6 Food Lessons from 6 Weeks in Dubai

I just spent six weeks in Dubai – a city I never desired to visit nor had any hope of loving. 

Yet when my husband was put on a work project here for 6 weeks, we thought it would be a unique experience to share together and I took time away from my sessions to join him.

Healthy living is a collection of small choices you make every day. Out of my normal home context, these decisions became much harder to make. And yet – sometimes letting go of good habits reminds us of why they are important to us in the first place.

So h
ere are some learnings from six weeks of eating away from home.

1. Sometimes, all you can do is your best

My eating was definitely not at the 80% is perfection I usually aim for – perhaps more 60% healthier options and 40% less healthy options. I ate a lot more dairy, white bread and sugar than I would at home and cooked a lot less than I usually do.

Rather than obsess over my less than stellar way of eating, I tried making more effort where I had more control: Home food preparation and by choosing the healthier option at restaurants – because as I have written before, there is always a healthier option. I also tried upgrading on food quality whenever possible, eating mindfully and listening to my body. These are choices that are almost always within our grasp, regardless of where or what we are eating.

Most importantly, I realized I was doing my best in the circumstances and that it was also important for me to be nourished by other aspects of life than just food – especially when being surrounded by so much newness.

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2. Sugar is a slippery slope

I have written my story of being addicted to sugar and I realized in Dubai how easy it is to go back down this path. Because our stay in Dubai had a holiday feel to it and sugar is very much linked to celebration and pleasure for me, I found myself ordering a cupcake or ice-cream as a ‘treat’ a few times. After all, it felt like a special occasion every day! And while this was in no way as extreme as when I was really addicted to sugar, it made me realize how quickly bad habits can creep up on healthy ones. It also reminded me of how addictive sugar can be and that the less I eat of it, the less I crave it.

After the second cupcake two days in a row, I realized I needed to find alternative ways of doing something nice for myself so I started becoming a little more creative and found other ways of bringing pleasure to my days – since pleasure is very much linked to sugar (sugar = pleasure for the body). These included discovering a new coffee shop, taking my laptop to the beach and working from there, getting a manicure or pedicure, going to a yoga or pilates class, going swimming, simply noticing the beauty around me, watching the sunset or journaling.

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3. Vegetables are the greatest losers

I find that the hardest food group to get enough of when eating out a lot is vegetables. My solution to this was to try and eat as many vegetables as possible at home and to have a fresh vegetable juice whenever I could find one or even a fresh coconut juice. I also ate more fruits than I normally would as it was an easy way to get more nutrients and it felt very natural in such a hot climate.

Still, I very much missed my almost-daily smoothie as an easy way of adding more vegetables, especially green ones, to my diet!

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4. Intuitive eating is more important than just eating healthy

I tried viewing my not always so healthy eating experience as an experiment and an opportunity to be in tune with my body through intuitive eating rather than as a failure in healthy eating.

When I paid attention, I noticed that there really is a difference between living food and ‘dead’ food. My body felt more alive and vibrant after eating zucchini noodles at a raw food restaurant than it did after eating regular pasta – even though the regular pasta tasted delicious. Being attentive to how my body felt after eating something as opposed to whether it simply tasted good in the moment helped me make healthier choices, even in the face of temptation.

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5. Food FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) is very real

When you are on holiday or somewhere for a limited time and there is a lot of food you want to taste, there is definite FOMO or Fear Of Missing Out.

I found FOMO to be especially strong in a buffet setting where you have unlimited choice. Buffets are quite popular in Dubai and we ended up going to three of them. I ate too much at the first one and ended up feeling bad the rest of the day, so the following times, I made it a point to really listen to my body. Here are some guidelines I found helpful:

♥ Eat only what you REALLY REALLY want – not food that might be interesting but that doesn’t light you up.

♥ Have very small portions – realize you can always have more if you want.

♥ Slow down and eat mindfully – take your time and really taste the food.

♥ Listen to your body and honour your hunger signals over finishing your plate or trying everything out.

♥ Don’t fill up on things like bread or rice (unless they really light you up).

♥ Don’t eat food you can have anytime or somewhere else – eat only what feels unique and special to this buffet.

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6. Eating alone can be enjoyable

I had never ordered a meal and eaten out alone and often find it more difficult to eat mindfully when I am alone. I decided to take this on as an experiment, asking myself: I wonder what it will be like to take myself out for lunch and really enjoy my food without distractions?

Even though it was uncomfortable in the beginning and difficult to keep my phone away, eating alone has now become a source of pleasure for me. I started to appreciate it as a way of connecting to myself and my food without distractions – and it also made me appreciate eating with others even more at other occasions.

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PS – While I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Dubai, it was also a productive time for Healthwise. I finished the first draft of an Online Mindful Eating program to launch in January and updated the Healthier Christmas Cookies eBook which will be out next week – make sure you are signed-up for my newsletter to receive it. I also started blogging for the Huffington Post – read my articles here.

 

Healthy Eating Away from Home

Eating out and still eating healthy

It is summer and between travelling and going out, there seem to be more occasions to eat out, wouldn’t you say? Healthy eating away from home doesn’t have to be complicated, unhealthy or boring though. Below are my three main guidelines for eating in restaurants or while traveling and still eating healthy, plus a few additional tips.

Guideline 1: If it is a special occasion, enjoy it and enjoy the company

If you are eating well at least 80% of the time, you have room for indulgence – especially since being with people you love and having a great time is just as important for your health as what you eat. Remember that 80% is perfection.

So if it is your birthday or a special occasion, focus on enjoyment more than on eating healthy. There is no point in having a salad and feeling frustrated. Remember that this is a way of life, not a diet.

Guideline 2: If it is not a special occasion, always make the healthiest choice possible in the context you are in

Cultivate the habit of always choosing the most healthy (or least unhealthy) choice available. Don’t let yourself off the hook just because there isn’t anything you would classify as really ‘healthy’. There is always a ‘healthier’ option and this can actually end up making a big difference in the long run, especially if you eat out a lot.

I find this is especially important in places like airports where healthy choices are quite limited. Choosing nuts or a banana over chips or a chocolate bar is often an option though!

Guideline 3: Always choose the highest quality version of a food you can find and afford

When traveling, instead of obsessing about WHAT you eat, focus instead on eating the best quality possible, regardless of whether you are eating cake or bacon or bread.

This means reading labels, choosing organic and local whenever possible and above all, food that was grown or raised in the best conditions possible. A good question to ask yourself is: If this food could tell a story, what story would it tell?

This is actually a guideline I try to stick to whenever I choose food. As Marc David, founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating states, “Eating quality food is perhaps the most powerful and foolproof nutritional strategy we can choose.”

If you stick to these three basic guidelines, you should be covered for most eating out occasions. Below are a few additional tips to help out:

Stop eating when you are full

We tend to associate an empty plate with being full, but if you listen to your body’s signals, you might actually feel full before that.

Be clear with your waiter if you need to avoid certain ingredients

Tell your waiter this is a serious food allergy so that you are taken seriously. You can provide a list of ingredients you need to avoid and this can even be translated into the local language.

When I was travelling in countries like China and Japan, I asked at the first hotel we stayed in for the staff to write for me “I don’t eat meat, fish or chicken” on a paper which I kept with me and showed at restaurants where the staff didn’t speak English. This always brought a few sniggers from the staff but at least I had a meal I could eat!

Research restaurants in advance

Most restaurants have their menus posted on their website. For vegetarian or healthier options which often also cater to food allergies, try www.happycow.com.

Pick the right type of cuisine

If you are avoiding gluten and dairy for example, Asian restaurants have more choice than Italian restaurants.

Construct your custom meal

Most restaurants are more flexible than we expect. Pick a few ingredients from the menu and construct your own dish. Don’t be afraid to ask for changes to an order – such as vegetables with steak instead of fries. You can always take inspiration from Meg Ryan ordering food in the movie When Harry Met Sally!

When traveling, bring some of your own food that you can snack on or eat when there aren’t a lot of options

Good choices include raw, unsalted nuts and seeds, fruit and healthier crackers.

If you need to, don’t hesitate to bring your own ingredients

For example, if you are intolerant to gluten, bring your own gluten-free crackers and have them with the hotel breakfast instead of bread.

Avoid sauces, dressings, and dips

They are usually laden with hidden sugars, unhealthy oils or preservatives. Ask for olive oil and lemon instead of dressing or ask for them on the side and add just a little instead of having a salad drowning in unhealthy sauce.

If you are eating at a friend’s or at a potluck, offer to bring something healthy that you can eat

Examples include humus with vegetable sticks, a lentil salad or my secret ingredient chocolate pie for dessert.

I would love to hear from you – how do you eat out and still eat healthy?

Imperfectly perfect

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I wouldn’t consider myself a perfectionist in many things but when it comes to healthy habits, I had an ‘all or nothing’ approach. I would eat ‘perfectly’ for a few days, then give in to some cake at a friend’s house. After that, a little voice of sabotage would tell me – you’ve already had cake, why not also have some pizza and cookies, too, since today is clearly NOT a healthy day?

Ah, that little voice of sabotage! Constantly reminding me of how imperfect I am.

It used to win, until I came across this Chinese saying:

80% is perfection

What a radical shift in perspective! I discovered that when you release the need to be perfect, you can have that piece of cake if you really want to – and then go back to healthier eating. You can exercise a little less for a few days because you are busy, and then return to your usual routine. All of a sudden, you have space to be imperfect, and by creating this for yourself, healthy living becomes more enjoyable – and more achievable in the long-term.

♥ You move from perfectionism, which isn’t actually possible in the real world, to realism.

♥ You move from a deprivation mindset into an abundance mindset.

♥ You realize that it isn’t what you do occasionally that counts – it’s what you do most of the time.

♥ You learn to listen more to your body and honor it’s need to occasionally veer off the health track without judgement. Occasional lapses become an enjoyable treat rather than a guilty indulgence.

♥ Most importantly, by not listening to that little voice of sabotage in your head, you stop giving yourself excuses to give up on healthier habits.