Eating Problems and Expat Life,
Maintaining Recovery Abroad.
When I first came to France as a
young student, I thought I’d outrun and outsmarted my
eating disorder. Well, whoops.
About two weeks after my arrival, the obsessional
thoughts about food, eating, and my weight returned with
a vengeance. I’d really thought they were gone. Gone
with the charm of Paris, the new person I’d thought I’d
become, and the excellent food that I thought I’d have
It can be so disheartening to discover that your
problems with food (or alcohol, depression, anxiety,
etc.) have followed you to your new home. It’s all the
worse when trying to get assistance means struggling in
a new language and a completely different system.
Moreover the stressors that come with expat life may
exacerbate your eating problem.
Food and Familiarity
Many people who struggle with eating like routine,
especially in their choices of food. In your home
country, the food is familiar - you know how many
calories in this or that, you know where to find your
favourite things, and people eat at times that make
sense. In a new country, all of this will change.
I remember my shock at closed grocery stores during
lunch hour, or the unavailability of sugar-substitutes
(at the time). This made me anxious and irritable. It
also led to binges.
The question of eating – simple for those who are
“normal” with food - becomes fraught and frightening if
the parameters are upended. Here in France, the meals
seemed huge and endless. How was it that no one was fat?
Not only that, no one seemed to be obsessed with eating
low-calorie food (except me), and no one was upset about
eating at crazy hours (dinner at 8PM!). How much to eat,
when to eat, and what to eat was my main preoccupation;
taking up so much space in my head that I was never
really present, but in a worried cloud of shame and
calorie-counting. In retrospect, this is obviously a sad
way to live; I won’t get that time back. Many sufferers
feel the same sense of imprisonment in their minds, and
yet feel powerless to change.
It may seem paradoxical but thinking about food and
eating may be easier than dealing with the strangeness
of your surroundings. Thoughts about the ED can be more
tolerable than loneliness – almost like a familiar
“friend” in a foreign land, a way to recognize yourself
and get your bearings through a well-known filter.
Finally, learning what “healthy” looks like in a new
country may take some time and effort, even in a country
where people tend to eat better in general. This will
also require tolerating the discomfort of adapting to
the unfamiliar – that is to say, of allowing yourself to
loosen up and lose your way, in order to find it again.
Loneliness, Depression, Anxiety
Sometimes a sufferer is aware that the issue isn’t
really food, it’s something else. An eating disorder is
only “kind of sort of” about food. Biologically
speaking, bingeing and fasting are going to have an
effect on brain function. Psychologically speaking, the
eating problem is a “short circuit” for another issue.
In other words, ED’s can replace the psychological by
the biological, turning the initial emotional problem
into a physical one about food and eating. Once this
happens, it’s very hard to get at the psychological
issues, because the brain can’t function optimally.
Being an expat in and of itself creates loneliness,
which leads to depression and anxiety. Loneliness is
also inherent in an eating disorder, where living in
one’s obsessional head complicates any genuine social
connection. Isolation can create a distorted view of
yourself and others – you feel too “different” or
“strange” to have close friends. This can be a vicious
What can I do?
All of this is not to discourage someone with an eating
problem from taking the plunge and living abroad.
However, it’s better to come prepared for a possible
relapse, and know how to take care of yourself if the
Here are some ideas:
- Know where to find an
English-speaking eating disorders specialist, or
center. The Academy for Eating Disorders https://www.aedweb.org/home
can provide you with centers around the world.
- If you have a therapist in
your home country, find a way to keep in touch
through Skype or the internet. Or, try to find a
therapist familiar with eating disorders in your new
- Make sure that you have
regular medical care. Even if the doctor doesn’t
speak English well, he or she can monitor your
health and make sure you stay at a healthy weight.
- Try to enjoy your expat
time and adapt as best you can. Learn the language
but also join English-speaking social groups. Try to
see this time as another period in your recovery,
even if it’s a bumpy one. Don’t be hard on yourself
and try to stay in the present moment. It’s not
because you had a bad day (or week or month) that
your whole trip is a failure, or that you won’t
adapt to your new life. Move on and get more help if
you need it.
- I have worked with eating
problems for over twenty-five years; twelve of them
in France. If you would like help finding help in
your area of France, or would like to consult with
me, don’t hesitate to contact me.