How to Keep Your Diet on Track While Abroad
One of the most frustrating things about weight loss and healthy living is figuring out what works for your body. I've always kept a very big comfort zone when it came to dieting. For my day to day, I really don't have the time to dilly-dally and 'take it slow' when I feel like I need to get in shape. I would rather spend almost 3 hours in the gym if I can laze about and eat slightly more fattening foods for the next two days. .When it comes to eating, my life is all work and mostly play, but trust me, weight loss and the path to a healthy sustainable lifestyle is never quick and easy if it’s done the right way.
I was a competitive swimmer for most of my adolescent years, and I believe the mental approach to working out and exercise can be different in comparison to those who've never played a sport. Having to wake up at the crack of dawn to be yelled at by a coach and forced into a giant, chlorine-filled, glorified bath tub really hammers in on the psychological strengths.
When it came to dieting and exercise in Spain, I was glad that I was gifted those mental strengths earlier in life. For the amount of bread, oil, and cheese this country consumes, I’m surprised I didn’t sign up for overeaters anonymous in my very first month.
Basically, I was out of control. Happily so though.
During my second to third year abroad I had probably put on a good 10-12 pounds and trust me, it was really easy to gain over time. With the daily carb overload and the rich decadence of nice Spanish cuisine...who wouldn’t gain weight?
And here I thought the freshman 15 was for actual freshmen.
But! Now that I've started to work out regularly and eat smarter I feel stronger and my mind is clearer on what I should be doing habitually to improve my health. Being active has always been a big part of my life, but eating right has always been a struggle. I know that good Spanish food is impossible to ignore, but there are ways to enjoy your favorite Spain-themed dishes without maxing out on your daily fat grams.
So on that note, after living abroad for 4 years, I am going to dig into my Española repertoire and give all of my bigger, thinner, shorter, taller, and thicker body types 5 ways to eat better and smarter in Spain:
Fatty olive oil is actually good for you, just not 3 cups of it.
We all love a good greasy french fries. But have you ever thought about what those fries are cooked in? Did you know you could just as easily cut up a fresh potato (sweet or not), sprinkle salt, and drizzle olive oil ever them to bake the perfect batch of french fries?
Olive oil is an absolute staple in Spanish culture. You will see it on nearly every restaurant table, bar, and kitchen counter. It adds a wealth of flavor and culture and Spaniards are absolutely giddy over it. Prepare yourself to have a bit of olive oil in every dish you eat. Some menu items may be a little hard to understand, so ask the waiter or waitress if they could tell you the specific ingredients in some sauces or oil based dishes - this way you will have a better idea of what you’re putting in your body. I’m embarrassed to say that one time I had to run to the bathroom and casually spit out a bite of food because it had some kind of cilantro-based devil sauce mixed in - so this method also could work for anyone with allergies or an extreme dislike (hate) for certain herbs/spices as well.
You’re going to see some long, freshly baked, loaves of bread...opt for the whole wheat multigrain.
There will absolutely be a time when you will walk into a supermarket, starving, when the most beautiful and delicious smell will bulldoze your nostrils and send you into a drooling frenzy.
That smell is freshly baked bread from all around the country. You will see pan básico, pan rústico, pan de alemán, pan francés...you name it, they may have it. Try to ask yourself: Do I need this entire loaf of bread with the giant bowl of pasta I’m going to make?
We’ve all been guilty of asking that question, or better yet, not asking it at all.
This time around try and search out healthier and more reasonable starch choices. Spain has an abundance of flavors and forms of bread and they even have whole wheat multigrain rolls you can indulge in. Try pairing your dinners with the darker, fiber rich choices.
PASTA, PASTA, PASTA
Another guilty habit of mine: pasta consumption. Now I will be fair and say it’s nearly impossible to measure the amount of pasta you make. Unless you want to make less than you know you’ll want. I’ve had days where I would break off and fill an entire pot of pasta and eat it throughout the day. I had no shame, no worries, and 5 extra pounds. It was the good life.
The good life got too good and as a result I have suffered from some major pasta-induced carb overdoses.
When choosing your perfect noodle, instead of choosing the basic white flour noodles for cooking, why not choose the whole grain pasta? There are plenty of healthier pasta choices, they carry spinach pasta, tomato pasta, multi-vegetable based pasta and you can even buy a firm and healthy zucchini and cut it into little pasta slivers. (Side note: Zucchini pasta goes amazing with ground turkey, mushroom, olives and tomato pasta sauce)
STAY AWAY from the tiny convenience stores during the week.
You know when people say that they should ‘take their own advice?’ With this rule, I could say it about 20 times over. During my years abroad I have lived within walking distance to a Chino (small convenient stores that are plentiful all around the south of Spain) Because of this proximity I have more than once impulsively purchased candy bars, gummy worms, Pringles, Taki Corn Chips, honey buns, chocolate croissants...need I humiliate myself further?
These little diamonds in the rough provide anything you may want on a rainy/cold/tiring/stressful/any kind of day really. These are traps in disguise
I would suggest using these tiny stores for exactly what they are meant for.
If you run out of dish detergent, toilet paper, or need to replace a broom or mop - these are the little stores to go to - do not choose this destination for a snack run because it will quickly become habitual and you’ll start leaning on it for a quick empty carb bite instead of preparing yourself a real, time consuming, vitamin-packed meal.
It’s definitely easier said, but keep in mind that Spaniards rarely eat fast food or fast snacks on a regular basis. Spain is the 6th healthiest country in the world and that statistic was not achieved by gorging themselves on quick pick-up stops and filling up on candy.
Live like A Spaniard, but only to an extent...
I’ve always told myself if I wanted to live like a Spaniard and to do that I would have to adopt certain lifestyle changes. Eating rich, organic foods were easy eating habits to adopt but I also had to remind myself that I grew up American. I wasn’t able to eat a true Spanish diet daily without moving up a couple pant sizes during the transition. Personally for me, I didn’t grow up walking to each and every destination and I certainly didn’t spend as much time outside as some of the children here in Spain do. I came to the conclusion when my plane touched down that being a 5’7 broad shouldered, ex- competitive swimmer female would place me as bigger than a large percentage of females here in Spain. If you come to that conclusion too, don’t sweat it, that’s just how evolution across the world unfolded. We’re all human beings here.
When it comes to ‘living like a Spaniard’ the hardest thing I had to adapt to and am still having trouble un-adapting to is the eating schedule. If your mother used to tell you to not eat after 8:00 p.m you’re going to have to throw that entire lecture out of the window when you move to Spain.
Spaniards are night owls, but still rise early to get the day started. For the most part don’t have a big breakfasts and if they do it will usually be toast and coffee. Lunchtime usually starts around 3:00 p.m where (if you are in the South) a siesta will be hot on its heels for your much needed recuperation. During that (siesta) time Spaniards will usually go out have a beer, enjoy each others company and graze on some picos or little bar snacks. Dinnertime rolls around at about 9:30-10:00 p.m so by that time you should hear your stomach’s dull moans from hunger pains.
I found it most difficult to eat smaller dinners because by that time of the night I usually felt like I could eat my entire kitchen - and sometimes I do. The trick is to load up your dinner plate with produce and proteins. Carbs are better matched with lunchtime meals and can be digested and stored for your midday energy - veggies and meats can be used to restore your body and general health while you sleep.
Lucky for you the Spanish diet has an abundance of both.
If you are a vegetarian, I won’t lie to you, restaurant options may be slim but produce options are versatile and vibrant, you should have no problem collecting ingredients for any dish.
In retrospect, dieting and exercise is not easy and honestly never will be. But just because you live in another country doesn’t mean you can forget about bodily health and overall well-being. I know it’s stressful moving your life to another place - take a few weeks to settle in and get acquainted with your surroundings, but don’t forget about that self-care later on down the road. It took me a few years to finally succumb to the inevitable and accept the fact that I was slipping while abroad, but everything has ways of recuperation. Travel hard, eat smart, treat yourself every now and then and embrace the enjoyment of life.
Kala is a proud and true southern girl and alumni of Indiana University, Bloomington. Dedicated and curious world traveler with an aptitude for engaging in conversation with anyone who's willing to listen. Listening to music, riding horses and laying on the beach are some of her favorite past times. Hand her a violin and she'll play you a nice and complicated little tune, with a beer on the table beside her. She is a writer, broadcast journalist, musician and 'enjoyment of life' enthusiast. Follow her on instagram @kala_kz