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April 7, 2010

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Nutritionist: Eating well, safely and smart in Shanghai

IT can be hard to eat healthily in Shanghai, with its tradition of eating out and its sweet and oily cuisine. An American nutritionist gives Nancy Zhang the scoop on eating smart.

The trials of the trailing spouse in Shanghai are well documented. Following her spouse here on assignment, the trailing spouse gives up jobs and friends. Many end up bored, disoriented and even depressed. This was the path that American Julie Meyer saw herself spiraling down, until she "picked herself up out of the ditch."

Now an entrepreneur, Meyer shows that the luxury of free time and domestic help in China can be a unique opportunity - though it takes inner strength and a lot of get-up and go.

Meyer is the founder of Eat Well Shanghai, a nutrition consulting service that helps expats navigate the food safety and health pitfalls of living here. A registered dietician in the US, working in nutrition was Meyer's passion for 13 years, and the hardest thing to give up in the move to China.

Coming from fast-paced New York, she could not adjust to the life of a lady of leisure.

"I felt like a fish out of water, and being a taitai was not just me," says Meyer. "It was difficult because China was a great opportunity for my husband, and for my kids - but I couldn't figure out where the opportunity was for me. Eat Well Shanghai was a way to channel that feeling of being a fish out of water to help myself, and other people."

Set up at the end of 2009, the business followed nine difficult months in China.

Back in the US Meyer had carefully planned her career as a nutrition consultant. It was flexible enough to fit around her family, and also something she loved as her mother was "a healthy eating nut."

But the move to China turned her world upside down, and by September 2009 she was suffering insomnia for weeks on end. In one sleepless night she made a list of all the things she needed to be happy.

It included meeting interesting people, getting to know Shanghai and trying her long-term dream of being an entrepreneur.

"The first six months are the toughest, that's when you decide which way your experiences here will go."

The idea of nutrition has hit a chord as many expats feel anxiety over food safety in an unfamiliar country. Shanghai, with its culture of eating out and sweet and oily cuisine, is also a difficult place for healthy eating. Meyer recognizes that often eating is a complex psychological issue.

"I gained 12 pounds (5.4 kilograms) when I was depressed in China. When we're stressed we reach for the most familiar and comfortable way to deal with it - and for many people that's food," she says. "For many new expats, food anxiety is also about loss of control over life in general, and falling apart - like I did.

"Healthy eating coupled with exercise is a path to start coming out of that. Not only will you have more energy, but you will also regain confidence, and it spreads. You'll sleep better, have more patience with the kids, and be better able to cope with stress."

To get started, Meyer recommends examining your current diet with a three-day diet analysis so you know what to add or subtract, and taking opportunities to walk rather than take taxis.

Sourcing good food is tougher. In New York Meyer belonged to a food coop where a group of people get together to source the freshest, organic food from nearby. But here organic standards are different and complex, and milk melamine scandals demonstrate it's difficult even for locals. It's also problematic dealing with allergies and vegetarian or vegan diets as Chinese restaurants often will not cater to specialist needs.

"I don't have all the answers," says Meyer, "But I can teach you how to wash food and investigate it. Organic standards in the US are not necessarily that great either - there's only 99 inspectors in the whole country. EU standards are better, but it shows we all take a risk."

Meyer is working on a guidebook to be released this autumn, featuring chapters on how to eat well at home, how to work with your ayi about food, how to eat well in restaurants and what to do about allergies and dietary requirements. Her blog showcases new healthy finds around town, and personal experiences. She also gives talks.

Meyer's next speaking engagement, "Eat Well Shanghai for Families: Healthy Snacks and Quick Meals," will be held at The Barbie Cafe on May 15, from 10-11:30am. For more information visit

Julie Meyer's five tips for eating well in Shanghai

Don't panic. Yes, there are some questions with food safety here but if you eat smart, soak your fruits and veggies, wash your hands, peel what you can and cook everything else, you should be fine.

Fuel up. Mom was right, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It's also a great time to load up on nutrients you may not encounter later in the day like wheat fiber, calcium and even protein. Don't skip it.

Pack up. Don't feel bad if your pantry here looks like your one at home. If you need to bring in special spices or flavoring to make your meals taste more like home, go for it. The most important thing is to eat well and stay healthy, not win a prize for most adventuresome palate.

Try it. If you are up for it, check out some of the local ingredients that can add a lot of flavor to your favorite meals. Garlic, ginger, ginseng, lotus roots and black sesame are good for your palate, and your health too.

Shop around. There are more and more amazing markets and delivery services popping up around Shanghai. Bust out of a rut and try some new imported and local foods. And if you have food safety concerns, take a trip to one of the local farms and check out what is happening.

Julie Meyer

Nationality: USA

Age: 35

Profession: Registered nutritionist


Self-description: Outgoing, down-to-earth, tall.

Favorite place: Element Fresh. No joke, I love that place!

Strangest sight: A 98-year-old Shanghainese woman ordering a grande latte at Starbucks.

Perfect weekend: I've been blessed with tons of visitors from New York so my perfect weekend is showing them glimpses into my life, the life of Shanghai and watching their faces when they realize what a huge impact China is going to have on the world.

Worst experience: Bad experiences are great opportunities. I realized I set myself up as a fish out of water and found ways to make the river flow in my direction.

Motto for life: It is what it is. Make the best of it.

How to improve Shanghai: I would love to see less chemicals used in the local produce.

Advice to newcomers: Bring a duffle bag full of energy bars - you are going to need them.


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