Eating Western Food... Without Getting Fat

By Jill Snider Lum

If you’re new in Canada, you’re probably suffering a little culture shock, but you may be enjoying some aspects of your immigration adventure, too. Food, for instance, is something every human loves; and moving to a new country gives you the chance to try all kinds of delicious new dishes.

But beware. Studies show that rates of obesity (a dangerous level of overweight) in newcomers are lower than in born-Canadians… but the longer an immigrant stays in Canada, the more likely it will be that he or she will develop a weight problem.

Canadian food – Western food, really – evolved hundreds of years ago, to keep a hardworking, pre-industrial population on its feet through the backbreaking labour of the day. Back then they needed all the calories they could get, for farming, mining, timber-cutting, building, ranching, fishing, trapping, sailing, and just plain housework. These jobs still exist today, but most are much less physically demanding, thanks to technology. And nowadays many more people live in cities and towns, and have jobs that involve no physical work at all.

So why are we still eating like farmers and fishermen from a previous century, when we don’t need nearly as many calories now to get through our day?

Well, it’s hard to fight tradition. And Western cuisine is tasty. And then there’s the fast-food industry, which has grown up around our instinctive love of fat, salt, sugars, and starches. Our bodies need these things, and humans are evolved to want them because in ancient times they were hard to get. But our culture has rushed ahead of our biology. Eating all of these things that you want, all the time – especially if you aren’t physically active – will result in obesity, and the health problems that go with it.

How, then, can you avoid the trap of Western food, and Western fatness? Here are some simple steps to take – and your fellow Canadians who were born here should all do the same things, to avoid obesity.

Keep some of your old ways of eating. If you were in decent physical shape when you arrived in Canada, why ruin a good thing? Keep some of your cultural food traditions; they’ll help keep you at a healthy weight, and help you cope with homesickness too. You can find all kinds of ingredients from your former country at the ethnic and international grocery stores situated all over Canada. (For a directory of ethnic grocery stores in your neighbourhood, click anywhere on this article or the photo above.)

Eat smaller portions. When you eat Western food, especially high-fat or high-starch dishes, start with a smaller amount than you think you'll need. Eat fairly slowly. If you want more when you're finished, take a small amount for "seconds", and take your time eating that too, so you'll know when you're full without overdoing it. Be careful of restaurant meals that have large amounts of inexpensive starches - potatoes, rice and pasta. It's perfectly fine to take home the leftovers for later.

Stay away from the fast-food habit. As a treat, an occasional burger-and-fries or bucket of chicken is great. But as a steady diet, fast food can wreck your health. Medical studies prove that this stuff should only be eaten once in a while. And here’s a secret: if you close your eyes and really taste fast food, it’s not very good. It’s greasy, salty, starchy, and sugary, so it appeals to us on an animal level; but the flavour is mostly unnatural, or bland.

Cook your meals from scratch. Processed, pre-packaged foods contain additives – chemical ingredients that make the food look better, or last longer – additives that aren’t found in nature. And as a rule, processed foods have more fat, salt, starch and sugars than anything you’d make at home. Add to that, they’re expensive, and they don’t taste as good as home-made. Whether you eat Western food, dishes from your country of origin, or dishes from somebody else’s country, try to avoid buying them pre-made from the supermarket. Cook them yourself. It’ll save your health, save your taste-buds, and save you a lot of money, too.

When eating Western, choose carefully. Even if you cook all your own food from fresh ingredients, if the Western dishes you choose are all high in fat and low in vegetables, you still may find yourself with weight problems. When you make a pasta dish with a creamy sauce, be sure there’s a big nutritious salad to go with it. If you’re having a barbecued steak, grill some vegetables too, and enjoy them as part of the meal. Balance is the key.

It isn’t hard to enjoy eating new foods in Canada, and still keep yourself healthy. It’s mostly just common sense.