eating healthy abroad


A healthy and artfully arranged salad.

Eating right. It’s tough even at the best of times in the easiest of circumstances. Having a rough time? At least you know what the food labels say, where the organic section is, and what the heck that vegetable staring at you is called.

Not so much in Taiwan. Not being able to read or conversationally speak the language is a real hindrance to eating right. What an odd and depressing connection between two unrelated things. Sure, I could get fruits and vegetables and eat like a rabbit for the next two months, but they’re missing a lot of flora I recognize, and I wouldn’t know what they were telling me even if I could ask what the other stuff is. More kinds of lettuce than I can count, strange mushrooms that I’d hate anyway, other…things that are totally alien. It’s tough.

For the first eights months of my life here, I ate really poorly. We have (HAD) no kitchen in our dorm; only a hot-plate, small toaster oven, and rice-cooker. Not a fully equipped spread by any means. Making cookies three at a time is enough to drive even the Cookie Monster to salads. Having less means of cooking was bad enough, but we also had little time. Sure, I could have squeezed cooking times in between classes, in the mornings, at lunch, or in the evenings, but it wasn’t really viable. For one thing, we were always so exhausted by the end of the day, or we had night classes, or we needed to go to town to get the groceries, that cooking in the evening was difficult. Lunch was even worse, since we had to serve the kids, find time to eat, and try to squeeze a nap in. Yeah, we could have foregone the nap, but I think I may have started throwing things if I had.

Add to that the incomprehensibility of food labels and the lack of many canned goods or familiar items and you have a recipe for health disaster. We ate a lot of foods that could be prepared quickly, like ramen, carb-heavy dishes, or ate out from 7-11 or the dumpling place. I found out later that I may have a slight egg allergy, which cut off a big source of protein.

I’m making it sound like this was a huge issue that took up a lot of thought and occupied many waking hours; but it didn’t. I was far too busy teaching and worrying about life in general to be too concerned about health. It bothered me, of course, and I frequently lamented our frequent trips to 7, but it wasn’t until we were fully adjusted, about month eight, that things began to look up. My best friend and I decided to stop eating carbs and so many sugary things and eat more meat. We had read 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss and thought his diet sounded doable. I thought this would mean eating chicken for every meal, but we actually discovered that our local RT-Mart carried many cuts of beef, of a much better quality than most American meat. Realizing that it would still be too difficult to cook every mealtime, we decided to cook in bulk a few meals that would last us several days. Our list included; roast with onions and carrots we could make in the rice-cooker, chicken salad, and Mexican chicken stir-fry. We had some tortillas (not like normal ones; the kind they use to make Danbing, a breakfast food a bit like an egg wrap) that we were using with the stir-fry, and we started using them with everything. The crunchy texture of a fried tortilla made the meals more interesting. Yeah, it wasn’t carb-free anymore, but it helped us get enough to eat, a real problem when you take carbs out.

It was a simple adjustment, but it made a difference. I started losing weight again and feeling more energetic and less constantly hungry. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the best we could do with our busy schedule and remoteness. (Traveling forty-five minutes to the grocery store does tend to make it into a bit of an ordeal.)

All that being said, trying to stay healthy in Taiwan is difficult. When you can’t read the labels or ingredient lists, it’s hard to stay on a strict diet, and not having access to many of the foods you’re used to forces you to get creative for food choices. Also, the sheer abundance and cheapness of junk food is really tempting.

Anyone else have stories to share regarding this? From what I can tell, the organic and diet craze hasn’t really hit Taiwan. Am I right, or just not seeing it?



4 thoughts on “eating healthy abroad

  1. Emily Morris says:

    I am so glad you posted this! I can relate to both of you… Right now I have been teaching in Czech Republic for about 7 months. It has been REALLY HARD to eat healthy. I am used to food in America literally having a food label with a calorie count on EVERY package. Here in CR only about 40% of the foods have a nutrition label (and they are often foreign foods) In the rare case that I can find the nutrition content on the package and translate it into English, it can still be a little complicated. For example, a 42 gram sized snack will have the nutrition for what is in 100 grams. So in other words, I have to then calculate the actual calorie count of each package! In America I would pay attention to calories and it was simply what worked for me in staying healthy and maintaining my weight. Now I have to get creative in being healthy. It doesn’t help that there are little food shops everywhere with really cheap junk food, bread rolls, baked goods, etc. It’s nice to know that I am not alone with this problem! I wish I had some good advice but I am still trying to figure things out and make healthier choices.

    • That sounds like a rigmarole…I wish I had been able to translate any of my food, but that wasn’t really an option. I commend you though for trying – that takes dedication and motivation, so go you!

      It’s so tricky dealing with this stuff in another country. I think, looking back on my own experience, that the best advice I can give is to find a local to help you. If you can, get someone also interested in being healthy and see what they do and how you can replicate it. If you can at least find a few foods and meals you can get that you KNOW are healthy, you can rotate those while you experiment with anything else. I hope you do find a friend. It can make the whole thing easier anyway.

      Best of luck, and keep at it! :D

  2. I totally agree with – even though where we are living in different places. I am currently teaching in the UAE outside of Dubai and we have a phrase here “you will never lose weight in the Emirates.” Our problems are very different but eating healthy abroad is a huge issue. In the Emirates, Arab hospitality makes it really hard to cut back on the carbs, cookies, sweets, sugary teas, and huge rice dishes. Saying no politely is usually never an option! On top of that we almost have the opposite problem – we have just about every fast food chain you can think of – from Hardey’s to Applebee’s, and McDonalds to Fuddruckers. It’s crazy – and the worse part is that they all deliver – so, if you don’t feel like cooking it means that ordering in is easy and full of fat. Just the last three weeks my husband and I finally joined a gym and have made it a priority to eat healthier and not become lazy with our food. I think sometimes we feel like we are in a foreign place and so eating familiar food (no matter how bad it is for me) is comforting. It took us about 8 months as well to feel adjusted and start to re-evaluate the choices we had been making up until that point. Sorry this is a really long comment but I really felt I could relate to what you’re going through. I really enjoyed your post and I will be thinking of you as we too try to eat healthier! Best of luck. As always I look forward to all your posts – you have a great blogging voice : )

    • Wow, it sounds both wonderful and maddening (losing weight-wise) – I’ve heard so many stories of Arab hospitality, it really makes me want to visit. We’ve had a couple of times we’ve been invited to houses in Taiwan, not as much as I’d like, but every time we do eat like pigs. Isn’t it funny that it takes so long to get adjusted? I think healthy living must be one of the last things to be thought of; at least for me, so while it was always a concern, I had many other things I wanted to get in order first. I also agree about the comfort of familiar food. If I’m not feeling adventurous, I tend to want to eat American junk food because I already know what to expect. No unknowns there. Thanks for commenting; I really enjoy hearing other people’s stories. :)

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