Living abroad presents both its perks and its challenges. When you live in a foreign country short-term, it’s easier to indulge in a city and its cuisine and break all your rules in order to soak up the moment – transience is a form of immunity, in this case. When you live abroad long-term, your reality simply follows you to a new context and your main struggle is to adapt as seamlessly as possible. Throw a relatively high-strung diet into the mix, and assimilation can get messy and exhausting. I moved abroad with dietary restrictions that I didn’t know were holding me back from enjoying life, so I addressed this realization and changed myself (and my health) for the better.
Being Dietary Restrictive and Living Abroad
I was a high-raw vegan food enthusiast, moved to Turkey, began pushing myself beyond my self-imposed restrictions, improved my relationship with food, and am healthier because of it.
When I first moved to Istanbul in 2012, I was fresh off of a few years of experimenting in the health food world, which at the time was quite nascent, even in NYC. Cold-pressed juice was niche and avocado toast had yet to dominate all of our Instagram feeds. Instagram itself was just becoming a thing.
But comparably, Turkey was about ten years behind the USA. In Istanbul, the blessed avocado was a rare commodity to come by and for someone who depended on it for bulk in her otherwise meatless diet, I felt stripped of a dietary essential. But that wasn’t the only missing piece – I couldn’t find simple ingredients that were the bedrock of my new-year-new-me healthy existence, including sweet potatoes, +70% dark chocolate, coconut oil, and kale. Call me a #basicbitch, but when you’re a freshly converted high-raw vegan, you need the bulk of sweet potato.
There was nowhere to buy a green juice, snatch a smoothie, or bite into a bliss ball. It wasn’t just the fact that such foods were unavailable, it was that there was a lack of overall creativity in the local food culture – no feeling that it was moving forward in a fun, experimental direction. Instead, looking left and right, all I saw was one cuisine: Turkish.
Arguably, Turkish food is among most delicious food on the planet. From savory breakfasts fit for a Sultan to butter and honey-dripping pastry desserts, there are plenty of dishes to write home about. But I was not on that wavelength at the time – I had rules, duh. All the health food books I lugged over the Atlantic in my suitcase were warning me that cooked oils were toxic, table salt was a murderess, and wheat was the devil. This eliminated all of my take-out choices, so I turned to cooking at home to feed my neuroses.
Back to the Basics
Home cooking in Istanbul, unfortunately, took time to enjoy, but it ultimately saved me. I was used to the frills and fancies of Whole Foods, meticulously vetted ingredients with hyperbolic statements of purity and authenticity, and being able to access organic foods whenever I needed them. I was a huge health foodie at this point, and nothing excited me more than the unique brands popping up in the market that were bringing more credence to the idea that eating healthy can actually be delicious. I lived for it.
But at the same time, I had this warped idea of what it meant to be healthy and wholesome – I equated it with being perfect. One unintended gulp of cow milk in my coffee meant my day was ruined because I was no longer technically vegan. I couldn't forgive myself. This was an unfair reaction and, ultimately, a stressful existence.
In Istanbul, I had to accept the basics: conventional produce with conventional condiments that were always fraught with some kind of sugar or something artificial that made it feel bargain. What I really wanted was to add a few squirts of Bragg’s Amino Liquids and a dust of nutritional yeast to my vegetable dishes. I craved to prepare a salad full of avocado, dulse flakes, and goji berries. I yearned for that touch of unique – that moment where I think I’ve cracked the code and was a living emblem of perfection because of it.
Despite my initial disappointment and confusion about what was available at Turkish grocery stores (even high-end ones), my mourning period was short-lived. Something began to shift in me. After a few weeks of making simple sauteed vegetable recipes, I realized that my digestion had improved significantly. I was less bloated, more clear-headed, and buoyant. Not only that, but I began to taste the food I was eating more poignantly. I soon noticed that I could no longer find broccoli and celery root in the summer or fresh tomatoes and cucumber in the winter. I was left with no choice: my diet was seasonal.
Slowly, I began adding former “no-no’s” to my diet, like white rice, white potato, and, gasp!, sugar. At home, I would drown dry rice in local butter over the stove, stir while scalding the rice slightly, add water, and boil the rice to a soft, fluffy finish. I enjoyed every sumptuous bite. A year prior, white rice – and most certainly butter – were blacklisted.
Meanwhile, I was taking my Turkish coffee with a teaspoon of sugar and my teas with a half-teaspoon. A few nights a week, I relished in a few slices of walnut and pistachio baklava and, on occasion, noshed into a döner kebab. What had become of me?
The transition to eating this way happened gradually – so much so that I didn’t even realize it. When I visited home for the first time after 11 months of living in Istanbul, I felt free. I found that I was more socially fluid - less focused on where I was eating and what was available there and more focused on enjoying my company. I received compliments by family and friends on my glowing skin and how much more relaxed I seemed. While many factors played into this (ahem, that Turkish sun), I mostly give credit to my happier, stress-free approach to my diet.
I stopped obsessing over the trends – the superfoods, the powders, the elixirs, and the expertly-packaged products – and instead keep it real. It was no doubt fun again to explore the luxuries of the American health food scene, but I no longer felt imprisoned by having a regimen or sticking to a stringent protocol.
The reason for the shift was simple. Because I didn't have constant drivel in my ear about new products and new trends in the health food world, I wasn't distracted often enough to care as much as I once did. The race didn't exist anymore - I was no longer sprinting to the finish line. It became boring to me to think so much about how I ate. This is not to say that I still don't do so - I most certainly care about eating "clean", but now with a conditional "more or less" attached to the end of that, not an "UNDER ALL CIRCUMSTANCES". I had no options in Turkey, and that may have just been the best thing that's every happened to my diet: making due with simple ingredients with no particular unique selling proposition.
Whether you’re trapped by the downward slope of junk food or by the stressful confines of some food-ism, take yourself back to the basics, refresh, renew, and get back out there. You’ll feel much better because of it.