I still remember the weeks I spent searching through Pinterest before I left for my semester abroad in London, googling things like “foreign 15” and “how to not gain weight abroad.” I think it’s easy to say that the fear of gaining weight while traveling for a semester is a common worry for students to face before booking their flights to Europe.
Maybe it’s the society we live in that perpetuates the idea that weight gain is the worst thing that could possibly happen, or the unbelievably high standards set by social media. Either way, it’s important to note that experiencing food anxiety while traveling is not out of the norm.
During my search I couldn’t help but notice that many of these articles didn’t address the underlying fear of gaining weight that can often times hinder the amazing experience that a semester abroad is. All I could find were lists of reasons why “The Foreign 15 is the Happiest Weight You’ll Ever Gain” but I couldn’t help but think that it wouldn’t be true for me.
I know there are people out there who can eat without a care in the world — and trust me, I’m totally jealous of them. But there’s got to be students like me, who can’t help but analyze what’s going into their mouths and how it will affect their bodies.
Let me start by saying that I am in no way trying to say you shouldn’t eat your way through Europe during your travels. What I am here to say is that if the idea of packing on the pounds abroad terrifies you — I hear you. You’re not alone. I don’t have all the answers, but I can offer some tips that helped me deal with that anxiety.
1. Keep Exercise as a Part of Your Routine
For someone who places a heavy focus on what they eat, exercise has always been a coping mechanism that has helped give me peace of mind when what I’m consuming is out of my control. By promising myself I would continue to run at least once a week, I was able to come up with a new way to explore the country I was living in and also manage my stress.
While a weekly workout won’t cancel out that glorious gelato (nor should it), it will make getting back into the swing of things once you return to the States a little less intimidating.
2. Embrace the Culture
Have you caught on yet that no one in Europe is obese? It’s not just the types of food they eat — it’s how they eat them. Take Italy for example: most Italians don’t eat breakfast in the morning. While this isn’t something your nutritionist would recommend, embracing the culture and following their lead makes it easier to ensure that indulging doesn’t turn into binging.
So maybe if you know half a pizza and a bottle of wine is in your future, skipping breakfast in favor of an espresso like a true Italian couldn’t hurt.
3. Eat Mindfully
I know, I know, you HAVE to snap a pic of your fish and chips so that all of your Instagram followers will be super jealous. Don’t get me wrong, I’m guilty of this too. After you have a photo shoot with your food, put the phone down and truly enjoy the experience. You’ll be more likely to feel satisfied after you’ve finished.
4. Cook for Yourself
For me, having foods I knew and recognized was a comfort while studying abroad. It can be tough eating out for every meal of the day, constantly surrounded by foods you’re not using to eating on the reg. If you find that grabbing food out constantly is causing you stress, try to plan a basic meal you can make in your flat or hostel that has nutrients and foods you recognize (for me it was a veggie stir fry with tofu).
BONUS: exploring grocery stores while abroad is fun! It’s a great way to learn about the culture and experience cooking with different ingredients.
5. Combat Negative Self-Talk
It’s easy to get caught up in your own head when you’re feeling guilt over food. Whether it’s “you didn’t really need that” or “you should have chosen the healthier option”, it can be hard not to beat yourself up over your food choices when you’re used to being more in control of what goes into your body. I found that to combat negative thoughts like these I needed to be more self-aware.
If you can catch yourself in a negative thought and instead change it to something like “you worked really hard to be here, and you deserve to experience this part of the culture” it can help turn those thoughts around.
6. Don’t Worry About What Everyone Else Is Doing
It’s easy to be influenced by other students food choices when you’re living in such close proximity. Just like freshman year, it’s TOUGH to say no to pizza when everyone else in indulging, but remember: if ordering the healthier option is going to cause you less stress, AND you’re still going to enjoy the experience as much as everyone else, don’t worry about any health-shaming comments people might make.
On the flip side — if it seems like everyone else is eating less or exercising more than you, don’t stress! Focus on doing what makes you feel best, no matter what that is, and don’t freak about what anyone else is doing.