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Navigating Italy... Without the Wine or Pizza

Watching other people exercise at  La Vogalonga,  Venice's famous boat race.

Watching other people exercise at La Vogalonga, Venice's famous boat race.

As I type this from my desk at the gorgeous new Woolf Works, a women’s co-working space in the heart of central Singapore, I am nursing a horrid case of jet lag which feels eerily akin to the hangovers I used to battle at least a few times a week. I’m usually zippy and fresh after a long flight now that I’m not downing the mile high cocktails, but this time, no such luck.

My husband Ryan and I have just returned from a blissful two week holiday in Italy, my favorite “old country”, where we embarked on a driving adventure in the North, commencing in Rome and ending in the delicious foodie village of Modena, with a few nights each in Bracciano, Venice, Florence, and Assisi. Italy is perhaps the oddest destination choice for a teetotaler who also happens to be a figure competitor with autoimmune issues (read: food restrictions & intolerances).

After all, aside from washing down copious amounts of cheese with buckets of wine while basking under sunlit grapevine canopies, what else does one do in Italy?

Thousands of wheels of cheese, oh my! A cheese tasting at t he     4 Madonne dell ' Emilia  Dairy.

Thousands of wheels of cheese, oh my! A cheese tasting at the 4 Madonne dell'Emilia Dairy.

It was my second trip to Italy as a sober chick, and I still thank my lucky stars that I’d never visited as a card-carrying lush because my only memories of it would have likely been based on embarrassing vacation photos. And, I’ve gotta say, the rumors are true- this Mediterranean paradise is indeed the toughest place in the world to continue a commitment to health & sobriety, no matter where you are on your journey.

First, wine is offered everywhere, and the refusal to partake is sometimes met with quizzical glares. “Baby?” one waiter had asked me on my first trip there, rubbing his tummy with a smile.
Second, the food is RICH- think cheese, bread and cold cuts galore. I wasn’t once able to score an egg white omelette for breakfast, and I’ve yet to spot a sweet potato or protein shake there. Third, the concept of a “gym” is still quite foreign. Although they do exist, exercising with the aid of machines just isn’t Italy’s scene and the only heavy lifting you may see is the lifting of a 50kg wheel of parmesan cheese. Finally, the entire vibe of Italy reeks of leisure and indulgence- a lust for life- which may be why so many gravitate to the region, including me!

So, how does one thrive as a vacationer in Italy while staying sober or upholding other health & fitness goals in the process? Here are my 4 tips to loving your Italian vacation without hating yourself when the holiday’s over!

A Crodino Mocktail. Crodino is a non-alcoholic bitter apertif... and delicious! 

A Crodino Mocktail. Crodino is a non-alcoholic bitter apertif... and delicious! 

1. Get real. Accept that you’re not going to be able to stay on track 100% on all fronts without being miserable. Yes, you read that correctly! Italy is not the place to aim for perfection, and if you want to stay happy, you’ll need to make a few concessions. That means deciding the difference between your “non-negotiables” and your “wiggle areas” before you go. For me, remaining sober is a “non-negotiable”, and I was prepared to do whatever it took to keep it that way, which meant constantly refusing glasses of wine and grappa and even asking my hubby to enjoy a few meals without the booze when I started to feel fatigued by it all. In my nearly seven years of sobriety, Italy is for some reason the only place that I’ve been where I feel like I struggle a bit, mainly because the strong smell of alcohol is so pervasive, which is also a good reminder for me that recovery is a lifetime job. 

However, I knew that restricting across the board throughout the trip may trigger some depression or anxiety (as restricting is known to do for many), so I loosened the bodybuilding belt and allowed myself to eat what I wanted- including some things that made me feel a bit awful afterward- and I also made sure to get in at least 10,000 steps a day. I exercised when I could, but I didn’t make it a top priority. The result of this approach? Feeling balanced and content overall while encouraging my intuitive body to lead the way when it came to eating. For instance, after a bit of an inflammatory flare up from a few too many pastries I started not to want them anymore and that was ok.

2. Lace up those walking shoes. You may not be able to find a gym in your area, but you can certainly find a million reasons to tour around an Italian village on foot. Opportunities for walking and hiking are endless in Italy, and the best way to get to know the country is a “step at a time,” whether that’s winding through cobblestone streets, hiking up mountain peaks, or climbing a few dozen flights of stairs at one of the many stunning cathedrals, like Il Duomo di Firenze. If you have a smart watch like FitBit, decide on a step goal for each day ahead and don’t forget to bring your camera! Yes, you may not get to pump much iron or attend regular yoga classes in Italy, but there’s no excuse not to get the blood flowing. Many of the smaller villages are also great for running, and there are countless public parks as well, including my world favorite, the Villa Doria Pamphili.

Villa Doria Pamphili,  I love you. 

Villa Doria Pamphili, I love you. 

3. Focus on all of the options you DO have, rather than the ones you don’t! Italy offers so much variety in the way of both food and beverage, and while you may have to miss out on a few things, your options for enjoyment are endless. Gluten intolerant? Then pastas and crusty breads are out for you, but all the succulent fruits, sun-drenched veggies and scrumptious cheeses are not! Does booze make you break out in handcuffs? So, wine’s not going to be your thing but you can still drink all of the Crodinos you want, as well as rich and frothy coffees and my all-time favorite, acqua frizzante with a slice of lemon. There are also AA meetings throughout the country and online groups like SMART Recovery if you need some extra support. Doing the Paleo thing? Then head to Tuscany for a sizzling grilled steak and some traditionally cured meats, or to the Amalfi Coast for some amazing seafood. 

If you want to feel deprived, focus on all of the things you can’t have. If you want to feel gloriously satiated, enjoy all of the things available to you. The same advice applies to everyday life, by the way. ;-)

I asked for egg whites- or just eggs- pretty much everywhere we went. This was the reality more often than not! 

I asked for egg whites- or just eggs- pretty much everywhere we went. This was the reality more often than not! 

4. Capitalize on the fact that we all need a break sometimes, and schedule your vacation to Italy accordingly. If you’re engaged in a regular exercise routine 4-6 days a week and you’re pushing yourself to the max most days, congratulations! Now, here’s the rub- you actually need to take a week off from training once in a while to get the most benefit out of it. A recovery or de-loading week is generally recommended anywhere from every 3 to 8 months, depending on your sport or intensity. This means dramatically reduced physical activity for a good week to let the body rest and repair itself. If you’re not engaged in a serious training plan and feel like you wouldn’t benefit from giving your body a break, focus on a mental “time out” instead. I doubt that anyone today reading this isn’t experiencing some form of stress in their life, whether in their job, marriage, finances or mental well-being. Use your vacation as a chance to reset, and maybe commit to a short daily meditation session or some time at a spa while you’re there. A holiday is meant to be just that! Give yourself permission to breathe and relax.

As a health & behavior change coach, addiction therapist and soberista, these are four of my tips for enjoying your holiday in Italy while upholding a healthy lifestyle. Health isn’t meant to feel rigid, so remember to make some space in your life for flexibility and flow!

Ciao for now,

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Duped By Big Food? Five Tips to Protect Yourself

When you shop at the supermarket, do you know what you're really buying? 

When you shop at the supermarket, do you know what you're really buying? 

These days, it's becoming increasingly challenging to know what's actually healthy to consume anymore. Cold-pressed juices, bottled smoothies, and vitamin-enhanced waters were all the rage, and then we found out that they were loaded with sugars and syrups. Trail mix and granola sounded like a good idea, but upon reading the ingredients list, we're bombarded with sugar, salt, fat and additives that we can't even pronounce. Now, when we go to the grocery store, hundreds of colorful boxes flash enticing buzzwords like, "Healthy," "Fitness," "Gluten-Free," and "Energy." But, does it really mean that those are better choices for us? Too often, the opposite is true.

To make matters more complex, big food companies have teamed up with universities and nutritionists to push their brand of nutrition education, which undoubtedly favors their products, even if those offerings are the ones driving the obesity and chronic disease epidemics. When dietitians are being taught by companies like Coca-Cola and Frito-Lay and nutrition reports are being authored by people who have financial ties to food, beverage and weight loss product makers, it may be time that we take educating ourselves about what we put into our bodies a little more seriously. Thankfully, you don't have to spend hundreds of hours becoming a nutrition expert before your next trip down the grocery aisles. Here are five tips to protect yourself and your family from getting duped by food companies that make the bottom line their top priority: 

EAT WHOLE, UNPROCESSED foods like fruits and vegetables, nuts, beans, and lean proteins. Avoid foods that are in boxes and cans, or that you find in the middle aisles of your grocery store. Some examples of processed foods that you want to steer clear of are baked goods, chips, pasta, cakes, biscuits and cookies, canned fruits and jams, frozen meals, soft drinks, confections, and margarine.  A full list of processed foods can be found here.
Stick with foods that come from a farm, not a factory!

Here's a box of cereal I received in a race pack bag that I collected this weekend: Fitnesse Clusters! Sounds nutritious, right? Well, consider this for starters: 100 grams of this cereal contains 22.1 grams of SUGAR. The MAXIMUM recommended daily allowance of sugar for a non-diabetic person is 40 grams.

Here's a box of cereal I received in a race pack bag that I collected this weekend: Fitnesse Clusters! Sounds nutritious, right? Well, consider this for starters: 100 grams of this cereal contains 22.1 grams of SUGAR. The MAXIMUM recommended daily allowance of sugar for a non-diabetic person is 40 grams.

BUY LOCALLY-SOURCED, ORGANIC produce and protein sources whenever possible. Many of the produce in stores today are laced with harmful pesticides that have been linked to cancer, reproductive disorders and autoimmune diseases. The majority of meat sold now is factory farmed, injected with hormones and antibiotics that can cause serious health issues over time. Yes, I realize that organic food is more expensive, but making this kind of investment in your health is priceless. Cultivate relationships with local farmers and food vendors who support the movement toward organic, hormone-free and antibiotic-free foods. I order the bulk of my meats from The Barbie Girls- distributors of hormone-free and antibiotic-free beef, chicken and fish- and there are several companies here in Singapore that specialize in organic fruits and veggies, like Zenxin OrganicSG Organic, and Sabine's Baskets.

KNOW YOUR INGREDIENTS and learn how to read food labels. If you happen to buy a food product in a package, box, carton or can, read the food label! Food labels list ingredients in descending order of predominance, so if an ingredient like sugar is first or second on the list, you may want to reconsider. Are you familiar with all of the ingredients listed? If you don’t know what something is or you can’t pronounce it, do your research before buying the product.

                                                            Source: NaturalGrocers.com

                                                            Source: NaturalGrocers.com

THINK CRITICALLY and do your research. Many new products have harnessed the power of marketing to get you to believe that they’re healthy for you, even if the opposite is true. They’ll cleverly use buzzwords on the packaging, like “multigrain,” “all natural,” “no trans fat,” or even “organic,” with the aim to keep you from scrutinizing the actual ingredients. Items like granola, cereal and energy bars, energy drinks, bottled smoothies, banana chips and frozen veggie burgers may be loaded with fat, salt, sugar, and unhealthy oils. If it’s boxed, canned or frozen, you want to make sure that you know exactly what it contains instead of blindly trusting the splashy marketing on the package.

USE YOUR WALLET to influence change. Purchase products from businesses that you know and trust, and educate yourself on who is manufacturing what. Company websites will usually have their full list of brands, and you may find a few unexpected surprises. For instance, did you know that Naked Juice is owned by PepsiCo, Odwalla is owned by Coca-Cola and Kraft has staked a claim on Boca Burgers? You can also effect change by publicly letting companies know how you feel about certain product ingredients and manufacturing practices. You might not think that, as one consumer, you can make any difference, but if enough people feel the same way that you do and express it as well, you can bet that you’ll be heard. After all, without happy customers, where would these companies be? 

How do you ensure that you and your family are eating healthy foods? Would you be willing to switch over to a whole foods diet and scrap the processed stuff altogether? Do you buy organic or look for antibiotic-free produce? Leave your comments- I'd love to hear from you!

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Personal Trainer Wanted: Eight Points to Consider

You better adore your personal trainer- you'll be spending a fair amount of time together! 

You better adore your personal trainer- you'll be spending a fair amount of time together! 

I’ll never forget my first personal trainer- a welterweight boxer at a commercial gym in New York who used to march my pin thin, chain-smoking body into the ring and have me jump rope for minutes at a time while he furiously punched out texts on his mobile phone. That relationship didn’t last very long, and losing $900 out of the deal in my broke college days taught me a valuable lesson about handing over dreams to someone without doing due diligence first. Now, as a coach and trainer who hires other coaches to train me (I have a competitive event I’m gearing up for and just enlisted a qualified pro to prepare me- more on that later…), I’d like to think I’m a little bit wiser than the twenty-something wisp of a chimney I used to be. With that disclaimer out of the way, here are eight points to consider when seeking a personal trainer or coach:

1. Make sure that the trainer is accredited by a well-respected international organization and holds current CPR and AED certifications. ACSM is known to be the “gold-standard certification,” and NASM and ACE are also highly regarded. Be forewarned- there are many trainers in Singapore who are not certified from a reputable source. Don’t be afraid to ask for certification verification.

2. Trainers are never “one size fits all.” Think about your specific goals and find a trainer who specializes in what you need. For instance, if you are aiming to stay in shape while pregnant, locate a female trainer skilled in prenatal fitness. Looking to build strength and gain definition? A personal trainer or coach who specializes in weight training and who is a bodybuilder would be very helpful. Looking to run a marathon? Hire a trainer who has been there and done that, and who has a track record of getting clients to the finish line.

3. Do you actually like this person? A personality match is key to a successful relationship between client and coach. Before committing to anything, schedule an initial meeting with the trainer to make sure that the two of you click. Good personal trainers and coaches almost always offer a complimentary assessment or initial training session prior. Use this as an opportunity to see if you can actually hang out with this person, as you’ll be spending a fair amount of time with them!

4. Does the trainer or coach have a high level of empathy? Empathy should be a job requirement in the health and fitness industry. You need to know that your trainer can give you emotional support during your fitness journey, and that they take a real interest in your well being. Work with a trainer who will listen and be responsive to your needs. If the trainer or coach bullies or belittles you, or tries to get you to do things you’re uncomfortable with, RUN!

5. Umm, how’s your trainer looking? This may seem shallow, but wouldn’t you rather work with a trainer who is in good shape? Won’t you be more motivated by a person who takes pride in their appearance and physically challenges themselves?
A personal trainer who does not seem to care about their body may not care about yours either, and likely doesn’t have the experience necessary to guide you on your journey. Of course, there are exceptions, but they’re rare.

6. Communication skills should be tailored for the 21st century! Does your trainer use desktop tools and applications to monitor and graph out your progress? Can your trainer or coach offer sessions over Skype when you travel, or keep in touch with you through social media and mobile apps? Professionals who can harness new technology to keep you on track offer advantages that should make your life easier in the long run.

7. Exercise is only one component of getting in shape- don’t forget nutrition! Look for a trainer who has education and certification in nutrition, either as a nutrition specialist, nutritionist or dietitian, depending on your needs. If your trainer doesn’t possess this knowledge, is he or she working with someone who does? Your trainer or coach should be able to guide you in making healthier food choices. If you’re an athlete or training for a specific event, a professional with sports nutrition and supplements knowledge may also be beneficial to you.

8. Finally, find a trainer who can stick with you throughout your journey and get you to your goal. Remember, however, that your trainer or coach is only actively with you a few hours a week, and has no control over what happens when you open the refrigerator door! That said, if you commit to putting in the work, your trainer should be able to guarantee results.

What other qualities do you think a trainer should have? Are you currently working with a personal trainer? Any memorable training experiences- good, bad or ugly? Leave your comments below- I’d love to hear from you!

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