Location Independent, International Jobs: Dana Leigh Lyons of Alchemist Eating

Hello! Welcome to “Location Independent, International Jobs,” the Wednesday series where I showcase stories from people who have become location independent, work internationally, and/or continuously travel.

In today’s interview, you’ll hear Dana’s story. Dana is a Doctor of Oriental Medicine, teaches at a Chinese Medicine college, and runs her own coaching business: Alchemist Eating.  As a long-distance eating and lifestyle coach, Dana helps people eat in a way that’s healthy, intuitive and uncomplicated. Her work combines eating, medicine and minimalism.
This interview will cover:
  • how Dana created a location independent career in an unlikely field
  • why it can make sense to change careers in your 30s
  • tips to eat well for less, including the foods you should buy
For the complete story of how Dana has made a location independent life, read on. 
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

I come from a small, rural town in Maryland but lived abroad on-and-off throughout adulthood.

Dana Leigh Lyons www.thethreeyearexperiment.com
Dana Leigh Lyons of Alchemist Eating. (Photo credit: Bobbi Barbarich)

I’m now in my 40s but in my 20s and 30s worked as a location-independent translator, editor and writer. In that “past life,” my homes included Washington, DC, (where I completed my Master’s degree), Egypt, Thailand, and many super-temporary spots (China, Ethiopia, Lebanon and Mongolia, to name a few!).

Dana Leigh Lyons--www.thethreeyearexperiment.com
Dana meditating with her cat by her side. (Photo credit: Bobbi Barbarich)

I tended to change homes (and continents) every few years during my 20s, but then moved to Nelson, British Columbia, for Chinese Medicine school. The doctor program here is 5 years, which meant staying put! Thereafter, I spent time in Florida and Colorado, where I’m licensed as a doctor and started my own business. Until… the Chinese Medicine school invited me back to teach. I was thrilled to return to my “true home” of Nelson, where I now teach acupuncture, herbs and food therapy. I’m also helping develop the college’s upcoming nutrition program.

How did you make the decision to travel for long stretches internationally?

In my 20s and 30s, I was drawn to immerse myself in foreign cultures and surrounds. It was important to me to spend time living in those places, not just visiting.

Sometimes, I chose my homes rather randomly—my first stay in Thailand was like that. Others were related to my area of study and work. For instance, I completed a Master’s degree in Arab Studies at Georgetown, then did a year-long language-immersion fellowship in Egypt (where I’d previously spent a semester as an undergrad), then subsequently returned there for long stretches because, well, I love it!

My second time living in Thailand was prompted by wanting to return to my Chinese Medicine doctor there. I was going through a health crisis at the time and couldn’t afford daily treatment in the States. In Chiang Mai, where I lived, I received near-daily acupuncture and regular massage, plus immersed myself in yoga and meditation. Meanwhile, I continued to make a living off my laptop—doing Arabic translation, editing and writing.

Eventually, as my health improved, I longed to integrate how I made a living and what I was most passionate about: holistic health and healing. I considered various paths, but ultimately knew becoming a Chinese Medicine doctor was the one for me, even though it meant going back to school in my 30s.

How do you make that work financially? With your job?

As a doctor, I tried out various “brick-and-mortar” models of health practice before creating my own location-independent business. I’m glad I experimented, but love the freedom this expression of the medicine offers me.

Because I shifted to a location-independent model, I can maintain my business while living abroad. My current work as a college instructor in Canada feeds and is fed by my own business.   I also get to share my business model with students, offering an example of the many possibilities for practicing Chinese Medicine and nutrition.

Dana Leigh Lyons computer www.thethreeyearexperiment.com
Dana at her computer, where she runs her online business (Photo credit: Bobbi Barbarich)

I’ll say that, as an introvert, I never expected to become an instructor, but I’ve come to love that work too. And it absolutely enriches my own one-on-one work with clients.

Favorite part of travel? Least favorite?

Well, my least favorite is that I adore routine, and travel throws that in disarray. But one of my most favorite parts is creating new routines in a new-to-me place.

Traveling helps me see the world with beginner eyes. 

Ko Lipe Thailand lake and boats www.thethreeyearexperiment.com
Ko Lipe, Thailand

Oh, and the food, music, spirit of other places. Can’t get enough!

Do you have any funny culture shock moments? 

Well, I sure didn’t find this “funny” at the time, but once in Chiang Mai, while moving apartments, I foolishly left my bags outside my first place while flagging down a “tuk-tuk” to transport me to the next. Random crime was exceedingly rare in Chiang Mai… but I was a bit too trusting.

When I returned to gather my things, my laptop case was gone—along with all it held: my passport, my wallet containing cash and credit cards, and the laptop I used to make a location-independent living! 

It was so long ago that the details are fuzzy… but I do recall many, many tears. Somehow, I took care of one detail after the next, including using all my savings to buy a new laptop during a brief trip back to the States for my sister’s wedding thereafter. 

Then, on that trip (mere months after the first laptop was stolen), a man tried to mug me and take my new laptop while I was waiting for an early-morning bus in Washington, DC! As crazy as it sounds now, my 20-something self simply refused to give up that new laptop. It was my one real possession, and more important, the source of my livelihood. Somehow, it worked—I think the attempted mugger was as shocked as me! 

However, to be clear, I don’t recommend EVER leaving your stuff to flag a ride OR risking your life over a laptop! So not worth it. 

How does all this fit with a minimalist lifestyle?

Partly because I’ve moved homes and countries so often, I’ve maintained a minimalist lifestyle for two decades. Even though I’ve settled into an adorable rental house at present, I own less stuff now than I did when younger.

Kootenay Lake lake clouds sheds www.thethreeyearexperiment.com
Kootenay Lake, Dana’s “home lake” in Canada.

Buying and having less just feels better to me. It brings me ease. I also truly appreciate what I do have… and love knowing that I could easily travel or move. Truly, I could fit my entire closet in a carry-on!

Finally (since this is a personal finance blog!), could you share some tips for eating healthy while saving money?

Yes! Saving money on food while still eating healthy is a huge area of focus—both for me and my coaching clients.

Personally, I rely on local eggs and veggies for the majority of meals, plus a once-weekly infusion of inexpensive but high-quality fish or meat. My main dessert is a few squares of extra-dark chocolate and a square of hard cheese.

Here’s a starter list of other ideas:

  • Make whole foods your focal point, steering away from anything in boxes or bags. This is cheaper…and healthier!
  • Shop local and seasonal. In general, local eggs, meat and produce from small farmers are less expensive and more nutrient dense than store-bought organic (not to mention more flavorful). This is doubly so when store-bought organic is out of season and shipped from remote locations.
  • Invest in a slow-cooker. A slow-cooker transforms tougher, cheaper cuts of meat into tender delights. It’s also great for making a large batch of inexpensive soup or stew, whether meat-based or vegetarian.
  • Add small inexpensive fish (like sardines) into rotation. Also organic or grass-fed organ meats and “unusual parts” like oxtails and marrow bones. These are true superfoods and unbelievably cheap (plus, a little goes a long way).
  • Speaking of “superfoods,” the key really is choosing whole-food ingredients and staying away from extras. If I choose to splurge on something like grass-fed collagen powder, I draw from a special “superfood budget” that I intentionally keep very low.
  • Cook up a few staples to have on hand and embrace leftovers. For me, this means making a batch of one or two dishes each Sunday and incorporating them into lunches and dinners during the week. Current go-to’s include: spaghetti squash, cauliflower “rice,” roasted carrots and beets. I lean towards unfussy, recipe-less dishes. But get as fancy as you’d like!
  • Pack lunch rather than buying it while out. Crafting a routine is key here: I pack next day’s lunch while preparing dinner.
  • Always shop with (and stick to) a list. I like to have a rough plan of the week’s dinners too—nothing super-specific, but a general idea of what I’ll be eating each night. This keeps me from making purchases I’ll regret at the end of a full day.
  • Think about why you want to save money. Maybe for travel? Something else? Eating healthy is a huge priority for me, but it doesn’t have to be super-expensive—and I want to save money for other needs and wants! I track my spending and budget each day using You Need A Budget. This has had a transformative impact on my spending and saving habits. 

Honestly, I have so many more tips to share! And when it comes to eating abroad, I have a whole other list! Still, these offer a solid start:).

For more tips on eating well for less (this advice is great for my Year of Good Food experiment!), visit Dana at Alchemist Eating. And make sure to leave Dana any comments or questions you might have! 

Author: Laurie

Hi. I'm Laurie, and my family and I have set out to double our net worth and move abroad in the next three years. Join us on our journey!

4 thoughts on “Location Independent, International Jobs: Dana Leigh Lyons of Alchemist Eating”

    1. Totally, freddy! Eggs are actually a comfort food for me…and they’re incredibly nutrient dense. Plus, even the best ones (e.g., pasture-raised) are a tremendous bargain when you consider nutrient density and protein content.

      1. Mmm…love pate! You always “hide” organ meats in soups, stews and such:). I find a small piece of organic liver, sautéed in butter in a cast iron pan, to be the perfect addition to eggs.

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