Every two weeks, the Displaced Nation publishes an episode in the life of fictional expat Libby Patrick, a 30-something British woman who has relocated with her spouse to a town outside Boston. Her diary, Libby’s Life, by Kate Allison, is replete with observations about life in New England vs. England. In the weeks when Libby isn’t published, we are featuring posts by writers who are sensitive to the subtle yet powerful differences between new and “olde” worlds. Today Bobbi Leder, an American trailing spouse, responds to Claire Bolden’s post of two weeks ago, in which she claimed that a tour in the United States inevitably entails a ten-pound weight gain. Turns out, it goes both ways!
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Mexico has just surpassed the United States as the fattest country in the world, according to new UN figures released last month.
It’s an honor another country can have as far as I’m concerned, but when America was the fattest in the land I was truly perplexed.
Yes, you heard that right: perplexed. Now I know there’s a lot of unhealthy food in the States (e.g., BBQ ribs, deep-fried everything-you-can-possibly-think-of, junk food galore) and many Americans are addicted to their sugar, fat and salt. But conversely there’s also a lot of very healthy food available in the States.
At the end of the day, it’s about making a choice.
When I expatriated to the UK over a decade ago—I moved from the Washington, D.C., metro area to Southampton, on the south coast of England—I didn’t have many healthy choices. Over a decade ago, that part of England simply didn’t have health food stores, nor were there restaurants catering to those of us who sought out low-fat, low-salt meals. As for vegetarian dishes, these were practically non-existent.
It was impossible to find a sandwich where the bread wasn’t smothered in butter or the fillings weren’t loaded with fatty meats or (full fat) mayonnaise. I found it very difficult to eat well because the food options I was used to simply weren’t available.
Cheery bye to Size 2!
Before moving to England I was thin, some would even say skinny at a size 2 (an American size 2 that is); but after living in Southampton for a few months, my weight crept up on me like a burglar in the night, and before I knew it, I was two sizes heavier.
And if you think I was binging on fish and chips, think again. I never touched any of the stereotypical British foods because they loaded with saturated fat. I still remember never being able to eat breakfast at the Southampton airport because all they served was the greasy English breakfast. The sight of a full English breakfast made me nauseous: back bacon, sausages, beans, two fried eggs, mushrooms, and fried bread, all cooked in grease—and they say America is the capital of fried food?
There was a reason why we went out for Thai food every Friday. It was the only place we could find that didn’t serve fatty meals and they’d alter any dish to suit their customers. Forget about trying to find a healthy item on the typical pub menu or in the food court of the local mall.
Even in the supermarkets I couldn’t find the healthy choices I was used to, like veggie burgers, soy cheese, and low-calorie bread.
Before moving to Southampton, I’d eaten a mostly ovo-vegetarian diet, with the occasional lean poultry and fish. When I wanted “junk food,” I would buy lower calorie options like baked potato chips.
After the move, I felt as if I had no choice but to start eating ingredients I never would have eaten otherwise including pork, beef and cheese. And food prices were higher compared to the States, which made grocery shopping a challenge—even at Asda, a British supermarket chain owned by Walmart. The produce was often not up to par, and grocery costs were higher than we’d budgeted for.
So I found myself eating things that made me gain weight—despite going to the gym four times a week, and either walking or biking to most places—and I wasn’t happy about it.
New diet, new regimen
After receiving an invitation to my cousin’s wedding in the States, I knew I had to lose weight in just a few months, so I did something I never had the time to do before: I learned how to cook.
I looked for low-fat recipes online that included ingredients I could realistically obtain. I took charge of what I was eating despite my location and its limitations.
Eventually, the weight came off, and after living in Southampton for a year and a half, we moved to London, where healthier food choices were more readily available.
I even took my cooking to the next level after watching British culinary shows—I knew the Brits could make healthy food—and began to make gourmet meals that were not only tasty but low in calories and fat.
After London we moved to Wales and wound up being in the United Kingdom for six years. Not once during that time did I have:
I did, however, have one British staple: the Sunday roast, which consists of roasted vegetables, potatoes and lean beef or chicken.
It was actually one of my favorite meals.
My cup of tea
Today, after moving a few more times (ah, the life of a trailing spouse!), I live in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where I’m fortunate that the times have changed and health food as well as vegetarian options are the norm in most supermarkets and restaurants.
I have no idea if Southampton now offers healthier choices in their restaurants and supermarkets—one can only hope so for the sake of the university students who make up a large population of its city.
The moral of my story is that even though you might move to a country (or an area of that country) where fatty food is the staple, it doesn’t mean you have to eat it.
Looking back, I’m grateful for my experience in Southampton because even though I saw beef and cheese as the enemy when I first moved there, I still eat both today (just in moderation alongside my usual healthy diet), which makes life so much easier when dining out and moving around the globe as an expat.
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Thanks, Bobbi, for making us realize that America is not the only country that fosters weight gain. Readers, what do you make of her observations? Are we global nomads destined to balloon in size as we move around the globe—has that been your experience? Do tell! (A good thing Bobbi hasn’t ended up in Mexico yet, that’s all I can say…)
Bobbi Leder, 43, is originally from New York and grew up in New Jersey. She has moved at least 11 times (she lost count after the fifth move) in the last 18 years thanks to her husband’s job in the oil and gas industry. Leder is a freelance writer and the author of the children’s book, The Secret Police-Dog, but her most important roles are those of cocker mom (to her very high maintenance English cocker spaniel or just cocker spaniel to everyone outside of North America) and wife to her workaholic husband. Leder still exercises several times a week, eats well most of the time—hey, a gal has to treat herself every now and then—and does something British daily: she drinks tea.
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img: Bobbi Leder enjoying(?!) a sausage and fries during a trip to Germany while living in the UK.
Portrait of woman from MorgueFile; Lighthouse (R) from MorgueFile; Lighthouse (L) from MorgueFile
Oh no! Now I’m dreading going back to the UK! 😉
No need to dread something you control. Shop wisely and cook and bake your own. Every country has junk. And stay away from the worst supermarkets (e.g ASDA) and research organic options in your area.
When Liam and I moved to Turkey we dropped loads of weight simply because processed food simply wasn’t available and we had time to cook properly. Since the move back to England, we’ve more or less succeeded in transplanting our newly formed habits. I always say a little of what you fancy does no harm. And, I love bangers and mash!
Hmmm… I think I might still be more persuaded by Claire Bolden’s argument that America wins the Battle of the Expat Bulges, if only b/c that’s been my own experience as an American who has lived in both the UK and Japan for extended periods. I suppose I did gain weight when I first went to England by gorging on cream teas and chocolate-covered digestive biscuits (which travel writer Bill Bryson has described as a “British masterpiece”); trying out new taste sensations like sausage rolls, English breakfast, and fish ‘n’ chips (with vinegar, natch); and drinking larger quantities of beer (lager and lime was my fave) in the pubs with friends, than I was used to.
But then I cut back, waaay back, as most of these new taste sensations didn’t agree with me or I didn’t like them all that much. I also starting walking (or biking) everywhere and stopped snacking in between meals.
Although I retain a fondness for desserts (esp if served with cream!) and crisps to this day, living in the UK was the beginning of my shedding of my extra American pounds, which culminated during my stint in Japan. Here, small portions, lots of fish and clear soups guaranteed getting to my lowest weight ever.
Back in the US now, I rely on my own cooking (and doggy bags from restaurants) to stay at a good weight for me. Portions here are still sinfully large, and Food Inc has a way of getting us all to be addicts if we’re not extra careful.
At the same time, though, I fully relate to what you mean about having to adjust one’s diet as you move around the world. The stomach has to get used to the new place as much as the mind and the heart…
But having made a couple of such major adjustments to my palate/digestive system, I often think that the ONE good thing, if Japan had won the war, would have been a better diet for us all. Because America won, we’re seeing a lot more obesity around the world — which has now (tragically, in my view) spread to our southern neighbor, Mexico.
“Because America won” the war? I think rather a lot of people around the world might feel a little aggrieved at that sweeping comment.
As far as food is concerned – like everywhere one has to adjust and find where and what to buy. On our first move to suburban Houston in 1997 the only bread available was ‘plastic’ – processed to an inch of the loaf, as was most cheese, with European cheeses almost non existent, and the average American beer – well that hasn’t changed, though kudos to the craft beer manufacturers. Houston this time around has improved dramatically foodwise with the choice being extremely good. And proud to say Texas is no longer in top 12 obese states.
One of my favourite restaurants in London was ‘Jules’ on Jermyn Street (sadly no longer there) where bangers and mash, pheasant pie, or fish and chips cooked to perfection and without the grease were served in an elegant white table cloth setting by a fabulously trained staff, who poured superb champagne.
Like I said, it takes time to find where and what to buy – and adapting new foods to our suit our palate is one of the fun things about a global life.
Was small all my life until moving over here. Gained weight within 6 months. Tried losing it, but to no avail. 3 years later, gave up. Can’t win.