Why do you lose weight when you go overseas and feel hungrier and fatter in the US?
February 15, 2011 5:19 PM   Subscribe

When I go overseas from the US, I almost inevitably lose weight. When I return to the US, my appetite increases a lot and I gain weight. Anyone know why this happens?

There are lots of theories about why Americans are fatter overall. For example, the larger portions, more engineered ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, pharmaceuticals in the water, etc.

However, I'm careful to avoid highly processed foods like high fructose corn syrup, so HFCS does not explain it in my case. In addition, I have been mostly eating at home and thus determining my own portions, so portion size alone doesn't explain my weight loss here versus overseas. For whatever reason, this seems to be an issue of "appetite". Perhaps my portions are smaller when I'm overseas--but why am I satisfied with less food there when I'd feel hungry on the same portion here?

Why would one's appetite increase in one country (the US)? Have any of you experienced this? Please share your thoughts.
posted by mintchip to Health & Fitness (47 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Do you walk more? I walk a ton when I'm abroad.
posted by amanda at 5:24 PM on February 15, 2011 [6 favorites]

When you are overseas you are distracted by new, exciting surroundings and are less aware of actually being hungry. If you're there for vacation then maybe you have set up so much to see and do that you are just too excited/happy to care about eating. If you're there for work, then I imagine there's some level of stress associated with working remotely, language barriers, time zone shifts, etc that might distract you from eating much.

Another possibility is that the food itself might be stopping you from eating so much. Do you actually enjoy the cuisine of the place you're visiting? Or, maybe the food at the overseas restaurants seems too rich/salty/calorie dense to you since you cook your own meals when you're at home.
posted by joan_holloway at 5:27 PM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

I found that in France, where cooks do not shy away from fats, it was easier to feel fuller longer on relatively small portions of food. Low-fat or fat-free dishes usually mean that I'll be starving again in an hour.

Are you walking more when you're overseas? Or maybe you're less stressed and therefore less likely to feel like you need to eat as often?
posted by corey flood at 5:28 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

interesting. i don't know if it's walking ... i moved to a city and walk everywhere now, but my weight didn't change at all. i used to think walking a block was cause for celebration.

are you possibly more distracted abroad? if you're travelling, maybe your mind is abuzz with new sites and sounds and people and accents and general newer, cooler things - instead of whether you need to take out the trash?

sometimes i malaise-eat ... though generally don't feelings-eat otherwise. but if i'm occupied, i think about it way less.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 5:29 PM on February 15, 2011

The exact same thing happens to me! I've always wondered if it had something to do with the actual quality of food we get here, or whether it's just that I'm away from home, and don't eat as much.

When I'm overseas, a lot of time I'm a guest at someone's home, so I don't want to eat all of their food, or I'm broke because I'm traveling, and don't want to spend money on food. Or, I'm excited and intimidated and full of adrenaline and that helps keep my appetite away.

I also eat very healthy here, no HFCS or soda, or processed foods. But I have noticed the exact same phenomenon.
posted by katypickle at 5:33 PM on February 15, 2011

I had the same experience, which I attributed to

(a) that I am of below-average girth by US standards,
(b) that I was markedly overweight by comparison to other residents where I was living overseas, and
(c) that I subconsciously internalized that latter fact, which led me either to eat less or exercise more without intending to.

I dropped 25 pounds in ten weeks without realizing it until I got home, and my mind was thoroughly blown.
posted by astrochimp at 5:35 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Are you more rested on vacation? I eat when I'm tired.
posted by fshgrl at 5:38 PM on February 15, 2011

Traveling abroad could also be coupled with a more relaxed mood leading to a smaller appetite. Many people eat more when stressed (I certainly do).
posted by mnemonic at 5:40 PM on February 15, 2011

If you're on vacation, could it be that since you're more relaxed you actually take the time to eat at proper intervals during the day? I feel like when I'm overseas I'm not so distracted by work/deadlines/errands. I'm there to enjoy, and includes partaking of the local cuisine. I'm more likely to eat balanced meals, instead of snacking on junk throughout the day (like I do at home in the US).

That--combined with more walking, healthier ingredients, more sleep, less stress--is probably why I lose weight on trips.
posted by sprezzy at 5:47 PM on February 15, 2011

It happens to me too. I attribute it to the walking and to the fact that I definitely eat less while abroad. I find that I snack less because I don't have familiar snacks at hand, and also I sometimes skip meals because when I travel alone I get tired of eating alone.

For me, at least this most recent trip, the return home made all of the work stress come back, and that's why I am eating everything in sight.

So, really, a combination of the ideas mentioned above, in my experience.
posted by cabingirl at 5:47 PM on February 15, 2011

*that includes

posted by sprezzy at 5:47 PM on February 15, 2011

I find that time change/jet lag throws off my internal clock and I eat when hungry until I'm sated, rather than thinking "Oh! Dinner! Big meal!". Just my $.02.
posted by cestmoi15 at 6:04 PM on February 15, 2011

I usually hit a slump for the few days immediately following a trip -- from a combination of post-adrenaline fatigue, jet-lag, and sheer dejection at having to face work-slog again. During those days I eat even more than I usually do at home. That's how I rapidly regain any weight lost abroad. Maybe something similar in your case?
posted by taramosalata at 6:05 PM on February 15, 2011

An explanation I've heard several times now is that American beef/milk contains higher amounts of artificial growth hormones, whereas regulations regarding these hormones are much stricter in Europe, i.e. they are not commonly fed to livestock.

I have no idea whether there's anything to it (for the record, I moved to the US from Germany and have lost weight while in the US, even though I eat large amounts of full-fat dairy products as well as burgers and steaks...)
posted by The Toad at 6:09 PM on February 15, 2011

When I'm abroad, I walk so much more than I do stateside. I'm also much more sensory-oriented in new places, which seems to quell my appetite a bit. (My totally non-scientific theory is that all of the new input to my brain means I don't eat for entertainment, just for hunger.)

Weird-Filter: I also seem to remember hearing a story on a science podcast (Radio Lab?) about this phenomenon, and how its not unique to humans. Many apes & monkeys apparently eat less when venturing into strange territories. The theory is that somewhere, deep down, we've got an instinct to minimize our impact on potential enemy territory. Don't know how much stock I put into that, but it is interesting to think about.
posted by muirne81 at 6:17 PM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

you don't say whether these overseas countries have low obesity rates, but this could be a possible factor contributing to appetite increase while you're in the US -- "You change your idea of what is an acceptable body type by looking at the people around you"
posted by swimmingly at 6:19 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Two thoughts.

One, when you are abroad you simply have fewer snacks available to you. If you keep less food in the house or are staying at a friend's where you don't want to empty the pantry, you may snack less without realizing it. Similarly, perhaps abroad you are just more likely to by a snack with, say, fewer calories. I know I'm often happier with a nice navel orange than a bag of cookies, but if there are no oranges available, I'm not necessarily missing them. Or maybe when there isn't a Starbucks available you don't by a frappachino, you just get a coffee.

Two, when you are abroad you are busier. I eat less (or "exercise" more) on a Saturday when I go out than one where I stay in. Maybe abroad you are giving yourself less time to sit around, bored. I know I am more likely to eat when I'm bored.
posted by maryr at 6:36 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I was in the US, I noticed that (1) the servings were always much larger than what I'm used to and (2) most of the food is incredibly sweet. Disgustingly sweet, to my tastes. It's as if sugar (or actually HFCS) must be added to nearly everything. (this, in turn, causes sugar spikes & troughs, making you crave more food (sugar) more often.

Similar tendencies towards supersizing things could be seen in the way cream cheese is smeared on bagels, for example. Like, half a freaking block of the stuff, as much as I might use in a fortnight. (I'd scrape 90% off & throw it away, because too much is just like eating a chunk of whale blubber). So there's some anecdata for you.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:43 PM on February 15, 2011

It could be any number of things, many of which are mentioned above. You are most likely walking more. You're probably a good deal busier (in that you have more things to do, more places to go in the day) so there's a good chance you're not eating as frequently as you would back home. Being back at work, the bell rings, and it's time for lunch, and most people will eat whether they are hungry or not. Travelling, it's quite easy to get out of sync with daily rituals like meal times, and you're more likely to eat when you're hungry, rather than when you are supposed to.

Another reason could well be portion size. Restaurants in most other countries have much smaller portion sizes than American restaurants. The portions are likely still enough to fill you up, but not as much as back home.

Finally, strange food can make you less hungry. If you love the food overseas, that's great. For me, certain kinds of food (that I strongly dislike) make me full incredibly quickly. The thing is, I will feel full for hours afterwards, even though I've eaten very little.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:43 PM on February 15, 2011

Yeah, servings in the USA are obscene. I went to LA last year and the corner diner offered this for $5:

- three eggs any style
- choice of meat
- home or french fries
- 3 buttermilk pancakes or other "second side"
- orange juice
- toast, bagel, or muffin
- fruit
- coffee

In Toronto, that'd be $20 or 3 meals. I put on 6 pounds in 2 weeks there and lost it in 3 days when I got back.
posted by dobbs at 6:52 PM on February 15, 2011

I think joan_holloway has it right. I lose weight when I go on vacation in the US, too. I generally am more active and not usually much of a foodie when I travel.

I think unfamiliarity with local food may also attribute to this. Interestingly, I lost weight in the UK eating almost nothing but fish and chips and pub food. Which I like. But I can only do so much of that stuff. However, attempts at more formally produced meals were not particularly rewarding. And I'm not too keen on Indian type food, which seemed plentiful. Combined with an active schedule, it doesn't seem crazy that I might lose weight.

A trip to New Orleans, on the other hand...
posted by 2N2222 at 6:59 PM on February 15, 2011

Advertising works.
posted by flabdablet at 7:00 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

FWIW, I experience the same when travelling from the UK (my home country) to the US, even though I end up stuffing my face with American delights! I've always written it off as being due to getting a lot more exercise travelling and walking around than I do at home or fewer opportunities to snack (getting little snacks in a hotel is not cheap or easy!)
posted by wackybrit at 7:02 PM on February 15, 2011

Same thing happens to me. Especially when I'm traveling alone. I think it's because I'm just much more conscious of EVERYTHING when I'm traveling abroad, including food. Choosing food is more complicated, because the food itself may be less familiar, the money is less familiar, and the language in the store or restaurant may be unfamiliar and/or incomprehensible, so sometimes not eating is the path of least resistance. On a related note, as others have pointed out, I tend to get out of sync with mealtimes and things, so I only eat when I'm hungry.

Portion size and walking may well be part of it, but it's happened to me even when I had a walking commute at home and even when I was cooking all my own food at home. For me, I think a lot of it is just that it's less convenient to eat in an unfamiliar place.

On a contrasty note, several of my young relatives (USians) went to Australia for assorted semesters abroad/gap year kinds of things, and they all gained lots of weight. This may have been beer-related, however.
posted by mskyle at 7:05 PM on February 15, 2011

I am not in the USA (I live in Australia, and previously have lived in New Zealand and in various European countries). In every place I have lived, I find I lose weight when I travel.

I think in my case it's a matter of having less easy access to food when on holiday. At home, if I feel even a little bit hungry, I can walk to the kitchen and get a snack. When I am holiday, I have to stop what I am doing and find a cafe or supermarket, and actually spend money. The threshold to cross in order to get food is therefore a small deterrent, and I'll only bother if I am TRULY hungry, and if I have time, which I often don't since I'm doing cool vacationy things.

Also, I do walk more when on holiday, and exercise suppresses my appetite a little.
posted by lollusc at 7:07 PM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

When I've lived overseas for any extended period of time, I've always managed to maintain my weight (or even gain) because I get back into the routine day-to-day and have settled, more or less. When traveling, I tend to lose weight for the very reasons people have mentioned above (i.e., walking around a lot more, forgetting to eat because you're overwhelmed by your environment, not knowing what/ where to eat, and not eating as quickly as you would at home (and therefore not overeating), etc).
posted by ch3ch2oh at 7:14 PM on February 15, 2011

I lost weight while living abroad and some of it was all of the walking and a lot was the cost of food. I wasn't going to buy a case of Coke in the UK for $25 but I would buy one in the U.S. for $8.
posted by Bunglegirl at 8:19 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe it's not the portion sizes but rather the key ingredients, especially the relative ratios of carbs and their types (mostly wheat vs mostly rice or legumes, for example). I am not a believer in low carb as the basis of good nutrition, but it is pretty well established that many people can get temporary weight loss by removing the refined carbs from their diet and making up the calories with proteins and veg.
Depending on where you are traveling and what you are eating compared to your diet at home, this may be what's happening to you, without you even realizing it because you're just "eating locally", but if that means you're in India eating dal instead of at home eating bread, your body might respond to the change in your usual nutrient ratios.
posted by slow graffiti at 8:42 PM on February 15, 2011

Seconding those who suggest it's snack and walking related. Twice I've moved overseas for periods of a year or longer and both times I lost a significant amount of weight in the first 3 months and then slowly gained it back over the rest of my stay. It seemed to me that I walked lots in the beginning as I explored my new surroundings and ate less not knowing where to eat, what to eat or not really feeling comfortable eating as I pleased. As I developed a whole new repetoire of snacks, favourite restaurants and food stores, and settled in and explored less I gained it all back.

I have also had a similar experience moving across my own country (probably more to do with the exploring).
posted by scrute at 9:04 PM on February 15, 2011

FYI to non-NYC area residents:

When one wants just a bit of cream cheese on a bagel, one asks for a "shmear".
posted by brujita at 10:03 PM on February 15, 2011

During the god-awful summer in which I worked at Einstein Bagel Bros*, the word shmear was used for all amounts of cream cheese, usually referring to an overbearing amount. Customers could, and did, ask for a chocolate bagel with a shmear of chocolate chip cream cheese. It was not a pleasant summer.

* Contrary to the name, Einstein has nothing to do with the company, there are no brothers, and dear god, that's no bagel, it's a travesty.
posted by Ghidorah at 10:11 PM on February 15, 2011

Well, I know that when I went to Poland I lost weight because I just couldn't eat another ham sandwich. Maybe it's because all of your "go to" foods are in the US?
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:22 PM on February 15, 2011

There is very little high fructose corn syrup outside the US (at least in my experience.) It's the only significant factor I've been able to pinpoint regarding my own similar experience. Even when utterly sedentary for months on end while outside the US, I lose significant weight. When three of my European friends stayed with me for a year, they all ballooned up, even while maintaining the same kind of diet, just with American analogs (and thus, tons of high fructose corn syrup. In EVERYTHING.)
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 12:13 AM on February 16, 2011

This has been the topic of many an expat dinner party conversation in the UK.

Some of the best reasonings:
1) Lower cost for more food. The US is more generous with food everywhere from the grocery store (because there are more cars) to the soda fountain (free refills). Further, there is more bundling in the US ($8 for a main and two sides) whereas in Europe, you pay for each item that you consume separately.

2) Portion size. Ever been to an Outback Steakhouse? Good lord, that would feed someone from outside the United States for two days.

3) Food quality and freshness. Depending on where you are, there are either laws and standards against chemical additives (Europe) or it's too expensive to process food with chemicals additives (India). Regardless, the food is usually fresher and less processed.

4) Greater variety. Apparently, one of the key aspects of a healthy diet is a great variety of food. When you're traveling, chances are that you get a much greater variety of food simply by the nature of traveling itself. Also, you get greater variety in sources of the same product.

5) Transportation. Most other countries have greater traditions of walking and public transit. Both of these require more energy that the typical car-based American lifestyle. Also, it's more expensive to transport, distribute, and sell the food in European countries, thus the prices are higher, leading to lower consumption.

6) Stress. Not the bad kind of stress but travel in general is a kind of external stress on your body. You don't know where things are, your routines are disrupted, and therefore you're more hyper-aware of everything.

Eating results in satiety and a dulling of the senses as the body begins directing energy toward digestion, thus if you are in a stressful situation or one where there are potentially unknown threats, you tend to be more aware of the outside world and less aware of sensations like hunger.

7) Distractions. Eating is often a comfort exercise and very habitual. To the point where most people choose the same things to eat over and over again. Tesco said that over a 5 year time frame, a consumer's shopping basket is 95% the same. Thus at home, eating is less about hunger itself and more about routines and rituals.

When you are abroad, the routines and rituals are broken, thus you are more connected to your appetite in terms of direct food need rather than social need, etc.

8) Social changes. It's been observed in social circles that when one person quits smoking, several others often quit. Or if one person gains significant weight, several others often do as well. It's a subconscious part of socialisation. I doubt you travel with all of your friends, thus when you travel, some unhealthy influencers may be removed from the equation.

9) Social habits. In European cities, it's very common to buy food once every two or three days, if not every day. This is due to all of the reasons above (transportation costs, freshness, cultural differences) and also the fact that space is at a premium in European cities, thus there is often less ability to store food. Whilst this does not affect you directly as a traveler, it does affect you indirectly because it changes the entire food experience, from serving times to portion size to costs to location to ritual and everything else.

Quite simply, the Europeans and Asians from my experience have a completely different relationship to food than the United States. In Europe, food is highly celebrated (France and Italy, I'm looking at you), whilst in Asia, the goal is nose-to-tail eating and reducing waste. In each of those scenarios, you tend to eat less but eat better.

On a personal note, I have dropped four inches since living in the UK for four years. Not an inch a year but rather four inches at the beginning. When I go back to the US, I have trouble keeping up with some friends at the dinner table and they have trouble keeping up with me walking up the hills of San Francisco. It's very easy to get into the geopolitics of this -- subsidies, corn syrup, and all the rest -- but it's much easier to say that the United States has been a country of abundance and comfort for half a century and consequently, food consumption shifted from a need to everything from an emotional crutch to a social signalling device.
posted by nickrussell at 1:48 AM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have actually just had this discussion in reverse with my husband: we're off to the US in March for a trip and our first resolution is to order even less than usual because inevitably, on the first day our first meal fills us up so much that we spend the trip feeling full and bloated, no matter how much we walk during the day.

I don't know whether it is HCFS, an overall difference in cuisine, or ingredient quality that accounts for the difference between food in the US and pretty much everywhere else. I do actually buy a lot of US foods to eat at home here in the UK and this feeling of fullness is much the same.

The only other place I have not lost weight while traveling was China, because it was far too easy to over order delicious things at dinner. Most other places I tend to eat less, walk 6+ hours a day (which in turn makes me less hungry), and maintain if not lose.
posted by wingless_angel at 2:56 AM on February 16, 2011

Seth Roberts would say that when you're traveling, you're more likely to eat unfamilar foods which in turn depresses your appetite. He came up with the idea for the Shangri-La diet after losing weight on a trip to France.
posted by zanni at 3:34 AM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have noticed this as well. I live abroad about half the time, in four to six month intervals, so I don't think it can be attributed to novelty or to some kind of vacation effect. I do the same exercise routine no matter where I am, and do not have a significantly different level of activity when I am abroad. I have a friend who swears it's because of snacking, but I snack wherever I am.
posted by Nothing at 4:11 AM on February 16, 2011

Always happens to me, too. I can't be sure, but I've suspected that the reason is that I'm less interested in eating if I'm not fully, 100% comfortable with the situation I'm in. Even if I'm happy and excited and thrilled to be where I am, when I'm abroad, there are new people to be polite to, new customs to pay attention to, new foods to test.... new situations of all kinds. And that turns my attention outwards instead of inwards, which causes me to be less hungry, or, more accurately, less likely to respond to hunger.

Also, in a few cases, I've lost a HUGE, totally-not-healthy-for-me amount of weight because of traveling to countries where vegetarian food is either hard to find, or consists of the same thing day after day. It's absolutely possible to eat vegetarian food pretty much anywhere, but personally I find that if there's very little variation in the options, I just don't feel like eating. It's not a situation of starving for lack of something edible, just applying the level of choosiness I'm fortunate enough to exercise at home in places where that doesn't make much sense. Unconsciously, of course.
posted by Cygnet at 4:40 AM on February 16, 2011

um lately I've been experiencing the opposite problem. Living in the UK and when ever I go continental I seem to put on 2-3 Kgs.

I even put on weight when I went skiing in the french Alps! skiing everyday and still put on weight. Although the amounts of fromage, baguettes and saucisson we went through was phenomenal.

Generally though I think its the walking. I walk a lot in London but on an average day you still probably only walk 1-2 kms at home. When abroad its not hard to walk 10-15kms in a day and not thing anything of it.
posted by mary8nne at 4:41 AM on February 16, 2011

I don't really see how US restaurant portion size matters that much in this case, since when you are at home in the US, you aren't eating out at restaurants nearly as much as you do when you are traveling.

In my experience, it's because I walk more and eat on a less regular schedule then at home. At home, it's always three meals. Abroad it varies much more.
posted by smackfu at 7:19 AM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Life at home (in the U.S.) is the daily grind. I sit at my desk. I eat more. I'm not terribly excited about anything. I eat more. (Even if I exercise regularly, it's the daily grind. I eat more.)

Until ... vacation abroad! So much to see and do! So much walking! Such great food, but I only eat a couple times a day, and I don't sit around (in bed / at my desk / on my couch) snacking!

I'm much healthier when I'm not at home. Whether I'm vacationing or am on some other kind of trip, whether in the U.S. or abroad, there are always more interesting things going on and I don't think about eating as much. I always exercise. (Because there is a gym in the hotel or because I want to go for a run around the streets of Dublin to see the sights.) I take much better care of myself when I'm not at home because I'm forced to be on some kind of schedule or a part of some routine. I need to plan what I eat, whether it's always in restaurants or whether I have to pick up food for the hotel or if I'm eating in someone else's house. At home ... there is always food around. Everywhere. At home, at work, in 100 stores I pass daily.

There is really just greater access to gluttony and sloth at home.
posted by iguanapolitico at 2:09 PM on February 16, 2011

To specifically address this: "Perhaps my portions are smaller when I'm overseas--but why am I satisfied with less food there when I'd feel hungry on the same portion here?" - Even though you think this is true, it isn't, unless you're getting more exercise overseas. I mean, if you took the same exact foods and ate them at home and overseas, the only reason why you'd lose weight overseas is that you're getting more exercise there, and the only reason why you'd feel less hungry is that you're just more engaged in things other than food when you're there. A lot of the eating we do is psychological.
posted by iguanapolitico at 2:16 PM on February 16, 2011

(Crap, I forgot to delete "unless you're getting more exercise overseas" when I edited. There should be a period after "it isn't." As it is, it makes no sense, sorry.)
posted by iguanapolitico at 2:17 PM on February 16, 2011

Fructose is definitely a contributor here, and likely wheat and vegetable oil as well.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 2:45 PM on February 16, 2011

I think a big part of it is ingredients in foods, especially a lack of (or much lower amount) of fructose corn syrup, white sugar, white flour, and even carbs in general.

I live in China, where people eat fewer carbs and less sugar than in the States (although this has changed a lot). Most Chinese people think AMerican snacks are way too sweet. They're not used to so much sugar and eat a lot less of it. I see you avoid high-fructose corn syrup but you are probaby still exposed to more sugar in the STates.

Also, about getting full on less food: when I eat Chinese food it is really easy to feel full without overeating, because the diet is lower in carbs: It's easy to haveswhere there were hardly any carbs. Rice is eaten a lot but it's more for the purpose of "in case you aren't full" then being a main part of the meal. It's considered better to get full on vegetables, tofu, and meat. Soup (with a water base) is usually served with meals, and this makes you full, too. it kind of tricks you into thinking you're eating a lot, when you're not.

The lifestlye here also requires more physical activitiy because walking and biking are much more common, and the average person does not have car.

This is just China, but could be applied to other countries, I think
posted by bearette at 5:37 AM on February 17, 2011

Another thing: we've probably read studies about how sitting for long periods (like in an office) can cause weight gain more easily even if you exercise after work. When traveling, we're often constantly moving and walking, or at least standing- not sitting in a chair for 8 hours a day.

Lack of sleep and stress, things less likely to occur on vacation, also can cause over-eating and weight gain.
posted by bearette at 5:43 AM on February 17, 2011

that is, "we've *all* probably read studies"
posted by bearette at 5:44 AM on February 17, 2011

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