I am not talking about the few pounds or kilos you usually gain after overeating for one or two feast meals at Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s Eve.
What I am talking about is a long-term approach to both weight gain and weight loss that many people struggle with during major transitions in response to stress and negative emotions. When people are stressed, their brain send wrong signals to their body and they are looking at food, especially highly refined, sugary and fatty junk food, to stimulate the pleasure center and calm them down.
No diet, no exercise program, no surgery will relieve you of your addiction to food. Why? Because they do not address the profound reasons for your bad eating habits.
For many expatriates there are many obvious and not so obvious reasons to compensate negative emotions with junk food or overeating:
- Moving every 2 to 5 years
- Stress of packing and unpacking stuff,
- Not able to cook healthy food in your own kitchen while in transit
- No time for exercising
- Cross-cultural issues
- Being isolated and bored alone at home
- Being pregnant and having a baby abroad
- Working spouse travelling much more than previous situation
- Chaos and unstructured environment
- Loss of support network of fiends and family or colleagues
- Frustration, anger and resentment of not liking your new environment
- Loss of status
- Poor self-esteem
- Feeling insecure
- No access to health care and therapists in your own language
The more you eat and gain weight the more frustrated you get and the more you eat. This is a vicious circle that becomes a habit. The first year of an expatriation you recognize that the 10 pounds or 6 kilos you gained are related to few or all of the reasons listed above and once you are ready, you know you can get read of the extra weight by having a healthier diet and resume your physical activities. This is fine except that having your weight up and down like a yo-yo can trigger more serious health problems such as diabetes , hypertension and heart attacks if it becomes a habit. In addition as you get older it becomes more difficult to lose this extra weight.
Of course this is not an issue for expatriates only, most overweight and obese people experience the same negative emotional eating pattern. The problem when you are living abroad is the lack of appropriate care and specific support because of cultural barriers or a drastic change in lifestyle.
Here some tips :
1- Look for professional help such as cognitive therapy to change your response to stress and negative emotions : Robin Pascoe has written a very good article about : Finding a therapist while living abroad.
2-If boredom is the reason for overeating, think about a project you always wanted to do or something you wanted to learn but you never had time for: ask people who share same interests to help you find the resources. If you don’t understand the local language look for local publications in English, networking and support groups in English
3-Volunteer at school, be involved in your local community, teach your language or other things you are good at. Giving without expecting anything in return and helping others usually trigger the production of pleasure hormones in your brain so you are less tempted to eat to get the same good feeling.
4-Exercising is good but try to find outdoor physical activities with possibilities to socialize by joining a group such a walking, hiking, biking or even visiting local attractions. I love doing aerobic or dance classes but usually people don’t really have time to socialize at the gym.
5-Be kind to yourself : accept emotional eating as a legitimate coping choice and tolerate some craving. Organize regularly a dinner or a lunch with your spouse or friends and eat what you like. Get back on track the next couple of days by eating fish, lean meats and vegetables, do one more hour of exercise during the week.
6-Do not multi-task while eating: Make a conscious choice of what you are eating sit down and concentrate on eating only. Eat slowly, pause often, use small plates.