Fat-free? These are the criteria that we often use to judge foods in America.
However, I often urge clients to flip the script and focus more on what they are including, instead of excluding. Are you eating fiber, from nuts, seeds, whole grains, greens, and vegetables? Are you eating protein, from meats, yogurt, dairy, and legumes?
By focusing more on the nutritive aspect of eating (instead of the dogmatic aspect), you will be well-fed, nourished, and less likely to experience food cravings and overeating.
Before I move on to “real exercise,” I want to take a look at what walking can offer you.
It is extremely, extremely easy to walk a lot in Italy.
Walking, as I’ve written about before, burns a lot of calories – not if you walk for 20 minutes, but instead if you walk and move consistently throughout the day. This is called “non-exercise activity thermogenesis,” or “non-exercise physical activity.”
When I’m at home (where I spend a lot of time on my computer), I have to make an effort to keep my steps above 10,000. When I travel, it’s hard to not exceed 20,000. One day on this trip, I hit 31,482 – 14.2 miles. And it’s not hard to do – in fact, it’s almost hard to avoid.
Do walking excursions to see a place off the beaten path, or opt for walking to your hotel instead of taking a taxi (if possible). One day in Florence, I took a solo adventure to walk from our apartment hotel (slightly north of the Duomo) to the hilltop church of San Miniato di Monte, on the opposite side of the river at a higher altitude. It was a fantastic hike that got my heart rate up, and I got to experience the wonder of a new vista, as well as the history and beauty of a medieval church.
But most of all, make sure you have appropriate shoes that will allow you to be comfortable and active, and pack more than one pair. I am extremely fashion-conscious, and I simply won’t wear “hybrid” shoes like Merrells. For my taste, my “walking shoes” must look like real shoes and go with my clothes. But that’s just me.
For this trip, I packed Converse Lunarlon shoes, which are basically fashion sneakers with Nike soles. Unfortunately, they seem to be discontinuing this line, so you’ll mostly be able to find them on Poshmark (or other re-sell shops) or Amazon instead of the Converse store. Here is a pair I found on Amazon that are similar to the ones I wore. In general, Converse shoes are my pick, even without the Lunarlon sole.
Make Time for Exercise
I packed one pair of leggings and a yoga top, and made sure to hit the exercise bike for some high-intensity intervals for 30 minutes three times that week.
I have a no-excuses mentality about exercise, with both myself and my clients. The benefits of exercise are simply too important to neglect. Many people cite not “finding time” for exercise. I would counter that we need to make time for exercise, not find it. It’s that valuable.
You may find yourself thinking, “But why would I skip sightseeing in order to exercise? Isn’t that a waste of time? Can’t exercise wait for when I get home?”
In reality, sightseeing may not be something you have to “sacrifice” if you exercise at the right time of day.
First of all, early morning (6-8 AM) is a truly dead time in Europe. Almost nothing is open. Secondly, a natural rhythm of the Italian daily routine is the afternoon “riposo” – basically, a siesta that typically lasts from about 2:00 to 4:30, when many restaurants, stores, shops, and churches close up for a break. Many local shopkeepers close their doors for several hours, and there’s nothing to do during that time, especially if you’ve already hit the major museums. This was the time that I always got on the bike, went for a hike, or did yoga. It was a natural time to take a break from sightseeing and shopping and do something else, and I took advantage of it.
Don’t Make the Mistake of Trying Too Hard
Do I make missteps? Oh, yes I do.
This section is in the blog post because Michael made me promise I would write about this experience. Love you, babe.
As I said about da Vinci, I truly believe healthy living is more pleasurable, more practical, and more sustainable when lines aren’t drawn between “healthy” and “unhealthy.”
… But I don’t always live up to my own expectations.
One night, we had had rich food for lunch, and we knew a lighter dinner would make us happy. We made the mistake of thinking an Italian “salad place” would be like Sweetgreen – tasty, satisfying, and a change of pace.
We thought wrong.
My salad was horrible, and so was Michael’s. We deeply regretted “wasting” that meal. We didn’t even want to go out for dessert afterwards as we had planned, because our stomachs were so soured by the extremely salty, oily salads.
I fell into the trap of black-and-white thinking. I would have been better off going to a ristorante and getting a grilled meat with vegetables for lighter fare. Later in the trip, we did this in Milan – we ordered the filletto (steak), and it was amazing. Lesson learned.
Maintain Medical Diets
Michael is gluten-free (for actual health reasons, not as part of a fad diet), and Italy is refreshingly celiac-friendly.
We did research beforehand to make a list of places we wanted to try, and our favorite gluten-free bakeries are Starbene in Florence and Glu free in Milan. Our favorite gluten-free pizza in Florence was Mr. Pizza, and my favorite gluten-free pasta was the ragu at Osteria dell’OK in Florence.
If you have a special dietary lifestyle for health reasons, I highly recommend not making exceptions for travel, and I’m about 99.9999999% sure your doctor would feel the same way. There’s always a way to work around it to enjoy food without making exceptions that threaten your health and well-being.
Empower Yourself, While Letting Go of What You Can’t Control
When you’re traveling, you have to focus on what you can control, and let go of what you can’t. I empower myself to pack snacks, because I can’t control when my train will arrive, or if I will be on time at my destination. I empower myself to exercise during the riposo, because I can’t control what may happen later that day. I empower myself to only have dessert once a day, split meals, and use other smart portion control strategies, because I can’t control the calories or ingredients of each thing I eat.
I often see clients focus a lot of time and effort on the only aspects of their health that they cannot control – weighing themselves when they come home from vacation, for example – while overlooking the factors that are directly within their power, like preparation, planning, and choices while they are there.
As adults, never in life are we inexorably pulled along with the action without options. In almost every situation, we have the power to express ourselves through our choices.
Don’t Wait to Get “Back On Track”
The whole paradigm of being “on track” or “off track” is pretty pointless, but let’s use it as shorthand here. When we get home from vacation, we’re tired, jet-lagged, and maybe even a little in the blues. It’s easy to say, “I’ll start again next week.”
But here’s my advice:
Within 24 hours of arriving home, exercise, go to the grocery store, and cook at least one meal.
The exercise is simply good for you, but it also help you to jump back into the new time zone, especially if you exercise outside. If you use a delivery service, schedule your homecoming delivery before you even leave for the trip.
When it comes to the food, I always tell my clients: “You can get back on track at any time.” You don’t need to wait for a Monday, or the start of a new month. Time is arbitrary in this sense. You can start right now.
*** Edit *** I forgot to link the hotel where we stayed in Milan. It was the Palazzo della Stelline, across the street from the church Santa Maria delle Grazie (where “The Last Summer” is). It is a converted convent and is a BEAUTIFUL stay!
Were these tips helpful? Are you going on vacation sometime soon? Leave a comment, or share this on Facebook or Twitter!