I don’t know what I was thinking when I entitled my blog The Daily Cure. It’s so pretentious. I never intended to mean that I would cure anyone else. I was just curing myself or, rather, acknowledging some of the tiny things in my adopted European life that seemed to cure me. And being creative a wee bit every day is a sort of cure for me. I need to write and think and look and photograph, as one might habitually keep a sketchbook. Or else I get grumpy.
And how on earth I thought I was going to be able to maintain a daily schedule of posting, I have no idea. I kept it up for a good long time, but then it became—over and over again with each life crisis/challenge/unexpected event—quite difficult to keep up with. And then there were all the doubts: Why I’m doing this? What difference does it make? Aren’t there enough voices out there already?” (most of whom are far more engaging than mine). Etc.
But now, today, I want to talk about what has emerged as a real, true daily cure in my mind: Eating healthily, normally—to sustain—without prejudice or ideology or perfectionism.
About a year ago, the specter of anorexia entered our household. I have hesitated to say anything about it, because I didn’t want to violate the privacy of anyone I loved. It’s fair to say, though, that my hesitation hardly came into play as, in actual fact, the disease so turned our lives upside down that I had no desire or energy for blogging at all. As it was unfolding, there were many things I could have written/shouted/wailed about, but I just couldn’t do it. Couldn’t talk about it. Couldn’t rise above the fray with any sort of perspective. I still don’t want to discuss these very private things, but I do want to share with you some of what I have been learning. Anorexia strikes families, not just people. So for me, this story is about us as a group, and no one person. And I know that we are not alone in dealing with this.
Shortly after we discovered what we were up against, a dear friend sent me a book with the caveat that if I didn’t feel like reading it right then, she would understand, but maybe, just maybe it would help. To be honest, I didn’t want to read it, but I love her and I know she loves me, so I read the first page. I didn’t put it down until I was finished. It was an amazing (enthralling, entertaining, enlightening) book, and it helped me understand that the journey our family was on was very complex indeed. I could breathe deep and forgive myself, for being a mother is complicated and fraught, even when it comes to navigating what to put on a plate. I would have loved the book no matter what I’d been going through, and I wish I’d had it by my side years before it was written.
The book is First Bite: How We Learn to Eat by Bee Wilson, and while Ms. Wilson does address the issue of eating disorders, she talks about so much more. Food culture. How we grow up with food. How our relationship with food has changed over the past generations. How deeply intertwined food is with our mental and emotional states. How fundamental every bite really is, in its own way. It’s not about eating healthily or organically; it’s not preachy. If there is a lesson in there, for me anyway, it’s that—as in most areas of life—puritanism and fundamentalism don’t, in the end, serve us well. We must tread sensitively and with common sense, especially where children are involved. The book issued me an irresistible, silent invitation to meditate on my own relationship with food and my own tendency toward “perfectionism” which has its own roots in family issues that go way back, the desire to be good enough, to be deserving, to patch things up (something I tried to do even as a very young girl, when adult relationships around me were wobbling and, eventually, falling over).
When the Italian medical system answered its call and swooped in to help us (gratis! I must add in this politically charged moment), I finally learned, after living in Italy for 20 years, what – according to the medical community at least – constitutes a balanced Mediterranean diet. I thought you might be interested in this information as well. I was given six photocopied pieces of paper which changed my life. They are now dog-eared from being referenced over and over again. I am not saying that this will dictate how we eat for the rest of our lives; it probably won’t. But it played a crucial role in getting us out of a very deep, dark, difficult situation with no backlashes and no extreme or sudden weight gains.
I’ve been enthusiastically eating Italian food for years, but I had no very precise idea of how the Mediterranean diet really worked. Yes to legumes, yes to fish, yes to whole grains and cereals. We all knew that. What I didn’t know was what was considered the right flow over a 7 day period, for example. We were urged to sort of follow the guidelines and not follow them at the same time. That is, we needed to learn to do it all intuitively. No measuring. No weighing. Just moving forward, sensitively, more or less eating accordingly. Eating balanced. Eating everything that was prescribed without prejudice. And mostly, eating enough carbohydrates. I thought I’d been doing that all along, but I hadn’t.
I remember realizing, with a sinking heart, that I would be spending a lot of time shopping and cooking and cleaning. We had rarely eaten primi and secondi in the same meals, and now we would be eating both twice a day. I thought too that I was doomed to gain a lot of weight myself—something I would accept if it would help the person in need—but I didn’t. I ate roundly and squarely and remained pretty much the same. It is worth saying here that the Italian approach to anorexia is slightly different than the approach of some in the U.S. There are no high calorie shakes or foods designed to make someone gain weight quickly. On the contrary, they are only to eat what everyone else in the family eats, slowly re-wiring themselves to accept what is “normal” without risking any rapid weight-gain that could throw them into a painful relapse.
Slowly, magically, invisibly the situation has sorted itself out and continues to do so. It has forced us to grow, opening our minds and hearts in ways we didn’t know they could expand. It has also showed us how strong we are when we think we’re going to break. We didn’t. And I don’t think we will.
My blogging took a hit, and it may continue to limp along for a bit. I feel my energy for it returning, but it will always take backseat to the bigger jobs in life. I’ve missed being here with you all.
Hope you’re having a lovely day. C
Okay, so…here are the guidelines, and remember, this isn’t about perfect eating or puritanical eating or current trends. It’s about eating. The snacks are designed to help an anorexic person give themselves calories steadily throughout the day. They need to eat about every 2-3 hours. Later, once they are weight-restored, they, like everyone, need the snacks to keep them from becoming overwhelmed with hunger to avoid over-eating at meal times.
- Partially skimmed milk or low-fat yogurt
- PLUS: Cereal or fette biscottate (this is a common breakfast food eaten in Italy, which is a cross between grilled bread and melba toast) or whole wheat bread with marmalade or muesli or plumcake. (Another Italianism, plumcake refers to simple loaf cakes, somewhat like pound cake, which are not overly sweet or fatty).
- PLUS: Fresh fruit or fresh-squeezed orange juice.
- Fresh fruit
- Lowfat yogurt
- OR Whole wheat bread with oil or tomato, or a small piece of focaccia or a fruit sorbetto.
Lunch and dinner:
- Un piatto unico (a plate which combines your protein and your rice/pasta/grain carbohydrate) – examples follow
- PLUS a vegetable (contorno)
- PLUS a fruit
- PLUS a piece of bread
- Un primo piatto (a rise or pasta or grain dish)
- PLUS un secondo piatto (meat, fish, legume, cheese or egg)
- PLUS a vegetable
- PLUS a fruit
- PLUS a piece of bread
(You’ll notice that this is not the 6-10 servings of fruit and vegetable recommended in the US. It is more like 5-7, taking into consideration that most primi piatti are served with vegetable based sauces/accompaniments.)
The diet plan goes on to explain that the week’s meals should deliver, more or less, the following variety:
- Pasta or rice or grain at every main meal.
- Fruit and vegetables: 5-7 portions a day (if you consider sauces)
- Milk and yogurt: 1-2 portions a day
- Meat: 4 times a week (this is assuming you are not vegetarian, obviously), preference: chicken, rabbit, turkey, veal, lean beef.
- Fish: 4 times a week with a preference for pesci azzurri (sardines, herring, anchovies, mackerel, shad to name a few. “Poor” fishes, rich in Omega 3)
- Legumes: 4 times a week
- Cheese (as a main): 1 time a week
- Eggs (as a main): 1 time a week, maximum 2
Sweets are strictly discouraged during the re-feeding phase and beyond, as the consumption of sweets creates the desire for more sweets, and eating sweets can be tough territory to navigate for someone with an eating disorder.
They then tell you what things to not combine, as follows:
- It is not suggested that you combine meat and potatoes, and that potatoes should be eaten rarely. Meats should also not be combined with legumes or cheeses. (In other words, all those green beans I ate as a “vegetable” as a child, would have been better served with a bowl of rice.)
- Milk is fine combined with cereals in the morning and OK with a piece of whole grain bread, but it is not suggested to be eaten with meat, fish, egg, cheese or legumes.
- Cheese is to be eaten with vegetables, and is tolerable with bread or pumpkin, but should not be combined with meat, fish, egg, or legumes. (This is not to say you cannot grate some parmigiano over your ragù.)
- Yogurt with morning cereal and/or fruit. Never in combination with meat, fish, egg or legumes.
- Legumes are best eaten with pasta/rice/grains, vegetables (not potatoes). They are tolerable with fruit. They should never be served with meat, fish, egg or cheese. (And as I said, legumes includes green beans.)
- Vegetables can be eaten in any combination of themselves and with pasta, meat, fish, egg and cheese.
- Potatoes should not be eaten more than 2 times a week and go well, when eaten, with vegetables but not legumes. They are acceptable with meat and eggs, but not to be served with grains, milk or cheese.
- Tomatoes are fine with other vegetables, grains, meat, fish, eggs and legumes, but should not be eaten with milk, cheese or fruit.
Some suggested primi piatti:
- Pasta with pumpkin (I made this for the first time and it became a family favorite. Above.)
- Pasta with zucchini flowers
- Pasta with “five herbs”
- Pasta with cime di rapa (turnip greens) – this is also a favorite
- Pasta or risotto al limone (with lemon)
- Pasta with artichokes
- Pasta with carrot sauce
- Crema di cavolo (a smooth cauliflower soup)
- Pasta with endive and saffron
- Pasta with broccoli and cherry tomatoes
- Spaghetti with uncooked tomato
- Pasta with zucchini
- Pasta with peppers
- Crema di carote (a smooth carrot soup)
- Rice with mushrooms
There are all manner of risotti and yet they mention none of them. Not sure why.
Suggested piatti unici:
- Cannelloni di magro (which means cannelloni with a non-meat filling, usually some combination of spinach and ricotta)
- Pizzoccheri valtellinesi (a pasta dish from Northern Italy with buckwheat pasta, cheese and beet greens).
- Pasta al ragù. (With meat sauce.)
- Polenta pasticciata (which is sort of a lasagna dish made with polenta instead of pasta).
- Melanzana alla parmigiana.
- Pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans)
- Pasta salad
- Pasta with tuna
- It’s wasn’t on their list, but I like to cook a dish I picked up on the Tuscan coast which combines farro (spelt) with seafood and grilled vegetables. Delish!
15-20 grams (3-4 teaspoons) of olive oil per meal.
If you are interested in any traditional recipes I will find them and/or translate them for you. Just let me know in the comments section.