Food & Fitness

Mission: Lose Weight Overseas (Update)

The sistertraveller has been hard at work to lose a few pounds and she has sent us an e-mail update! Check out her original plea for help from about a month ago to refresh your memory on her situation. Here’s how her progress is going:

Your advice and tips were invaluable (also all the helpful suggestions from your commenters). The only thing holding me back was that April was a difficult month, between visiting our friends’ family for Sinhala New Year and they fed us constantly for 36 hours, all “special” New Years foods which were a) delicious but unfortunately b) made mostly of honey and coconut. Secondly, the parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka took place and we were stuck inside our house for 3 days for safety reasons, and it was very boring, and we ate a lot of comfort food. [Editor’s note: Since when is “dangerous to go outside” synonymous with boring?!]

The good news though, is that after 2 and a half months of being here, I finally have a routine, am finally used to the food, and am aware enough about the customs to know when it is polite or acceptable to say “no” to food offerings from people! I’ve managed to stop gaining weight, now the plan this month is to seriously work on losing it.

I feel like I should also explain the situation a bit more, both for you and for your readers. There are a number of things about living abroad in the developing world that you would never think you have to deal with until you are in it. These are things about Sri Lanka that are difficult to avoid:

1) The honoured guest thing: when you are invited to someone’s home, it is absolutely 100% impossible to refuse food or drinks. So, when we went away for New Years, I probably re-put-on the 5 pounds I’d spent the previous 2 weeks losing, in coconut and sugar and honey and sweet drinks.
2) Which leads me to the next point: Sri Lankans have crazy sweet tooths! I mean, I like the occasional piece of chocolate or bowl of ice cream or Coca Cola or whatever, but this country really, really likes its sugar. It is everywhere, cheap, accessible and delicious. However, this is one thing I have managed to get a handle on, mostly cutting it out of my diet or at the very least cutting way, way back on it. Although, there is a big danger because of the heat of your blood-sugar dropping fast in the middle, hot part of the day. So sometimes no matter how much water I drink I start to fade: getting headaches and feeling dizzy, and I really need a cold sugar boost. Those are the days I’ll cave and buy a Coke. Do you or your commenters have any alternate recommendations? I was thinking of having chocolate milk (a Milo) instead, but I don’t know if this is any better than Coke.
3) Also, the sugar thing goes for one of Sri Lanka’s most revered traditions: sweet, milky tea. At work (when I am in the office) 3 times a day I am brought a cup of this, which is tasty, but which I know for a fact is probably the main culprit in my weight gain! I’ve tried to cut it back to 1 cup a day, or sometimes I say no (to obvious shock, and the tea-lady gets sad, thinking I don’t like it), and when at tea shops on field visits, request a cup with no sugar or milk, usually giving all of the other patrons of the establishment a heart attack.
4) Fats. I am a dairy junkie at home, which is fine when I’m drinking 1% milk, low fat yogurt, and at least being able to run or play soccer when I over-indulge in cheese. Here though, it is next to impossible to get fat-free dairy. (although, this makes it totally delicious!) But I’ve stopped eating yogurt in the mornings (now it is more of a dessert thing), have switched to a piece of fruit instead, and have just one cup of coffee, so I only put in 1 splash of full fat milk. Also, I am living in a cheese-less place (aahhhh! I know you know this is killing me), so I want to know what the deal is on Laughing Cow cheese? It’s the only stuff I can get, but I can’t read the nutrition label. What are your thoughts on Laughing Cow?
5) Fitness. I finally have a bicycle. This was an exciting thing for me! I’ve also now explored my town fully, and have found a new favourite route to bicycle along the lagoon to where it meets the ocean at the lighthouse, about a 25 minutes bike ride one way from my house. In addition to my yoga, jumping jacks (my roommate laughs at me for this, but hey, what can you do?) and core training, I’m adding an evening bike ride. Or a walk. I haven’t fully decided yet. It depends how hot it is here. Definitely some form of evening activity though. [Editor’s note: Awesome! Keep up the great work with the exercise!]
6) Portion sizes: I finally learned that it is actually okay not to finish things, although it is much more polite (read: less wasteful) to just take really small portion sizes, and cut out rice. This is working like a charm.
7) Lastly: alcohol. I’m working on it. Really.

May will be a little more straightforward: there are less holidays, no crazy political situations (as far as we can see, fingers crossed it all stays nice and peaceful!) and for the last 2 weeks I’ve finally developed a lifestyle routine that I can stick with, and I will for the next 5 weeks for sure.

Also, just in case you want a little more info on my job here in Sri Lanka: I’m doing an evaluation on an empowerment project for 1,000 former child combatants in the eastern province of Sri Lanka. This means I am in the field at least 3 out of 5 days a week and am often spending days and nights far north or south making sure everything is in order with our partners. This makes living a sustainably healthy, regular lifestyle more difficult (ie, eating what is available, and working out regularly), because I am generally exhausted all the time. But it’s a great project, and I am writing about it at! [Editor’s note: Support the sistertraveller and the project she’s working on by checking out the link above!]

My response:

1. Coca Cola vs Chocolate Milk: Definitely choose chocolate milk over the Coca Cola. Although chocolate milk can have high amounts of sugar and sometimes includes artificial ingredients, it also has the benefits of calcium, healthy fats, and other important nutrients. Milk is also more filling than other kinds of sweet beverages (such as Coca Cola or fruit juice), and will therefore satiate your hunger at the same time as it quenches your thirst and refreshes your body on a hot day. I don’t know what the ingredients are like in Sri Lankan chocolate milk, but even if they aren’t fantastic, it will certainly be the lesser evil between that and Coca Cola.

2. Accepting Sweet Beverages: It sounds as though you’ve already been doing a good job at balancing politeness with weight management! You’re a step further along, too, because you recognize that there are extra calories, fat, and sugar being added into your diet just by drinking the sweet, milky tea a few times a day. Something you might consider doing is accepting the tea when the tea-lady comes around the first time, but then not drinking it, or drinking it very slowly. That way, by the next time she comes around, you can explain that you haven’t finished your first cup. Hopefully she won’t be offended and you will be consuming less of it, too. As always, keep a big bottle of water close at hand!

3. Dairy: It’s an excellent idea to treat yogurt as dessert. Even the low-fat varieties in North America are full of junk, so unless you’re reading labels very carefully, it’s best to think of yogurt as a treat rather than breakfast (the same way that most kinds of muffins should be thought of as a treat rather than breakfast food, for example).

Laughing Cow Cheese (particularly the Light variety) is one of my most favourite options for cheese. Technically, it’s a “processed cheese product” (it’s one of my few “processed food” weaknesses!), but the ingredients are all very reasonable and it is a great option when weight loss is a focus but you still want a lot of flavour. Use it as a spread on sandwiches, fruit, or veggies; put it on your salad, or eat it as-is. Two wedges of the Light version are 45 calories (I think it’s twice as many for the regular version- but still, very reasonable).

When the sistertraveller was living in Istanbul, Turkey for a year, I spent the Christmas holidays with her. It was considered rude to refuse the cay (Turkish tea) that accompanied every meal, but at that point in my life, I hated tea. I drank it anyways in order to be polite (with a sugar cube, of course ;)), and by the end of my trip, I had become an avid tea drinker (no sugar necessary). Sometimes local customs are great to adopt! Other times, as in the sistertraveller’s current case, they aren’t quite so helpful.

What advice do you have for the sistertraveller?


  1. love2eatinpa

    wow, those were certainly some tough situations she had to go through!
    my normal advice would be to pack your own snacks, but you would need a whole extra suitcase for a oouple of months worth of travelling!

  2. asithi

    I drink the sweeten milk tea all the time. When I drink it more often than once every other day, I tend to gain weight too! That’s a hard one because the drink can be quite addicting.

  3. The Candid RD

    I find it hard to imagine going anywhere and feeling obligated to say yes to all foods. I know it’s true though, I’ve heard this before, but it’s just so unreal to me. I wouldn’t survive! I’m glad she has learned when it’s ok to say no, and has fallen into a good routine. Like any big change, it’s hard to move and live with new people and a new family. With change often comes stress and eating….your advice is perfect.

  4. Sagan Morrow

    Love2eatinpa- Hehehe you sure would!

    Asithi- I think I’m going to avoid ever drinking that… I KNOW that I would become addicted to it quickly. It sounds so delicious.

    Mimi- Agreed. Chocolate milk is tasty stuff 😀

    Gina- I’d guess that you haven’t lived overseas in a developing country before 😉 It can be hard to adapt to cultures different from our own!

  5. liz wx

    Your sister is an impressive woman, Sagan. Not that you need telling! It’s brave and sterling work to help child combatants, in whatever capacity. I’ve read Emmanuel Beah’s autobiography and it’s so clear how much support and time they need if they are ever to recover. It’s great that she’s looking after herself at the same time, though, and it certainly sounds from her email to you as though she has all the sense and imagination she needs to find a way of doing this. Attagirl!

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