I SAT ACROSS THE TABLE from a plate of sweet, juicy baklava in Istanbul, awkwardly avoiding the question of why I wasn’t eating my slice. I felt like everyone was staring at me — my friends, my boyfriend and even the waiter. How could I possibly explain to them that I refuse to ingest the sugar and fat dripping from that tantalizing foreign delight? That the thought of gaining an ounce of weight terrifies me? I explained that I’m just not into sweet treats. The reality was completely the opposite.
I bet you’ve stumbled upon more than one social media account, idolizing chiseled bodies and “clean eating,” accompanied by images of green smoothies, salads and six packs. Disguised as a quest for healthy living, the obsession over “fat burning” and “pure food” in many cases leads to extremely narrowing down your food options. In my case, I would try to only eat “fat free” food, avoid flour, meat and olive oil like the plague, and “indulge” in exactly 5 roasted peanuts whenever I felt unbearable hunger. To accompany my lack of nutritional knowledge, my dedication to the gym led me to exercise for two full hours a day, not including hiking the hills between the weight rack and my house, which took another hour. All in all, my condition was bad and at some point became very noticeable. I wouldn’t eat anything that I didn’t make, I’d be suspicious of food offered at parties (even the ones at my vegan, organic school), and the worst of all, it started interfering with my travels.
An especially tough case was a vacation in Greece with a boyfriend one summer. I was a vegetarian at the time, and rarely ate out, fearing that all food not prepared by me could be somehow contaminated or make me gain weight. I still insisted on going on the trip, because I had always wanted to see the pristine Mediterranean beaches and old architecture of Athens. My boyfriend wanted to try everything — lamb gyros, moussaka, traditional feta and eliopsomo. Who could blame him? After all, food is an integral part of culture and you can’t be fully immersed until you wine and dine with the locals. I watched him eat fresh kalamata olives, spinakopita, giouvetsi and many other delicacies I’d die for, while I solemnly slurped my vegetable soup in the 90-degree weather. I had even dragged him to four different restaurants until I found the one that would comply with my ridiculous demands.
I knew I was missing out, but I couldn’t help myself. Going to the gym religiously and following an insanely restrictive diet had indeed given me very defined abs, firm legs and noodle-like arms. I had to wear a belt around my size 4 pants just to keep them from falling and embarrassing me in front of everyone in Tessaloniki. Regardless of the gorgeous sunsets over Kassandra and refreshing breeze pulling my hair back on the cruise to Mount Athos, I couldn’t enjoy it — instead I was consumed with dread over the thought of the next meal.
This went on for a little less than 2 years and countless meals in six different countries. Sometimes I’d waste precious time and lose opportunities, such as seeing Germany because I wanted to stay on the cruise ship and exercise at the gym. Finally, upon spending time with me one summer between college semesters, my mom had had enough with my disturbing obsession and took me to a dietician. After a few miserable results from medical testing and a whole lot of counseling, I completely recovered and did my best to make up for the lost time in the following years.
Today, I’ve got 13 countries checked off on my personal map, and two more planned for the upcoming summer. I consider myself an “omnivore,” who finishes every bite on her plate. I enjoyed jamón and chocolate cake in Spain all summer long, tacos in LA, and went back to Germany for a week filled with bread, wurst, schnitzel and Nutella. I still follow a good diet, trying to eat mostly organic food and exercise daily, but in a much different way. My appearance hasn’t changed much either, besides getting my curves back and some color on my cheeks.
The irony is that nowadays I live in a lot more balanced way while I’m on the road, waking up at sunrise for ocean strolls or hikes, making sure to get all my fruit and vegetables in and leave some room for a glass of wine and dessert. I’d never again refuse lamb kabob or ramen, regardless of how much sodium or fat it contains, and this idea is proudly represented by my Instagram feed, in the form of seductive photos of baingan bharta, spicy wings and fried kalamari.
If I truly want to immerse myself in a new culture, I have to accept all that comes with it, with an open mind and plate ready to be filled with whatever adventure brings. The most important thing is to admit to yourself if you’ve got a problem and seek help, so you don’t have to miss out on any new experience on the road ever again.
This article was originally published on Matador Network