I didn’t start paying attention to what I was eating until I was in college. Even then, I had no concept of “healthy fats,” or too much sugar, or processed food. I was on my own and my goal was to create a balanced meal for myself, which usually meant raiding the frozen protein section at Trader Joe’s.
Fast forward to last year. My boyfriend (now husband) and I made a big lifestyle change: we moved our home base from Los Angeles, California to Amsterdam, Netherlands. Living in Europe had always been a dream of mine and we finally decided to go for it, knowing a lot would be different — but it was all part of the adventure.
In truth, there are certainly plenty of differences, but not in the way I expected. For instance: my main mode of transportation is my bike, not a car. That means no traffic, and no trunk to store my 4+ grocery bags.
A few things happened when we first moved that caused me to start re-evaluating my eating habits. From little things like not needing to refrigerate eggs (I still can’t quite believe that I have to grab them from the cereal aisle) to picking up only two or three days worth of groceries at a time (Dutch people usually stop by their local ‘Albert Heijn’ grocer once a day).
What I quickly learned is that what felt normal when it came to food no longer was. And I became very aware of how different the food culture in Europe is from the U.S.
Here’s a breakdown of what I’ve learned after a year’s worth of food consumption abroad.
(Disclaimer: I am definitely not a nutritionist. The opinions here are based on personal experience and my own online research.)
The fridge sizes are smaller for a reason.
I mean it when I say you can’t buy a week’s worth of groceries. When we first moved to Amsterdam, I went to our local grocery store to stock up on everything we needed for lunch and dinner that week. On day three, my fresh herbs looked pretty sad. On day four, I threw out most of the meat since it had gone bad. On Day five, I emptied out half of our fridge – fruit, bread, yogurt – all straight into the garbage. Turns out food in Holland expires in a third of the time when compared to grocery stores in Los Angeles, so moving to a new country requires re-learning your average expiration dates.
If you’re lactose intolerant in the states, you might not be abroad.
This one still doesn’t make sense to me, but somehow, it’s true. There are theories that this has to do with the hormones in milk produced in different parts of the world, but all I know is that my husband cannot have a slice of pizza in California without feeling the consequences, and here he can have ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner (and you better believe he has).
Vegetables could be your worst enemy.
A few weeks into living here I was getting frequent stomach aches. I finally mentioned this on the phone to my Dutch father and he asked if I was eating lots of fruit and vegetables. Thinking he was referring to eating healthy, my proud response was: “Yes!”.
Turns out, he was asking because he thought my issues were from switching to more ‘natural’ produce. So, I stopped eating fruit and vegetables for 3 days and my stomach pain disappeared. My body literally couldn’t digest them here, because I wasn’t used to the common bacteria found on produce. It took another month before I could get my body acclimated to eating fruits and vegetables with their normal healthy bacteria and no added pesticides.
Europeans are aware of the additives that go into a lot of American food.
When I told my Dutch friend about the issues I’d been having adjusting to food consumption here, she gave me a blank stare and said “Well yes, that’s why Americans always look older at a younger age.” She wasn’t the only one to make this comment to me. Turns out, it’s common knowledge abroad that the U.S. is a bit more ‘lax’ with what is allowed to be consumed. The average American doesn’t look out for the extra preservatives and such that are going into the food they consume, and here — there simply aren’t as many.
There’s no such thing as ‘Sashimi Grade’.
Amsterdam is a melting pot of different cultures, and luckily, that means the majority of Dutch people you’ll meet speak fluent English. That also means it’s not uncommon to default to English when you have a question or want to strike up a conversation.
That’s why it took my husband and I by surprise when we asked our grocer if the salmon in the fish section of the grocery store was ‘sashimi grade’. (Every so often we’ll make our own sushi or poke bowls at home when the craving strikes). He looked at us like we’re crazy. Apparently, when you buy fish it’s fresh — you won’t find the Dutch distinguishing different qualities of ahi tuna.
Eating butter on bread every day is not unhealthy.
My Dutch friend told me she was on a diet the other day, and then she proceeded to dig into the bowl of fries that was in front of her. Like many other European countries, moderation is prioritized over what is being eaten. It’s the same reason your average soda in Europe looks like the child size version in America. Here, diet usually means: skip the fast food, opt for more veggies, don’t overdo it on the butter, and don’t starve yourself because you’ll just end up overeating anyway.
All in all, one of the biggest adjustments I’ve made since moving abroad is being more conscious about my health. I pay attention to the quality of the food I’m buying, and have recently cut red meat out of my diet in an effort to eat more fish and veggies. I ‘indulge’ by ordering delivery online from my favorite salad place. I bike or walk almost everywhere.
Living abroad has certainly opened my eyes to the what a different food culture can provide, and how it can make you more aware of what you are eating. Overall, I eat less, feel more awake, and don’t think twice about buying white bread at the store when I want it — and neither does anyone else around me.
I still can’t walk in my apartment without double-checking the fresh eggs sitting on my kitchen counter, but I guess some things just take time.