Episode #1 — Italian Roots Meet the American Diet
Francesca Orlando is on a mission. Her commitment to the nutrition our bodies get from food stems from changes in her diet since arriving in the U.S. Dietary guidelines, portion sizes, and the typical foods that many Americans turn to for nutrients became Francesca’s focus when her health hung in the balance. Francesca’s focus on how food staples of the American diet affected her body sparked a new venture — Healthful Living SD — and a thriving nutritional therapy practice.
In this multi-episodic blog series, I had the pleasure of receiving Francesca’s clear-cut take on what she discovered our bodies need in order to experience a state of wellbeing. Mom to two sons, Francesca holds a Master of Science in Integrative Nutrition and is a Doctoral Candidate who is a member of the Holistic Nutrition Credentialing Board. Francesca has been recognized as a Certified Health Coach by the Dr. Sears Wellness Institute and, key to our North County Moms’ audience, she is also an an Integrative Women’s Health Coach.
Let’s begin at the beginning
With my own commitment to personal health, wellness and fitness, I feel very fortunate to have met Francesca and am so excited to bring to our audience of women and moms, this exceptional spirit who is dedicated to share her nutritional expertise to help you achieve your health goals.
Since she came to the U.S. as an adult, I thought it was important for Francesca to share a glimpse of how her Italian background has been a huge influence in her professional approach to nutrition…
María: Tell us about your origins in Italy. How does your Italian heritage contribute to your commitment to eating nutritiously?
Francesca: I was born and raised in Italy and moved to the US when I was 29. I was raised to appreciate the “gifts of the land” and to make every meal an experience. Growing up, one of my fondest memories is waking up in my grandmother’s house during the holidays with the smell of the meat sauce already on the stove by 8 a.m. My Italian heritage plays a significant role in my commitment to healthy eating. You can take the girl out of Rome, but you can’t take Rome out of the girl…
My heritage has taught me the importance of savoring each bite, using whole ingredients, and enjoying a wide variety of flavors.
Lessons of a culinary heritage
Francesca: Italy has a rich culinary tradition that emphasizes fresh, high-quality ingredients and a deep appreciation for food and culture. These values have influenced my approach to nutrition from a very young age. While my cuisine emphasizes fresh ingredients, you need to know that food is not about the act of eating; it is about the experience…
I hope this makes sense. My heritage has taught me the importance of savoring each bite, using whole ingredients, and enjoying a wide variety of flavors. My background has shaped my approach as an integrative nutritionist, emphasizing the nutritional aspect and the pleasure and cultural significance of food in a person’s life.
The inherent nutrition of the Italian Mediterranean diet
María: What is it about the Italian diet, generally, that lends itself to nutrition? And I’m curious to know your thought on how typical food portion sizes in Italy differ from ours in the U.S.?
Francesca: The Italian Mediterranean diet generally lends itself to nutrition due to several key factors.
- First and foremost, fresh, seasonal Ingredients. Italian cuisine is known for using fresh, seasonal ingredients. This ensures that the food is at its nutritional peak and contains a wide range of vitamins and minerals.
- Secondly, olive oil, a staple in Italian cooking, is rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. It’s a healthier alternative to some of the fats used in other cuisines.
- Thirdly, we emphasize vegetables. Italian meals often feature a significant portion of vegetables packed with essential nutrients and fiber. Not only that, they are flavorful and perfectly seasoned every time. I probably miss that most; you can’t find tasty vegetables in this country. I have even tried growing my own with seeds from home, and they do not taste the same.
- Lastly, balanced portions: Italians eat smaller, more balanced portions. Compared to the U.S., Italian portions are generally smaller. Italian meals focus on savoring the flavors and enjoying each course, including antipasti, a pasta dish, a protein, and dessert. These portions are typically smaller than the larger, calorie-dense servings often found in the United States.
Italians place a strong emphasis on the quality and preparation of meals. In contrast, the American food culture has evolved to prioritize convenience, which often comes at the cost of increased
consumption of processed and ultra-processed foods.
A comparative study of culinary traditions
María: So now that we’re making comparisons between the two countries around food consumptions, how does the prevalence of processed and ultra-processed foods between the two countries differ?
Francesca: In Italy, there is a stronger emphasis on traditional, home-cooked meals made from fresh, whole ingredients. Processed and ultra-processed foods are less common in the Italian diet, and many Italians still prefer buying fresh produce from local markets daily and cooking from scratch.
On the other hand, in the United States, processed and ultra-processed foods are convenient, widely available, cheap, and commonly consumed. The critical difference lies in the two countries’ cultural and historical food traditions. Italians place a strong emphasis on the quality and preparation of meals. In contrast, the American food culture has evolved to prioritize convenience, which often comes at the cost of increased
consumption of processed and ultra-processed foods.
A life-changing illness
María: After coming to the States how did your diet land you in the hospital and nearly bring you to the brink of death? Was it that experience that led you to build a business and pursue advanced studies around nutritional therapy?
Francesca: After moving to the United States, I adopted the USDA pyramid guidelines for my diet. However, this decision led to a series of health problems that landed me in the hospital several times in a few months. I experienced significant weight loss, could hardly eat, and struggled with sleep; I had no energy or drive and lost my spark.
Despite seeking medical help from numerous specialists, none could pinpoint the root cause of my deteriorating health. Instead, each doctor offered me medication and little hope for improvement. Frustration led me to take matters into my own hands to understand what was happening.
María: I think many will be surprised to hear that about the food pyramid! Please tell us what you discovered about the USDA guidelines and how your discovery inspired change.
Francesca: Through my research, I discovered that the fundamental issue was my new dietary choices, which differed greatly from my traditional diet. This profound personal experience became a turning point in my life, motivating me to pursue advanced studies in nutritional therapy, change my career, and build a business.
I was determined to help others avoid the pitfalls I had faced and to promote a holistic approach to nutrition that considers individual needs and health conditions. This journey to recovery and discovery ultimately shaped my career as an integrative nutritionist and my commitment to guiding others toward healthier, more balanced lifestyles.
We hope you’ll stay in the loop and be on the lookout for Francesca’s next episode. We dig a little deeper in her search for discovering a nutritional balance in the U.S. In the meantime, please visit Francesca’s website for more info about her thriving nutritional therapy practice and an extensive list of suggestions on a variety wellness topics!
Learn more about Healthful Living SD in our Fall Fit-Wellness Guide!