Expat health matters – Diets



We all know about weight and dieting. Our general health and weight has been deteriorating since the 1960s, which saw the introduction of instant mashed potato, polyunsaturated margarine and meat tenderisation enzymes. By1980 nearly 50% of households had a freezer, meaning that prepackaged foods and ready meals could be bought and reheated; further reducing the need to cook from fresh.

Are you doing the 5:2, the Atkins, Hairy Bikers’ or the Dukan? Do you belong to Slimming World, WeightWatchers, you know who Jenny Craig is? If the answer is yes to any of these, then you are buying into big business. Britain’s diet industry alone is worth £2 billion.

As I discussed in my first article in MeL in December 2012, the key health issues affecting expats are back pain, respiratory/chest infections, gastrointestinal/digestive problems and stress. In this article I have tried to create a new spin on diet, targeted specifically at expats, with the key expat health risks and Moscow particularly in mind.

Eating to improve your health:

Before the introduction of convenience and processed foods, obesity was virtually unheard of. So cooking with raw ingredients from scratch is definitely an easy way to manage your consumption of calories. If you don’t know how to cook – learn. There are so many ways to learn – courses in a group, online, for example step by step on YouTube, via TV chefs, etc., there really is no excuse.


In the 1970s, fibre was the buzz word and the F plan diet all the rage. Fibre alone as a weight loss tactic against the new processed foods didn’t work, and the diet industry was born. WeightWatchers was bought by Heinz in 1978, who in turn sold the company in 1999 to investment firm Artal for $735 million.
By the 1990s, NHS costs related to obesity were spiraling out of control and continue to do so to this day. In fact there is an ongoing project in the EU to obtain disability status for obesity. The British Government has brought in health experts and the food industry to consult and advise on what cam be done. One might argue that, armed with this insider information, the diet industry should have continued to develop and grow. Slimfast, a liquid meal replacement was bought in 2000 by Unilever, which also owns the Ben & Jerry brand and Wall’s sausages. Jenny Craig diet was bought by Swiss multinational Nestlé, which also sells chocolate and ice-cream. In 2011, Nestlé was listed in Fortune’s Global 500 as the world’s most profitable company.

Back health:

The spine is made up of joints, just like the rest of the body. If you are carrying excess weight, the curves of the spine, in particular the neck and lumbar areas where the spine moves horizontally as well as vertically, will carry the pressure.
Because the nerves travel between the spine and discs, abnormal pressure can cause pain and damage to them. In addition to losing weight, consider increasing the following vitamins and minerals that boost nerve function:
• Magnesium, which helps muscles and nerves function properly, steadies heart rhythm, maintains bone strength, and helps the body create energy and make proteins, is found in whole grain products, leafy green vegetables, almonds, Brazil nuts, soybeans, halibut, peanuts, hazelnuts, lima beans, black-eyed peas, avocados, bananas, kiwifruit, and shrimp.
• B vitamins
• Omega 3 fatty acids
• The Indian spice curcumin has also been explored in a study at UCLA. It is said to aid tissue repair – so enjoy your low fat/salt curries!

Lung health:

Pollution in big cities carries air-borne exposure to chemicals and heavy metals. Airborne heavy metals such as lead and arsenic bind themselves to LDL cholesterol (LDL is the one that carries the increased risk of heart disease). Ensure that you have enough Vitamin C in your diet, as this is known to protect against absorption of lead which poisons your body.

A small amount of fat in your diet is important as it provides certain vitamins. These vitamins are:
• vitamins A and E, which are important in fighting infections
• vitamin D for healthy, strong bones
• vitamin K, which regulates blood clotting and helps heal wounds

The two key factors for the new or returning expat here are unfamiliar bugs (pathogens) and pollution. Combine these with the detrimental effects of stress on the immune system and you have a recipe for lung problems.
Dairy foods such as milk and cheese are especially important for people with a lung condition. This is because they are a good source of proteins, vitamins and minerals. It stands to reason then that these form an important part of the expat daily diet.

One important mineral is calcium. You need calcium, along with Vitamin D, to keep your bones healthy. This is very important if you have lung problems, are less active, or need to take steroids to treat a long term condition such as asthma.

Digestion and gastrointestinal health:

B Vitamins are key here with the natural raw sources listed below:
• B1 is found in whole-grains. It helps the body process carbohydrates and some protein.
• B-2 (Riboflavin) is in milk, almonds, asparagus, dark meat chicken, and cooked beef. It converts food into energy.
• B-3 (Niacin) is found in poultry, fish, meat and whole grains. It aids digestion.
• B6 foods are baked potatoes with skin, bananas, light-meat chicken and turkey, eggs, and spinach. It helps the body break down proteins and stored sugar.

Stress – brain function

Do you notice that your memory or concentration is worse than usual? When we are under stress, for example dealing with an unfamiliar culture or environment, the body puts itself into ‘fight or flight’ mode and short term memory and appetite, being the least necessary functions, are amongst the first to be affected.
Omega-3 essential fatty acids, found in deep water oily fish, are essential for brain function. Fats that are good for you are found in other foods such as nuts, oily fish, avocado (a monounsaturated fat, which contributes to healthy blood flow) and sunflower and olive oils. Higher levels of vitamin E, found in nuts and seeds, correspond with less cognitive decline as you get older.

Vitamin B12 in Beef, clams, mussels, crabs, salmon, poultry, soybeans is needed for creating red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the brain (all the vital organs) and general cell division.

Stress – heart disease

Stress reactions cause an increase in adrenaline. Adrenaline was useful in prehistoric times to make the blood stickier, making it less likely that humans bled to death when faced with a wild animal. Today a high adrenalin count puts us at increased risk of heart disease, as the heart has to work harder to push thick sticky blood round the body and filter it through the kidneys. All this increases blood pressure within the arteries and veins.

Avocados, along with whole grains, such as oatmeal, whole-grain breads, and brown rice, can reduce the risk for heart disease also lower blood pressure.
A study in 2012 of 93,000 women found that participants who ate three or more portions of blueberries (containing vitamin K) and strawberries a week had a 32% lower risk of a heart attack compared with those who ate berries once a month or less.

Nuts and seeds are good sources of vitamin E, particularly walnuts, which are one of the best-studied nuts, and it’s been shown they contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.


• Drink water first and fruit juice second. Even unsweetened fruit juice is sugary, so try not to let your kids drink more than 150ml a day.
• Prepare and eat food from fresh ingredients.
• Avoid processed and preserved foods as these contain a lot of salt, sugar and other carbohydrate bulking agents.
• Follow what I call ‘the 80:20 rule,’ to improve your chances of sticking to the lifestyle change. This means that if you follow a health plan 80% of the time the health benefits will still show through.
• Above all – make your diet a lifestyle choice, so you can enjoy it and maintain it.
• Remember – the diet industry is a business, not a healthcare system.