A Discussion with Rachel Kelly, Psychology of Eating Coach
By Lisa Newman, Publisher
I began wondering about the Mediterranean diet from an eating psychology perspective. That is, beyond food choices, what are the differences between the common Western diet, and the diet of those living in Mediterranean countries, and how do those differences contribute to a naturally healthy lifestyle?
To answer this question, I met with a colleague, psychology of eating coach Rachel Kelly, to discuss the Italian approach to eating. A native of New Zealand, Rachel now lives in Italy with her Italian husband and their two sons.
Rachel told me that Italians think differently about food and eating than she has experienced in the U.S., England, or New Zealand. This article describes the traditional approach in Italy, which Rachel says, is slowly eroding somewhat as the younger generations are picking up international habits.
Time to Savor
Meals in Italy are a time to cultivate relationships and take a break from work. You won’t find Italians eating while working at their desks. That’s seen as not being good for digestion, and it would lead to missing valuable time building co-worker relationships.
According to Rachel, you also don’t see much eating on the run, which is common in the U.S. Italians don’t order a Starbucks and gulp it while walking, for instance. And there’s no tradition of eating fast food in your car. You are expected to stand inside by the counter while you’re drinking coffee, or sit down for a moment to eat your sandwich.
In fact, the whole approach to fast food is different. Rachel says that in the summer you will find places at the beach that sell pizza by the slice for takeout, but everyone stands together outside socializing, and it becomes a sort of party.
What’s considered “fast food” in Italy is the kind of food that can be eaten without cutlery, like Panini sandwiches or slices of bread with toppings. It’s still fresh, with good quality ingredients and lots of vegetables. Italians simply insist on high-quality food, it seems, regardless of the setting.
Portion size is another difference, according to Rachel. Rich foods, in particular, are served in much smaller quantities. The Italian way of eating emphasizes multiple small, indulgent bites, which results in feeling satisfied and well fed.
Rachel points out that in Italy, even at home, you don’t set out all the food for the main meal at once. Instead, you serve different foods over a period of time. Even with six courses, you don’t normally leave stuffed, she says. This results in slower eating and a more relaxed meal.
Knowing Your Food
Food knowledge is a big deal, she says. For example, certain varieties of tomatoes are used for specific sauces, while other types are best for eating raw, depending on what they are served with. Pesto is best made by hand with a pestle and mortar, and should be made with a specific type of live basil plant.
It’s a lot to learn for an outsider, she says, remembering her early days in the country, but well worth it. There’s a favorite source for each individual product, and lots of discussion over where to buy “the best.”
There is also enormous focus on the source of food ingredients. Food sellers know their products and where they are grown. Often, the seller’s family has known the grower’s family for generations. You can go into any store and inquire where anything is from, as well as how to best use it.
Even in chain stores, the sourcing is considered important and is visible. She cites a chain of gelato shops that certifies that their pistachios come from Sicily and their hazelnuts from Piedmont, and so forth.
A Balanced Approach
And Italians, for the most part, do not obsess over calories or fat content. Rather, Rachel says, they focus more on balance—getting some protein and vegetables, and a glass of wine, of course, and leaving room for a sweet treat here and there. Olives, nuts, cheeses, etc., are all enjoyed in moderation, as is pasta, naturally.
An abundant source of seafood, due to Italy’s long shoreline, means that fish, rather than red meat, is central to the traditional cuisine. Since most of the citizens were poor in the past, and the land was rich with fruit, vegetables, and olive oil, the cuisine naturally focused on foods we now deem “healthy.” To Italians, this isn’t anything special—just the way they have always eaten.
With all the walking that’s necessary to acquire their foods and ingredients, the Italian lifestyle is less sedentary as well, Rachel points out. In addition, most people enjoy spending their free time hiking and swimming and engaging in other physical activities. This is one of the things that is changing though, according to Rachel, with more Italians driving rather than walking.
What Matters Most Is Taste
Another difference, Rachel explains, is that fruits and vegetables are not judged by how big, symmetrical, or beautiful they are, but by their taste. She’s learned that sometimes what looks the most appealing is actually a product that has been modified to look beautiful without attention to its taste.
Rachel told me that she’s learned about some strange-looking tomatoes from Sicily that are mottled with green and red, but that taste is so sweet, it’s almost like eating candy. Even people who tell her they don’t like tomatoes, find this tomato is different. After moving to Italy, she had to question her previous likes and dislikes, because the quality of the food made the tastes so different.
Seasonal rhythm is important to Italians, according to Rachel. Every holiday has special dishes and food traditions, which usually center on what is local and fresh at the time, as well as incorporating the history of the region. This seasonal rhythm results in a natural way of eating local.
A Family Affair
Interestingly, Rachel notes that the amount of time spent on food acquisition and preparation isn’t excessive. Men, as well as women, do their part, and children are expected to pitch in.
There is an abundance of healthy, prepared foods in the markets, and the high-quality ingredients means that simple preparation is all that is needed for delicious results. Food shopping and preparation is also seen as important family time.
Focus on Pleasure
As you can see, pleasure in food and eating is deeply ingrained in Italy. This attitude goes to the heart of healthy eating psychology. This may seem strange if you have been living a dieting lifestyle. But healthy eating actually requires that we slow down and get full pleasure from our eating.
Beyond the abundance of nutritious food choices and a naturally more active lifestyle, the traditional Italian approach to eating has much to teach us, including focusing on fresh quality ingredients, taking time for meal preparation and enjoyment, viewing eating as an important social activity, enjoying a seasonal rhythm of local food traditions, and eating slowly with full pleasure.
As you can see, healthy eating Italian-style means so much more than the balance of carbs to protein!
Contact us at Women Eat if you are interested in learning more about the Italian way of eating, or attending a retreat in Italy.
Lisa Newman serves women in mid-life who want to get beyond emotional eating. She approaches healing from the bottom up in order to affect real and lasting change while developing each woman’s inner wisdom as to what is uniquely right for them. She is also the Publisher of the website Women Eat, bringing together the best voices in the fields of psychology, nutrition, fitness, and personal growth to answer the question, “If diets don’t work, what does?”
She is a certified Psychology of Eating Coach with over 30 years of experience in peer counseling, coaching, speaking, and teaching. You can find out more at the Beyond Emotional Eating Virtual Group and on the WomenEat About page.