Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Paleo Impossible?

Let me start off by saying that my vacation in Japan was an amazing experience.  My husband and I had an incredible time traveling around Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, Hiroshima, Iwakuni, Okayama & Kurashiki, to name a few.  We stayed with my friend Yumiko and her mom who played wonderful host to us during our just shy of three week stay.  So much powerful history and beautiful sites and landscapes.  I will have memories that will last a lifetime and it was a truly eye opening experience.  If you 'd like to see photos from our trip, you can visit my Flickr account.

What I had difficulty with during my time in Japan was maintaining a paleo lifestyle.  I was determined that I would stick to eating my protein and vegetables and figured I could get a good bit of fat from eating fish and other forms of protein.  I packed a few snacks for the 19 hour travel time:

Beef Jerky
Macadamia Nuts
Dried Blueberries
Dried Coconut
Emergency Larabar

The flight was fine and I ended up fasting most of the trip while attempting to get some shut eye which is close to impossible for me in a seated position.

We reached Osaka in the future and we made our way to Yumiko's where her mom prepared an incredible and delicately prepared feast.  Yumiko had prepared her mom for my "odd way of eating", so it was known that I did not eat grains or sugar.  But something I wasn't aware of about Japanese cuisine is they love to sweeten everything with sugar, and I mean everything.  Most meat dishes were prepared with a sweet sauce, so when you thought you were getting something savory, it was actually pretty sweet.  They consume a lot of wheat, soy and of course rice.  This is the staple of every household and I learned very quickly that it would be difficult for me to maintain a paleo style of eating for the next three weeks.

Paleo breakfast courtesy of Yumiko's mom :
My first couple of days I tried to eat paleo, ordering foods in restaurants with Yumiko's help.  Her mom prepared me a paleo breakfast every morning; one egg either soft boiled or fried, bacon or sausage, salad and soup (soup is traditionally served with every breakfast and it is something that I could get used to . . sooo goood!).  While out and about touring, I ate pork skewers with salt, sweet potato, smoked mackerel, occasional salads and the like.  The food was tasty and I thought I could do this the whole trip.  But then I noticed that my energy levels depleted quickly, I had headaches, dizziness and nausea and moments of feeling faint.  We were doing a minimum of 9 hours per day of walking, visiting temples, shrines and partaking in hanami (cherry blossom viewing).  I wasn't getting enough food energy to supply me for the intense physical exertion and I had to make a choice.  Japanese food in general is very low fat and most of their fat sources for cooking are vegetable or soy oils.  Fish is a great source, but this can get expensive quickly and we were on a bit of a budget.  I also can't eat fish too often as it turns me off if I eat it too many days in a row.

I started eating rice to bulk up my meals, and purchased rice balls from the 7-11 (their 7-11's are amazing) to take with me for emergency hunger pangs on our long hikes.  This helped with my energy but almost immediately I felt bloated and cramped with some minor headaches.  I powered through it because this was a once in a lifetime experience for me and nothing was going to ruin it.  There are also many occasions where politeness trumps.  No one wants to insult their host, so sometimes we sacrifice to show our appreciation.

It would have been fine if all I ate was rice, but something happened after a week.  I started craving carbs regularly.  I haven't had a carb craving in over a year, and my experiences reminded me all over again how addicting grains and sugar could be.  I started a "to hell with it" and "I'm on vacation, I'll get back on track when I get home" attitude and ate pretty much to my hearts content.  Donuts, bread, rice, tempura, udon, sushi, ice cream, Okonomiyaki, Takoyaki and other local fair.  My taste buds enjoyed themselves immensely and I had some pretty good eats (best sushi EVER).  The rest of the vacation I experienced days of constipation, intestinal cramping and bloating, headaches, lethargy and irritablilty, all the reasons I started paleo in the first place.

Returning home from such an incredible trip, I set out to get back on track immediately, but there was one problem.  In the three weeks, I had become completely addicted to carbs again.  I craved everything.  My first week back I had terrible jet lag which allowed a head cold to take hold of me (I blame little sleep and poor immunity from poor eating habits).  My husband and I were too tired to cook or go grocery shopping to restock the fridge, so we ate take out for a week.  I even sunk as low as McDonald's . . . twice.  I craved buttered toast constantly and ate pasta.  I don't even really like pasta, but my resurrected addiction had consumed any reasoning and will to cease.  I hadn't put on any weight during vacation due to my 10 fold increase in physical activity.  But being home and laying on the couch eating junk food, I had put on 4 lbs in 1 week.  I felt like a zombie and I hit rock bottom on Sunday.  That's when I decided enough was enough.

Monday was my first day of paleo again and it felt good.  I've succeeded with today as well and I feel I can get back on track quickly.  I still fight the cravings but I don't plan to give in to them as easily as last week.

We all fall off the horse once in a while and in a way, my experiencing was a bit of an awakening.  I'd forgotten what a drug like effect grains and sugar have on us and how it's so simple to become "comfortable" with the many symptoms that ensue with consumption.  It's also very easy, as I experienced in a short period of time, to be consumed with the craving again.  So many people I know complain of bloating, cramping, headaches and such and assume that these are normal functions of the body.  There's always a quick fix at the drug store.  I'm happy to be back on my permanent fix of paleo and can only hope to never experience any of these symptoms again.  It's good to be back, in more ways than one.

I don't want to give the impression that paleo is impossible in Japan.  If I were living there, I would have complete control over what I purchased and cooked.  Actually, the selection of protein at the grocery store was astounding and I've never seen so many different types of radish.  The issue is relying on food from restaurants and train stations and of course there are language barriers with menus and wait staff.  It's difficult to communicate and most people don't understand your reasons for being particular.

Have you had any difficulties with travelling while maintaining a paleo lifestyle?


  1. Wow - the photos are amazing! Some really good ones of the both of you in there.

    Also, I clearly have to make a trip to Japan. I was thinking about doing an asian tour for my 40th.

  2. I found this super interesting. I have crohns' disease and had fallen off the wheat/dairy/sugar free diet I normally live by. I've been suffering like crazy and I started fresh today and I swear I already feel a difference.
    Paleo isn't best for me but a lot of the principles run along the same lines as my diet.
    Vacations are always the hardest, you want to enjoy everything a culture has to offer, and its so hard to stick to your principles.
    I always really appreciate your honesty with digestive and gastro issues. It's hard to find people who are really honest about it.

    ps - I love your blog.

  3. Thank you for posting this! I've been back from vacation for 2 weeks and have been on a sugar and wheat binge. I really need to get back on track. I appreciate your honesty. I know paleo is the healthiest way for me to eat and sometimes I slip but I always pay for it. I need to get back on track TODAY and reading this post was definitely motivating.

  4. I live in Japan with the military and understand this blog to the fullest. Even though i have a commissary (american grocery store) on base it is no where near a trader joes or grass fed anything. We try to do the best we can but paleo options out in town as you found are very limited. However until i move back to the states I set an 80/20 rule for food. There food is amazing and is a large part of their society and culture. I hope you enjoyed your time here it is a wonderful country. (Best sushi EVER! Not sure i will be able to eat american sushi again)

  5. I was also just in Japan - at Epcot. (laughing)

    Disney nearly KILLED me. The parks are loaded with junk food - asking for a healthy choice is like speaking in tongues, to the park employees. And when you DO find something decent? $$$$$.

    Stay strong! I visited a local WalMart and purchased fruit and Larabars - they got me through the rough spots. And when I got home? I noted I had dropped 7 pounds. What kind of freak LOSES weight on a vacation??!!

    : )

  6. AH this is so true of vacation. My last vacation was to Israel and luckily most everyone speaks ENglish there and I am pretty proficient in hebrew too. I stuck to my paleo eating 100%. I made the hotel and restaurant staff kinda crazy constantly! But it was so worth it!

    Now I would love to plan another intl trip for this summer but it seems insurmountable based on my dietary needs. America, that wouldnt be an issue at all.

  7. WOW! Perfect timing! I've been back 2 weeks after a month abroad. I related SO much to all you wrote. I started out good (brought plenty of jerky, nuts, coconut flakes...) but each week got a little worse. It could have been fine BUT the jet lag/ empty house-fridge/so much to catch up on and totally out of my good habits once I was home has been the straw that broke the camels back. I vowed 5/1 to get back on track and am doing that except for my dairy in my coffee - next week! Knowing you are a Paleo lover AND even have a blog and went through the same thing helps me forgive myself and think how to plan better next time for that vulnerable time upon return! Thank you!

  8. Thanks for posting this! I've recently travelled to New York and found so many gluten free and dairy free eats they didn't have in the Netherlands, those did however contain grains and sugar and I've been having huge cravings ever since. It's hardly impossible to fight those.. But I'm glad to hear you've got the same problem and just knowing I'm not alone makes me feel more motivated and will certainly make it easier to go back to my paleo lifestyle.

  9. Great post - it's amazing what two weeks of balls-out binging will do to a body. My family is just starting to get back on track after a ridiculous Easter holiday (two weeks). Thanks for reminding us that everyone falls off the wagon sometimes!

  10. Thank you for posting this. I fully understand this "i am on vacation" attitude....just came through 13 days of it. Feeling like I did before I began Paleo and wonder whatever possessed me to think that eating what I wanted wouldn't matter in the least. Chronic stomach pains, leg aches, migraines, digestive issues, chronic fatigue and depression/anxiety have all set in. But as you said "What a wake-up call" for me. I am back to Paleo tomorrow and sooo looking forward to it. Thank you for the post, it is nice to know that once you fall...getting back up and going is possible. Thanks for the blog.