Reverse Culture Shock: Food, Fat & Physical Activity

Losing weight | Healthy eating | Travel and Weight Loss

One thing our journey has taught us is to pay attention – mostly because everything is new all the time when you travel for a living. We have to make decisions every single day on lodging, transportation, food, and activities. In cultivating this habit of paying attention, we’ve had a side benefit of losing a combined total of 70 pounds (32 kg).

How is that, you ask? We’re paying attention to what we’re eating, when we actually get hungry, and how we move every day. It’s become second nature because for the most part it’s how people around us act. This is why landing on the shores of the US after 2 years away was such a shock.

Today I’m going to share our observations on how paying attention helped us lose weight, gain energy, and achieve healthier blood counts. And I’m also going to scare the shit out of you over the increasingly unhealthy lifestyle of many Americans and how this will greatly affect our chances of living the lifestyles of our dreams. (I’m guessing your dream doesn’t include daily medications or preventable physical limitations.) You’ll also learn how people in other countries consume food and stay healthy (or not).

Ready for a little tough love? Keep reading.

Do I look fat in these facts?

People are big in the US. Bigger than people in any other country we’ve visited (and that includes the cheese-eating French, the sausage-consuming Germans, the potato-eating-and-drinking Russians, the steak-munching Argentinians, and the fish-n-chips-scarfing Brits).

Americans are generally the richest yet most unhealthy people we’ve seen on our travels. Americans are not just tall or big-boned – we are mostly overweight and tending toward obese.

I always knew Americans had a weight problem but the enormity of it didn’t register until we came back after a 2-year absence. And it’s not just me making the observation.

  • Just this summer the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine rated the fattest nations in the world and the US came in at #3, right behind the island nations of Tonga and Micronesia. (Click here to find out how your weight compares to adults in other countries.)
  • When you add up all the world’s weight and divide it by country, the US accounts for 1/3 of the weight total even though we make up only 5% of the population. In contrast, Asia makes up 61% of the world population and takes up only 13% of the total in weight.
  • Even more alarming, the US incidence of diabetes has almost doubled since 1995 (you can really freak yourself out by clicking through this map from 1995 to present to see how it has changed).

During our visit to New Mexico I went to the cardiologist with my brother for his annual checkup. The waiting room had 30 people in it, 2 of whom were normal weight (and they were home caregivers, not patients). It makes sense that unhealthy people would be at the cardiologist, so I did the same count at several other places – restaurants, bars, the movie theater, and stores. It always came out to at least 50% overweight people.

Despite these facts and observations, I’m not here to harp on why we individually get obese and unhealthy – our issues from childhood, the dollar menu at McDonald’s, or the buckets of popcorn at the movies.

As usual for our site, I want to focus on the actions you can take right now to improve your life based on what we’ve learned from our travels. (And we’d better do it fast, because US ways are creeping into their societies and it won’t be long until they’re obese, too, and all the lessons are lost.)

Losing weight | Healthy eating | Travel and Weight Loss

What People in Other Countries Eat

People in other countries don’t typically have as easy access to ‘convenience’ foods as we do. Their meals are prepared in a kitchen from recognizable ingredients and are served on a plate. It doesn’t look drastically different than what their grandparents would have eaten: variations on soups, casseroles, stir-fries, salads, pasta, veggies, and sandwiches. Fruits are eaten as snacks as well as the main ingredient in many desserts.

They generally eat what is in season because that is what is most readily available. (Not so in the US, where you can have anything anytime with very little effort.) They also have an incredible amount of pride over their local and national specialties and offer them as insights into their culture. Their identity is partially explained by their food.

At dinner one night in South America a German man said to me:

The reason there is no equivalent to ‘bon appetit’ or ‘buen provecho’ in English is that your food is nothing to get excited about.”

He was a jerk, but he had a point, at least about our general appreciation and enjoyment of the act of eating.


Losing weight | Healthy eating | Travel and Weight Loss

Our own diet changed as we traveled. We began eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Meat became a side dish. We stopped eating processed food because it simply wasn’t as easily available. No more Twizzlers, microwave popcorn or boxes of salty or sugary snacks. We had to buy new clothes because the ones we brought with us were getting too big.

When we arrived in Ecuador, we were genuinely surprised at the flavor of eggs (such bright yolks!) and the juiciness of a chicken not hopped up on hormones. In fact, the chickens we ate usually came from the front yard of the restaurant or a nearby farmer.

The fruits were delicious, and we began drinking real fruit juice for the first time in our lives. (Just last week I ate lunch with my dad, where he chose a lemonade drink labeled as 0% real fruit juice – I’m not kidding!)

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Despite this, we recognized all food is not healthy around the world.

  • YUM! Brands, the company that owns KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, does 40% of it’s fast food business in China.
  • In South America, children are getting fatter because increased individual income means sugary drinks like Inca Cola and bags of chips are easy for parents to buy. You can see rotted front teeth of small children in Ecuador and Peru who regularly suck on sugar cane as a snack.
  • You can find McDonald’s in almost every country in the world. (Ronald McDonald stands with his hands together for a bow to patrons entering McDonald’s in Thailand.)

Even with these unhealthy examples, overall people are still closer to a normal weight than in the US. So what else could be at play?

How People in Other Countries Eat 

Losing weight | Healthy eating | Travel and Weight Loss

The best part about house sitting is being able to live like a local. While house sitting in La Garriga, Spain this summer we shopped at the butcher, the baker and the vegetable market every day and the outdoor Saturday market each week. We practiced our Spanish with the shop owners, learned their tips in preparing certain foods, and got a little sunshine while we did our daily errands. We normally stopped for a coffee afterward, which was served in a ceramic mug with a small cookie by a smiling woman. Food was a social experience from the shopping to the cooking to the eating.

When drinking coffee in the morning, there is no drive-thru at the Starbucks. People actually go in to order their coffee and drink it there, standing at the bar as they down an espresso or paying a bit more to sip a cappuccino at a table. (And you only have a cappuccino in the morning, never in the afternoon or evening.) Coffee is served in ceramic cups, not paper or styrofoam, and you never get free refills, even at a diner.

The drive-thru is a US invention, and we are the only culture we’ve seen who regularly consumes meals inside a car (or even thinks of eating inside a car, actually). Meals are generally eaten at a table, on ceramic or hard plastic plates, and with metal flatware. Even at outdoor markets, we’ve more often than not gotten proper plates and flatware to eat our meals (though Asians do frequently serve ‘to go’ market food and drinks in plastic bags).

Meals are taken at the table, not while walking down the street, in the car or on the subway. In fact, we rarely see anyone eating outside unless they are at an outdoor cafe.

Portions are much smaller than in the US. Warren and I have been sharing restaurant portions during our visit, but we’re still eating much more than we did outside the US. It is really a mountain of food at every meal, and because we eat so fast in the US we don’t give ourselves time to note we are full. When our brains finally catch up, we’re miserable from overeating.

Eating in other countries is generally not done as a secondary activity to something else, like reading a book, watching TV or surfing online. It is almost always social. People dine with other people, and they don’t finish in 30 minutes. We’ve had countless dinners with new friends and with just each other when we truly enjoy the experience from start to finish, enjoying the meal and the conversation and not rushing through. What could be more interesting than a conversation with your mate or friends?

Losing weight | Healthy eating | Travel and Weight Loss

Waiters bring your check when you ask for it, long after you enjoy your coffee, not when they are ready to move you out for the next group of diners.

But even when people in other countries eat together and savor their meals, they consume some fattening foods like ice cream (helado is sold everywhere in South America), paté, chocolate, and meals soaked in butter and cream (I’m looking at you, France). There must be something else keeping them healthy.

How People in Other Countries Move

The US is a car culture. A right of passage for most high school kids is to get a driver’s license and car, and they long for the day they can finally be “independent” of mom and dad to go out to see friends. In other countries, public transportation, bicycles and walking are the main ways of getting around, and kids are independent from their early teens to go to school, visit friends, and explore their environments.

People in other countries walk far more than we do, even if it is just to walk to the subway or bus stop, and this habit continues throughout their lives. Walking is a normal activity every day, and many people walk or bike to do their errands. They think nothing of walking several blocks to the store or to visit a friend, even very elderly people.

Losing weight | Healthy eating | Travel and Weight Loss

In Lucca, Italy we watched the locals walk and jog around the top of the ancient city walls for their morning exercise, chatting with friends and neighbors along the way. In Chachapoyas, Peru, the main square is a meeting spot for locals and you can find families and couples strolling together after dinner every evening. In Amsterdam, bicycles are the main form of transportation for all residents – moms have little wooden carts on their bikes to transport the kids to school – so it is not a surprise most residents are very thin. In Mongolia, people walk to herd their animals and ride horses every day, which is a good thing since they mainly just eat meat and cheese. Babushkas in Russia still walk to get their daily foods and work their summer gardens in Siberia.

Even people who have cars only use them when they plan to go a significant distance, relying on their feet for local errands and transportation. It is unheard of to drive just 3 blocks, something people in the US do every day.

Losing weight | Healthy eating | Travel and Weight Loss

When you make movement part of your daily life, you don’t have to count calories. Warren and I have been walking as our main form of exercise for over 2 years now, and we’re stronger and healthier than we’ve ever been. We walk to shop, sightsee, and sometimes specifically for exercise. We regularly walk 5+ miles per day without even thinking about it. Here in the US, we’ve had to plan out our walks – even driving to them occasionally! – because most cities are not set up for foot traffic.

How This Applies to You

The US does a lot of things right. We are a prosperous country. We enjoy an abundance of food, and we are fortunate to have many choices in the way we eat and live. But this choice does not come without risk.

  • When we choose the fastest solution to fuel our bodies, we usually make bad decisions.
  • When we eat in our cars or at our desks, we are denying ourselves the pleasure of enjoying our dining experience and bonding with others.
  • When we snack in front of the television at night, we become zombies, mindlessly staring ahead and biting into any food product in our way. The Zombie Apocalypse is already here.
  • When we use the car to go everywhere, we decrease our physical independence a little bit every day as our muscles shrink and our heart works harder to carry our additional weight.

I’m not here to tell you to eat better, exercise every day or stop eating so fast (okay, maybe I am a little bit). What I really want to impart with this article is the idea of simply paying attention, the one thing we’ve implemented in our travels to lose a combined 70 (32 kg) pounds in 2 years.

Losing weight | Healthy eating | Travel and Weight Loss

You don’t have to subscribe to a new diet plan, buy a book, avoid certain foods, get a membership, or write anything down. You simply have to pay attention:

Pay attention to what you’re eating and how you’re eating it. How can you make it better so you feel good and live longer?

Pay attention to how you’re enjoying the everyday. When you make your healthy meals and exercise enjoyable, you’re apt to continue doing them.

Pay attention to what your body tells you. Are you hungry, sleepy, restless? Give your body what it needs when it needs it.

Pay attention to how much exercise you get through the course of your day. Are you maintaining your strength and vitality or letting it slowly seep out as you sit through life?

Pay attention to how you use the fortune at your disposal. Are you buying processed, junky food as your main source of nutrition, or are you investing in your body by maintaining it with health foods the majority of the time?

Food and exercise are no different than any of the other lifestyle subjects we discuss on this site. When you pay attention to something in your life, you are in a better position to understand it, learn from it, and improve it.

Pay attention to how you eat and move and you’ll be better equipped to live the life of your dreams, whether that’s in your own backyard or halfway around the world.

And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Find out how learning to gracefully handle change and growth helped me become more comfortable with my body and my life in Strip Off Your Fear: The Good Girl’s Guide to Saying What You Want. Available in paperback, Kindle, or ebook.

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