How I Gained (and Lost) Weight in Canada

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Graffiti, Ottawa, September 2011

I shudder at the thought of the contextual ads that will be generated based on the title in the sidebar. “I was 500 pounds and I lost 499 pounds in two days!” “Drink a $100 herbal powder and never look fat again!”

Oh well.

Alright, I was never 500 pounds neither I am 100 pounds today. I’m average. I’ve never been described as “skinny” or “thin” but again, at 5’7, I’m not a tiny little thing so I’m not aiming for that. My weight hasn’t changed in the past three years and I’m about the same as when I came to Canada in 2004.

But moving to Canada played havoc with my body, especially in the first few years.

Life was hectic between 2004, when I came to live in Canada permanently, and 2008. During these four years, I had to get used to new North American life, improve my English, complete university, find work and apply for permanent residence. In 2004, I was on a tourist visa and I wasn’t allowed to work so I was mostly studying for my university exams and finding my bearings. In 2005, I graduated from university, found my first real job as a French teacher and dealt with the immigration system. The following couple of years, Feng and I worked seven days a week. We both had two jobs that kept us busy from morning to night. Retrospectively, I wonder how we did it.

I woke up in 2008 exhausted and yes, fatter. For some reason, I hadn’t noticed I gained weight—the mighty power of denial.

Yet it’s no wonder I piled up the pounds.

First, we were almost never home so we didn’t cook much. At noon, I had an hour-long break between my classes but I often had to travel from one location to another and had little time left to actually eat. Bringing lunch wasn’t practical. I was carrying books, exams, notes etc. for my students and, since I was teaching in various ministries, there was nowhere to store a packed lunch. After my last class at 4 p.m., I often had a long break until my night job, moonlighting as a teacher or a temp worker. But I didn’t have a chance to go back home and have a snack or an early dinner. Most nights, I only came home between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m.

As a result, I spent most of my days out of the house. When I was hungry, I was buying food. Little did I know that healthy-looking food isn’t actually that good and that it was easy to get used to insanely huge portions.

On top of that, despite crazy busy days, I wasn’t getting much exercise. First, I didn’t know the city that well—it felt extremely spread out—and I took the bus or got lifts from point A to point B. Second, I wasn’t quite used to Canada’s extreme weather. Going outside by – 40°C scared me.

Finally, I just didn’t know how to eat well in North America. I know, it sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, it’s not that easy. While I never developed the taste for local staples such as peanut butter or deep-fried everything, I did enjoy my share of junk food. I just didn’t know it was junk food.

Looking back, it’s a wonder I didn’t gain more weight.

In 2008, I decided it had to change. I don’t think I consciously made the decision to lose weight but I did want to be healthier.

First, I took a closer look at what I was eating, and boy, what a shock! For instance, I had no clue that a zucchini-walnut muffin and small hot chocolate at Starbucks were 790 calories together. What??? How??

I took a hard second look at everything and systematically started going for the “light” option. Light cream cheese and non-fat spreads such as hummus, home-made baked goods so that I would control the ingredients, balsamic vinaigrette instead of the infamous ranch dressing, baked crackers instead of chips… The funny part was, I didn’t miss anything.

I cooked more as well. It seems obvious but when you cook, you control the portions and the ingredients. My vegetables are not dripping oils but they are as good and I definitely don’t need to have everything drenched in sauce. I started to bring my lunch as well. Not only I saved quite a lot of money, but I ate better and healthier too.

After a few failed attempts to join a gym, I finally realized it just wasn’t my thing. I’m still French, I hate exercising indoors in front of a mirror. So I started going to yoga and against all expectations, I actually loved it. Meanwhile, I grew more interested into photography and enjoyed long walks in Ottawa’s various neighbourhoods, looking for good shots.

It took me about a year to lose the weight I gained, and then more. It wasn’t painful and it wasn’t as drastic as in these “before/after” pictures but I can tell the difference. I feel better.

I guess my body finally adapted to life in North America.

How about you? Did you gain or lose weight after moving abroad?


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Frequenting Starbucks is indeed an insidious way to put on the lbs. I avoid it! For me, cooking & monitoring my own food & regular exercise (walking…) is the best way to lose weight and stay fit. With a few indulgent moments!

  2. I gained some weight since I’m here … I guess that because there sugar just in about everything and about everywhere in the supermarket! But then again, I don’t eat butter, fried stuff, yogurt, cheese, charcuterie, sauces and I don’t drink juice either so I don’t really know what’s the problem! Plus I walk a lot!

    • I think the fact most French walk a lot definitely offset all these buttery croissants. But your body simply may not be used to French food… for some reason, I can’t take oily food but I have no issue with butter.

  3. Loved the post.

    I will post the sequel with my experience.

    It will be called: “How I gained and lost and gained and lost and gained an continue gaining weight in Canada. A Guide for the financially handicapped, obese immigrant”


  4. Uurrgghh, the weight issue. I would like to say that I easily gain and lose weight like Kate Winslet. I remember in 2006, as I was returning to Buffalo from Prague, I felt lean. I had a picture wearing a very thin pair of jeans.

    Now, on the other hand, I find myself too busy that I actually need to make time for exercise. I would not mind shedding off a few pounds. Which is the reason why I am always wishing I am a vegetarian again, but I just cannot find the self-discipline for it.

    • I’m really not sure vegetarian food is the key to lose weight. Actually, a lot of vegetarian friends one mine are surprised to see they are gaining weight! No meat doesn’t mean no fat… Indian curries, nuts etc. can pack a lot of calories.

  5. Yooooo Zhu…my weigh has always been like a Yo-Yo 🙂 Heaviest when I was a teenager and when I was pregant I looked like an elephant ….ehhhh…no joke… 🙂

    Now, I just dont want to be bothered but just having healthier choice.

    When overseas, no choice to exercise so tends to pile on the weigh but I just have to be careful 😀

    • You’re lucky to live in a country where you do have a lot of food choice! That said, in Singapore, I ate all the time. All these “xiao chi” were just too tempting! But I didn’t gain weight because the portions were small and we walked a lot.

  6. Hi Zhu,

    Food has always been a big subject for expats. I think honestly that we all have done the “yo-yo” thing with our weight. There is also a big experimentation period. It happened to me that I tried a lot of things and did gain some wait and lost it, too.

    The worst thing for calories in France is of course pastries!! I don’t think that I have eaten one that I hate! The best is the variety of fresh veggies. I love cooking with fresh veggies.

    • Ah pastries… (drooling)

      Come to think of it, it’s a miracle that French aren’t fatter! French do use a lot of butter. Now, most pastries are quite small, much smaller than these huge chocolate-cinnamon-everything muffins you can find in Canada! 😆

  7. + 5 kilos ! Que je n’ai toujours pas réussi à perdre, un an après. Pourtant nous cuisinions tous les jours (je suis de toute façon une grande amoureuse de la bonne nourriture et je ne mange jamais un seul plat tout fait), donc pour ça, nous n’avons pas changé notre rythme français.
    Et pourtant… pourtant je suis aussi une grosse gourmande, et je DEVAIS goûter toutes les nouveautés et les choses bizarres que nous n’avons pas en Europe. Et les bières. Aaaah… Montréal et ses bières… 😉

  8. I’m completely for cooking home and realized quite early in life that this made a big difference in health and weight. When I studied in Germany, my first year, I always ate out (I shared a flat with 6 people, you don’t really want to be in that kitchen at rush hour). I gained weight. Not a lot, but I did… and I noticed on the pictures.

    On my second year, I moved to an apartment by myself and cooked at home. Not only that, but I was more efficient and active – I walked wherever I wanted to go and had a gym to which I went by bike 3 times a week.

    • Cooking and walking are really the two keys for weight loss I find. I still eat out but I enjoy it, I don’t get take out just because I’m too lazy to cook.

  9. Interesting experience, but I’m not surprised that you gained weight at first. I think (generally speaking) that Canadians are bad at incorporating daily exercise into our lives, we drive everywhere, instead of walk and I didn’t even own a bike until I moved to Germany. We also eat so much processed crap, I really appreciate the emphasis on fresh, real food in Europe. I lost weight when I moved to Germany, but gained again when I was in Canada for 5 weeks (reverting back to my Canadian eating habits), then lost it again after coming back to Germany. Following a healthy lifestyle can be done anywhere of course, but I do find that it’s harder to do in Canada than in Germany.

    • It is harder in Canada and the weather and the way the cities are built don’t help. But it is possible! Plus not everything is healthy in Europe, some local dish are also loaded with fat and oil… It just took me longer to realize that it takes effort to eat healthy in Canada.

  10. I think it depends on where you live. Urban folk are generally thinner and healthier as there’s healthy food shopping within walking distance (I am surrounded by farmers markets and fruit & veg stands) and there’s less driving, more transit. I find it’s easier to gain weight in the suburbs (even with cooking) because grocery trips involve driving to the store and and more driving in general to do ANYTHING.

    I’m much healthier since I started cutting out transit and walking 30-40kms per week. If my commute was longer than 7.5kms to the office I wouldn’t be able to do this. I have a car but I usually just use it for driving cancer patients and photography-related trips. Oh, and road trips. I bought a Bixi membership on Groupon for $47 earlier this week and when the weather turns nasty I will activate it.

    • I’m not surprise you see a difference, 7.5 km is a lot, especially when you stick to it and do it every day! Bowing to your commitment 🙂

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