Part of the formula for feeling better about oneself — TDN’s theme this month — is eating a healthier diet. Today Tony James Slater, the newest addition to our team, poses a Displaced Q on the eating habits of travelers and expats.
I’m not sure what qualifies me to pose a question about food, since my idea of healthy eating is using low-fat mayonnaise on a full English breakfast — but hey, I’d love to hear your side of the story…
I think I have what you might consider to be a rather controversial point of view, which is that traveling and leading an expat lifestyle can lead to a healthier diet — but for the most part do not.
WAIT! Before you hit the comments with that vitriolic reply — hear me out. I may be wrong (my past wrongness is legendary), but I believe I have a point. Tell you what — I’ll lay out my opinion (which I’ve put a lot of thought into), and then you can tell me if I’m talking out of my asparagus.
Chopping veggies: too much like hard work?
Plenty of people see travel as a way to reinvent themselves. I should know, I did exactly that, as explained in my last post about volunteering in Ecuador.
But reinventing your lifestyle is one thing — your diet is something else. I think statistically speaking (and I’m no expert) 99.9% of us have struggled with our diet at some point or other.
It’s not a change like deciding to make more “me time,” or adding the beach into your daily itinerary. We struggle because changing our diet requires that dreaded thing: commitment.
And the enemy of commitment is convenience.
Ah, convenience…the single biggest factor driving the fast-food phenomenon worldwide. Is it easier to swing past KFC on your way home from work than it is to get home and start chopping vegetables?
You bet it is.
What’s more, this instant gratification factor appeals not just to the terminally lazy — like me — but to an awful lot of people in a world where free time is increasingly under pressure.
The food you know…
So you’re in a new country. You tour the neighborhood. What’s the first thing you’ll recognize — whether in Cairo, Bangkok, Buenos Aires or Paris? Chances are it’ll be a fast-food joint. It’s just so easy. Nothing new to challenge you — either your palette or your linguistic skills. Just point and grunt, to be rewarded with something you could have bought within five minute’s drive of the last place you lived.
Don’t get me wrong. As I travel I make an effort to eat everything — including, on occasion, things I shouldn’t. (Apparently, the wings stay on the locust, even if they have got most of the soy sauce on them — who knew?)
Still, there is the part of me that, after a few days dining from street vendors, really craves a burger. Or a pizza. Something Western, that tastes of home.
As British writer George Miller once remarked:
The trouble with eating Italian food is that five or six days later you’re hungry again.
Asia — the exception?
There are certain countries with a deserved reputation as a mecca for healthy eating — yes, I’m talking about Japan here. In fact, most Asian countries are considered to have a healthy yet appealing diet, with an emphasis on seafood and simplicity.
For the better part of a year in Thailand I lived like a king. Fresh fruit for breakfast every morning, compared with jam on toast, bacon and sausage back home — score one for healthier eating!
Simple meals of chicken and rice, or noodles from street vendors were my staples. They were as cheap as they were delicious!
And yet… It was all fried. The rice was fried. The chicken was fried. The noodles… Is it possible to overdose on MSG?
I had no control over how my food was cooked and no kitchen to prepare it myself. Back home I fry things occasionally, but I’m a path-of-least-resistance kinda guy. My food isn’t always healthy (burgers, schnitzels, chips) — but I’d stick it in the oven or grill it. So the score…is tricky to say on this one.
And then there’s the booze…
Thailand is famous — at least amongst the 18-35 age group — less for its culinary marvels than for its parties. Score one (a large ONE) + a whisky chaser for the unhealthy diet.
Do you drink more when you travel? Cocktail by the pool? Glass of wine or two in the evening, because why not — you feel so free? Yeah, you do. Don’t worry — so does everyone else. But that’s another nail in the coffin of a healthier diet…
(And yes, I know all about anti-oxidants. That’s how I justify red wine too.)
* * *
In my experience, to eat anything decent, you have to work for it. The easier food is to find, and the more recognizable, the less healthy it tends to be.
If you’re prepared to experiment with different recipes and ingredients, different cooking apparatus and utensils, to learn a few words in the local language and risk using them in the market — then you can manage it.
But if you’re prepared to do all that for the sake of eating healthy, chances are you do it at home too, in which case you’ll eat healthily wherever you are. And probably outlive me by at least a decade.
So, as I said at the beginning: can travel encourage one to adopt a healthier diet? Well, I think it can…but doesn’t.
Am I full of carp? Am I talking sushi? What do you think?
TONY JAMES SLATER is a self-confessed adventureholic. For the last six years he’s been traveling nonstop around the world, working at a variety of jobs including yacht deliverer in the Mediterranean, professional diver in Thailand and snow boarder in New Zealand. He even deprived the world of sandalwood one tree at a time in Australia (though he still maintains it was an accident). Last year, Slater published his first book, That Bear Ate My Pants!, an account of his misadventures while volunteering at the animal refuge in Ecuador. (The book was featured in The Displaced Nation’s list of 2011 expat books.) He is currently working on a second book set in Thailand, while exploring his new home in Perth, Australia.
STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post, an opinion piece by Lawrence Hunt on what drives today’s young people to seek spiritual enlightenment abroad.
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Image: Tony Slater with his girlfriend (now wife), Krista, in an open shack-style cafe in Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia. Krista is eating nasi goreng, a Balinese veggie curry (over fried rice), whereas Tony has ordered a burger (but will it be too Asianized for his tastes?).