Leading a healthy lifestyle can be a challenge no matter where you live. But on an island, we face some unique obstacles that can feel hard to overcome (Did someone say, “rum punch?”).
As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist on a rock, I’m deeply familiar with how frustrating it can be to make healthful choices, which is why I wanted to share some of the solutions I’ve come up with to help my fellow islanders in their quest to live their best lives in the tropics.
All Food on Island is Expensive
I’ve heard the argument that eating healthy is a pricey endeavor. However, on island, all food is created equal when it comes to price, meaning everything costs a pretty penny. That said, items deemed as “health foods” here can cost a small fortune. Well, if you can even find them…
Hailing from Georgia, I probably took for granted how inexpensive everything there really was, especially food. I often reminisce of the 10 for $10 promotions at Kroger, especially when I am paying 3 times that price for the same items. Here, health and junk foods are both expensive compared to their prices stateside.
I lived in Connecticut for a year before moving to the Virgin Islands. When I first discovered everything in the CT grocery store was about $0.50-$1.00 more expensive than what I was accustomed to, I had sticker shock. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw during my first grocery trip on island: $8 for a gallon of milk, $10 for a package of grapes, $6 for a 6-ounce container of blueberries… it was appalling.
Make a weekly budget and allocate more (at least 80%) towards healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, eggs, dairy, lean meats, and seafood. Keeping healthy foods in your house makes you more likely to eat them. Avoid purchasing items such as chips, cookies, fruit snacks, sweetened cereal, cured and processed meats, cakes and baked goods, sodas, juice, and other sweetened beverages.
Please don’t get me started on those $12 per bottle cold-pressed juices that claim to contain three pounds of organic fruits and vegetables. Although I did start, so here’s the short story… they’re a waste of money, in my opinion. I am not going to get into the science behind the nutrient composition and potential, if any, benefits of cold-pressed juices versus actual intake of fruits and vegetables, that’s a topic for another day.
However, when it comes to saving money, you are better off budgeting that money towards fresh produce. Three pounds of organic bananas cost less than $14. I saw regular bananas for $1 per pound the other day. Estimate organic bananas costs approximately $2/lbs, heck even at $3/lbs, 3 pounds would only be $9. These 3 pounds of bananas are also going to keep you fuller for longer (i.e. instead of one snack, you will have many days worth of snacks). You can even use a banana and other fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables to make your own smoothies, full of beneficial fiber!
It’s OK to purchase frozen food. In fact, because fruits and vegetables are frozen when their nutrient content is highest, they are often higher in vitamins and minerals than their half-rotting counterparts. Canned food can be an option as well when it comes to produce and foods like beans. Be sure to rinse canned food well to reduce the sodium content. Both of these options can help you save a lot on a rock.
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Island Grocery Shopping is Never Quick or Easy
On a small island like St Thomas, there is limited space and fresh water to support agriculture and food manufacturing. We are dependent on the outside world for most of our food. This can create many issues during your weekly island grocery store runs.
The produce selection is scarce anywhere you go on a rock. Don’t be surprised when some items look almost rotten. When you do find some that look edible, be prepared for it to turn quickly due to a long travel time from where it was originally grown. If you like to cook with fresh produce, this creates an issue of having to shop multiple times per week.
Not to mention, a typical grocery run requires stops at two or more stores to find every item on your list. The fact that a store has carried an item in the past is no guarantee you will ever find it again. I cannot tell you how frustrating this is! I waste so much time walking up and down the aisles looking for my new favorite item I bought two days before that I will never see again. Waiting to check out for close to half an hour is not atypical, which makes the necessary multiple grocery runs an even bigger pain every week.
Time management is key to getting your island shopping done in a timely manner. If you can, plan your grocery store runs at times you know are least busy, such as early mornings or late afternoons on a weekday. I know this may not always be possible. If you have to go run your errands during the busy weekend or evening hours, try taking along a buddy to help you not only pass the time, but work strategically together to make the trips shorter.
For example, upon entering the store you notice the check-out line is down-the-aisles long. One person grabs a cart and gets in line immediately, while the other does their shopping quickly, grabbing items for the other as instructed. Then you switch places securing needed items before your turn in line.
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Kitchen Space and Appliances are Limited
Odds are that if you’re living on an island, you’ve sacrificed kitchen space for a view or living area. Most of us move here to work jobs at barely more than minimum wage only to afford small studios or one-bedroom apartments. These spaces often have minimal counter space, reduced size appliances, and lack amenities most take for granted elsewhere, like dishwashers, ice makers, and garbage disposals. The added hassles of limited storage and space to prepare foods, as well as the task of washing and drying dishes, can discourage many from preparing food at home and push them towards less healthy alternatives.
If you are like me and have a tiny kitchen and hate washing dishes, then check out some of these simple recipes that require little prep and clean-up. You can also make the most out of your space by trying some easy and affordable life hacks for a tiny kitchen.
Take advantage of the fact that you will need to grocery shop multiple times each week and buy small amounts at a time if you are working with limited food storage space. Purchase fruits such as apples and bananas that are easy to store and require no prep. Cooking large meals at once that you can package and refrigerate/freeze for easy re-heating is a way to cut down on prep-time and clean up. You can also check out these easy one pot recipes for inspiration.
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Every Social Event Revolves Around Alcohol
Living in a state of constant vacation can have its setbacks when trying to follow a healthy lifestyle. Whether it’s hanging at the beach, going on a boat, or meeting at the bar, island life revolves around alcohol. It’s often hard to forget you are not on your anniversary cruise and shouldn’t have that third high-calorie Bushwacker.
Sugary frozen drinks and rum cocktails are the popular choices at most bars and hard to resist when crowds of tourists are drawing you into their celebrations. As alcohol already provides additional energy, these drinks add unnecessary calories with no nutritional benefits. Despite this knowledge, the island atmosphere is hard to resist. I can’t tell you how many times one daiquiri has turned into many and lasted throughout the wee hours of the night.
Learn to say no to alcoholic beverages! Ok, seriously who I am kidding, we live in the Caribbean. That said, there are still ways to enjoy the island culture within reason. Either limit the number of days each week or the number of drinks each day that you indulge.
For example, limit drinking to only Friday though Sunday or to only 1 – 2 drinks per day. When you are indulging in adult beverages, choose lower calorie options like light beer or liquor mixed with soda water/diet coke versus sugary cocktails.
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Pedestrian Friendly Areas are Scarce
For many individuals, exercising in a gym may be unrealistic. The ability to walk places affords us a way to be active while we go about our daily lives. When I lived in large cities like Atlanta and New Haven, the ability to walk to work or the grocery store was a luxury I took for granted. Accumulating over 10,000 steps on my Fitbit was any easy feat without stepping into a gym.
I don’t know if this is true for every Caribbean island, but on St Thomas we have a serious lack of sidewalks. Even well-traveled commercial locations and nearby residences – easily walkable – have no sidewalks between them. That’s not to say people don’t walk on the side of the road every day. They do, but it’s dangerous. These individuals must have a death wish the way we drive on these islands, but I suppose some have no other option besides hitchhiking. There is a large portion of the population here that does not own cars, and many of them do not live along the safari (bus) routes. Working in the hospital, almost all of the car accident victims I saw were sadly pedestrians hit by a vehicle.
Work more activity into your day in other ways. When you drive to the store, park in the back of the parking lot and walk farther to the store. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Do 10 – 20 push-ups, sit-ups, or other body weight exercises during commercial breaks while watching TV.
Go explore. I am willing to bet there are more pedestrian friendly areas on your island than you’ve discovered. Find an activity you enjoy in your spare time that increases your heart rate. It can be snorkeling, walking on a beach, swinging from a tree, gardening, dancing – anything that you will continue to do for at least 30 minutes, 3 – 4 days per week.
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What other tips do you have for overcoming the challenges to healthy living on a rock?