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How I Gained (and Lost) Weight in Canada

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. For 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 a 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, homemade 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 did I save 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 in 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?

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Zhu

French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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