Eating Healthily While Living Abroad

Many people find eating healthily to be a challenge in their own country so the difficulties are only compounded when living abroad.  There are so many things that can affect your diet, depending on where you live and your knowledge of the local language and cuisine.  I’d like to address some broader issues as well as those specific to my experience in Russia.

Reading Labels
This was by far one of the biggest problems I had.  Although I knew most words for basic food items, I didn’t know what many of the other bigger words were.  After all, how do you translate things like “high fructose corn syrup,” “tripotassium phosphate” and “xanthan gum?”  I suppose the way around this was to not eat anything that had multi-syllable words in the ingredients.  However, another challenge is determining how many calories are in something and what a portion size consists of.  One thing I found confusing was kilo-calories versus calories.

Solution: Enlist the help of a friend.  The ideal friend is a native speaker who is well-versed in nutritional language and wants to be healthy.  I was lucky enough to have a friend who often recommended what to eat and what to avoid.  She also told me what specific ingredients to look for (yes, big long words) that indicated that something was made in a healthy way.

Solution: Buy food at a market.  You can never go wrong buying whole, real, living foods at a market as opposed to pre-packed ones at a supermarket.  It can be tempting to simply visit supermarkets similar to the ones back home instead of venturing to the market where you have to speak to the vendors (in their language) and specify what you want, how much, tell them to put it back if it looks rotten, etc.  But if you want to be healthy and save some money, this is a far better option and you’ll know what you’re buying.

Cooking Your Own Meals
This is the advice given to most people while living abroad.  It’s also great advice in general if you want to eat healthier instead of going to restaurants or eating fast food.  I cooked quite often while living in Russia but often had problems finding ingredients for the dishes I wanted to make.  I also had difficulties finding proper measuring cups and spoons and translating recipes.  Fortunately I’m not the type of cook that follows directions to a “T” and was able to guess how much to put in and made things up as I went along.  The only solution here is to get creative, have fun and make up some new recipes and ways of cooking along the way.  Don’t expect things to turn out or taste exactly like they do at home.

Tap Into the Local Mindset (If It’s Healthy!)
It seems to me that Russians are quite healthy people.  They eat a lot of vegetables and often cook their own meals.  At almost every meal I ate that was prepared by a Russian, there was a wide variety of types of food and always tomatoes and cucumbers.  Russians also eat traditional black bread which I can only assume is healthier than white Wonder bread in the United States, for example.  I also noticed that a lot of Russian foods seem to be more natural and have less preservatives than their American counterparts.  My foods always spoiled much faster than those at home.  The foods also tasted healthier and cleaner and when I returned home I realized I could actually taste the chemicals in a lot of foods.

But Beware of Local Foods that Are Exotic But Unhealthy
When you live abroad you definitely want to soak up all the culture and this includes food.  But sometimes the unique foods you find abroad aren’t very healthy.  In Russia my weakness was the vast amount of delicious dairy products.  Russia also has a great selection of chocolate, various sweets/candy, ice cream and juices.  I was shocked by the variety of juice flavors, many that I’d never heard of before or seen even in the US.  Russians love ice cream and don’t just eat it in the summer.  There are so many flavors to try that it’s tempting not to eat them all.  In the chocolate family you’ll find Kinder brand chocolates.  Kinder eggs are well known but the Kinder brand expands to numerous treats targeted toward children but equally enjoyed by adults.

Lack of “Healthy Foods”
Another thing I noticed was a lack of typical foods used to eat healthily like soy products, fat-free products, sugar-free, etc.  Although they may exist in Russia, I didn’t have contact with them on a daily basis.  If you’re trying to eat very healthily, there are a lot of fatty foods available to choose from as well.  It might be a bit difficult to find things like turkey sausage or veggie burgers.

But I’m On Vacation!
Although you’ve relocated abroad and are going to be living there for quite a long time, it can be easy to adopt a vacation-like mentality.  Everything is new and interesting, you’re constantly being stimulated and you feel like you would while on holiday.  Maybe you even feel that being in another country “doesn’t count” and so you’re tempted to eat unhealthily, as much as you want, whenever you want.  After all, this isn’t “real life” because it doesn’t look, taste, smell or feel like anything at home.  But the laws of nature exist even while you’re abroad so there will be consequences to your actions if you don’t take care of yourself.

So, have I missed anything out?  What other challenges have you encountered while living abroad?  What other suggestions can you give?  How has a certain culture affected your diet and food choices?  Are you healthier because of it?


2 Responses to Eating Healthily While Living Abroad

  1. Great post! Living in some countries where the food was of dubious quality always made me a better cook, so it forced me to learn how to cook!

    • JMS says:

      Thanks for the comment! I didn’t even think to include food of “dubious quality” because I never encountered that, but that could definitely be another issue altogether. Also just found your blog via your comment and am enjoying reading it so far!

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