What are the best ways to stay fit and healthy while studying abroad? Is it possible to enjoy the experience and try all the new foods without seeing a huge difference on the scale? Is it possible to avoid the “Foreign 15?”
Some of our favorite DiGG girls are preparing to spend a semester abroad and when they voiced their concerns, we made it our mission to help them out. We wouldn’t want anyone to miss out on one of the most memorable aspects of spending time overseas — the food — so we gathered our tips for a balanced experience.
Let’s start with the math: A typical study abroad session is four months (16 weeks / 112 days), which equates t0 336 meals, assuming 3 meals per day. If 80% of those meals were committed to being healthy (think: vegetables, fruit,lean protein, quality carb-based grains like quinoa, brown rice) that leads to 264 healthy meals while the remaining 72 are left for your indulgence. In other words, pizza, pasta, or French fries can be enjoyed 4.5x per week. What it all really means? It’s possible to stay healthy but still splurge on occasion.
Our tips and tricks for returning to the States healthy and fit:
1- Universal Food Truths
In any country, fried foods are never the best choice and soda is always full of sugar. Raw and lightly cooked vegetables are your best friend, drinking plenty of water is essential, and a diet of lean protein, healthy fats, and “good” carbs will always help you feel your best!
2- Grocery Essentials
Upon arriving to your dorm or apartment, pinpoint a local grocery store that sells these 20 healthy items: lemons, apples, oranges, veggies, nuts, eggs, brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, chicken cutlets, olive oil, sea salt, honey or maple syrup, yogurt, almond butter, rice crackers, jelly, avocados, black beans, and dried fruit. You won’t believe how creative you can get with just these essentials. Check out Our “Study Abroad PDF” filled with recipes, advice, and suggestions, as well as the Food section on our site.
3- Dorm Room Living
If you can’t cook your own meals due to dorm living, there are options! Rice cakes and healthy crackers spread with hummus, avocado, cream cheese, nut butters, jelly, sliced turkey and cheese make for inventive sandwiches. Much of the above can be stored in a dorm fridge or on a closet shelf and makes for inexpensive, yet healthy, meals and snacks.
4- Make Your Own Meal Plan
If most of your meals come from the school meal plan, use it to your advantage and make a real plan: A fruit based breakfast, a grain + veggie lunch, and a protein + salad dinner. Once these parameters are set, you’ll be amazed by how easy it is to make healthy choices in an overwhelming environment.For example, Breakfast: a fruit bowl with yogurt and 1/2 cup of granola. Lunch: 1 cup of a healthy grain with a heaping serving of stir-fried or steamed vegetables. Dinner: A giant salad with chicken, steak, or fish and topped with cheese, nuts, and chickpeas (or more vegetables!). It sounds delicious, right? Committing to these types of meals will help you stay healthy and lean throughout your study abroad.
5- Snack Attack
Carry homemade or home-packaged snacks with you at all times. When hungry and on the go, it’s impossible to stay smart about healthy food choices. When low blood sugar hits, your body goes into survival mode and demands calories in any form. Instead of finding yourself in a situation where a candy bar or chips become the easy choice, carry snacks with you. Homemade trail mix, popcorn, mixed nuts, clementines, or a turkey and lettuce roll-up make life a whole lot easier. Commit to carrying these snacks with you at all times.
6- So Much Depends on Sleep
Sleep translates to good health. Since most weekends will center on tiresome (yet awesome) travel, it should be a priority to get 8 hours of sleep during weekday nights. Set a timer for 30 minutes before your bedtime and plan to step away from all screens. As WebMD explains, sleep deprivation can add to weight gain. Two key hormones affecting hunger and satiation (or when to stop eating) are influenced by sleep (7.5 hrs/night). Without enough sleep, these hormones can’t function well and your body will constantly be craving food, (unhealthy food especially). As Ariana Huffington so eloquently put it in this TED talk, “We can sleep our way to increased productivity and happiness — and smarter decision-making.”
Here’s what works for us: Curl up in bed with a travel guide, a book of inspirational quotes, or Sophia Amuroso’s #GirlBoss. In 4 months of studying abroad, you are opening yourself up to a world of possibilities, a lifetime of exploration, a study about how other cultures live. Sleep and reading go hand- in-hand and you’ll be able to keep your weight exactly where you want it if you focus on the essential ingredient of sleep.
7- Breathe Deeply and Properly
Do you know what happens when you breathe deeply and properly? So deeply that you feel your belly fill like a balloon and feel your chest expand? When the proper amount of oxygen is circulating in your body, your intestines, stomach, liver, pancreas, and spleen can do their jobs efficiently, which translates to a boosted metabolism and a trimmer you. One of our favorite guides to proper breathing can be found here. If you were to take just 5 minutes a day to focus on rhythmic, deep, centered breathing, (through your nose, filling your belly and lungs and exhaling everything out) we firmly believe you could set your body on a path to fit and healthy forever.
8- Drink Smart
Alcohol is one of those things that can ruin a night in no time at all, not to mention, pack on the extra pounds. Imagine the sum total of drinking 3 drinks/night (a low number for many college students) for 112 nights? That’s 336 drinks at 150 calories / drink. You are not going to like this total: 50,400 calories. That is equal to 600+ sodas, approx. 200 glazed donuts, or 14.5 pounds (3.500 calories = 1 pound of weight).
Drinking smart applies to the daytime, too. Our tip is to always carry a bottle of water with you. It is easy to fill up at cafes, museums, or fountains, and staying hydrated will go a long way with keeping your weight in check. The best hydration advice: Drink two 8 oz. glasses of warm water immediately upon rising (sleep is dehydrating), and add lemon to your water throughout the day (not lemons from bars or cafes – not clean). We love the Bobble, which filters water on the go, or glass Life Factory or BKR bottles.
9- Foreign Fitness
Set an exercise plan early on during your transition abroad. Is there a safe running route close to your dorm or apartment? Is there a school gym that you have access to? If you find your ‘path’ early on in your semester, you will feel inspired to fit it in often. Or, how about a Monday, Wednesday, Friday fitness video commitment? We have 30 organic fitness videos on our site. (Organic Fitness is fitness that uses only your own body weight and can be done anytime, anywhere). Roll out of bed, do one or two of these videos, and then cross working out off of the list for the rest of the day. Such a relief!
Walking in foreign cities is amazing and there will be no shortage of things to see or do. But, we really feel there is no substitute for organic, body-weight resistance fitness. Another idea: Each day, do 100 of one specific move: Planks, sit-ups, squats, lunges, jumping jacks, push-ups — change it up each
day and you will be excited to see fast results. (of course, safety first.. this isn’t about speed. Break up the repetitions throughout the day.) Picture yourself 4 months from now having done a fitness video 3x/week or 48x in total. You will feel so proud and look so good!
10- Talk to Yourself, Regularly and Positively
The experience of spending time abroad will be incredible, but based on our past, it also has the potential to be lonely, overwhelming, scary, frustrating, upsetting, or alienating at times. Whether you have many of these moments, or just a few, practice the art of positive self-talk. As silly as it may seem, it is a huge part of successfully navigating your time “alone” in the big wide world.
Here are some of the statements we use for ourselves, both when we travel, and when life has us spinning in circles:
I choose to be smart about this
I can do this
I will not rush this decision
I love a challenge
I am exactly where I am meant to be in my life
I wish happiness for all beings
No one can bring me down
I see the world differently now
We are so impressed by all of you who are broadening your horizons by studying abroad. While we know it to be true that deep breathing is essential to good health, we also truly believe that “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the number of moments that take our breath away.” You are embarking on a journey that will take your breath away multiple times over, and you will forever be changed because of it. We don’t think you need to put all your focus on counting calories or your 70 indulgent meals for that matter.Most important of all will be counting on new friends, new experiences, and a little bit of planning and you will come home feeling full for months to come!
Michelle and the DreaminGreenGirl Team