I’ve been lucky enough to travel to interesting places. The trips I’ve taken in the last 10-15 years, during my “Primal period,” have been the most meaningful, rewarding, and downright enjoyable because I’ve been able to view other cultures and customs through the prism of health, nutrition, and human evolution. I bring something back every trip—a tip, an insight, an alteration of an existing conviction. Travel abroad isn’t just a good time. It’s educational.
What have I learned eating abroad?
There’s Something Uniquely Terrible about Wheat in the U.S.
I have the perfect level of sensitivity to wheat. I’m not celiac, but I’m sensitive enough that it affects me. If my sleep is bad, or I’ve had alcohol, or my stress is high, wheat reliably produces symptoms. But even those symptoms are manageable—mostly superficial bathroom stuff.
This means I’m quite attuned to the quality of wheat. Wheat simply doesn’t affect me to the same degree in other countries. When I was in Greece, a couple times I had some baklava after dinner or pita dipped in hummus or olive oil. Pita is unleavened. It certainly isn’t fermented. It’s about as unaltered as you can get. And it didn’t affect me. Granted, I wasn’t eating more than a piece in a single day. But a single slice of bread back home is usually enough to produce at least a few niggling symptoms.
I’ve noticed similar null responses to bread in France and pasta in Italy. I’m not sure what it is, exactly. Maybe it’s the ubiquity of dwarf wheat in the U.S., which is known to produce enhanced reactivity in celiacs and gluten-sensitives. Maybe it’s the Roundup many American wheat farms spray before harvest.
Portion Size Is a Big Factor in America’s Weight Problem
Although we tend to highlight the roles food quality and macronutrient ratios play in obesity and other diseases, we can’t ignore the role food quantity plays. One massive change from our ancestral environment is that in the U.S., you can go into the average chain restaurant and have a trough of seed oil-soaked carbohydrate with a quart of sugar water served up in a few minutes for under $15. The portion sizes are gargantuan. Salad bowls full of pasta, pizzas the size of manhole covers, plates of fries that arrive overflowing onto the table. You go pick up Chipotle burrito bowls for your officemates and it’s like carrying a golden retriever puppy in the bag.
I didn’t really notice this until I traveled abroad with Primal awareness.
You won’t get a large salad bowl filled to the brim with pasta in Italy. In China, you’re not being served 4 cups of white rice in a single sitting. Soda in Europe is served in small cups like you’d use at home, not 32 ounce tankards. It’s a small detail, but it makes a big difference.
Industrial Food is Addictive
I knew that the food industry employs top scientists who manipulate flavor combinations and ingredients to make the food extremely hard to resist and easy to overeat. But being in a place like Kauai, which isn’t “abroad” but until quite recently was a separate nation with its own history and tradition and culture, really hammered it home. Hawaii is a bounty of healthy local food. Fruit literally rots on the side of the road. There are banana trees in every yard. The drugstore sells local grass-fed beef. The seas teem with fresh fish, the forests with wild boar, and roadside stands sell ahi jerky and smoke meat (smoked wild boar). Every time I visit, I eat incredibly well. Staying Primal is easy and quite inexpensive.
Yet, native Hawaiians are the most obese ethnic group in Hawaii. They’re eating spam musubis (admittedly delicious), macaroni salad, tons of fried food. The most well-known dish—the plate lunch—usually consists of meat either breaded and fried and/or cooked in sweet sauce (teriyaki, usually), white rice, macaroni salad, and maybe an iceberg lettuce salad with seed oil-laden dressing. I get the distinct sense that “native foods” are viewed as quaint, eaten only occasionally alongside the industrial food, or just plain ignored. It’s a damn shame. but industrial food always wins. It’s supposed to, and that’s the problem.
Fasting Solves a Lot of Problems When Traveling
Long ago I decided fasting was a better option than eating whatever terrible food was available. These days, I look forward to it and consider travel my opportunity to fast. If food options are miserable in the airport or destination, I fast. I’d rather snack on my own animal fat than eat salads that have been sitting out for days or peanuts roasted in corn oil.
My last opportunity to eat will be dinner time back home. My next opportunity will be breakfast time at my destination. This can turn into a really long fast. If I leave early in the day before dinner, I don’t eat dinner on the plane. If I arrive at my destination at night, I wait till morning to eat. I’m ready for that breakfast, to be sure, but I also bring more energy to the first day of my trip as a result.
Walking Is the Best Way to Discover Good Food
The Old World wasn’t built for cars. It was built for pedestrians. You feel this when you go crawling through the tiny side streets and alleyways using only your senses and intuition as guides. These are better guides than star ratings and ego-driven reviews. They’re ancient, ancestral, Primal. They lead to adventure. Yelp and other restaurant review apps have softened us and killed the excitement of stumbling on a great new food spot. They turn trips linear. That’s a shame, because discovering something delicious out of the blue is one of the best parts of traveling.
A favorite meal in Bangkok happened at a breakfast cart serving jok, the Thai version of rice porridge. The family was sleeping and I got up to go for a walk. Rice porridge, pork bone broth, pork liver, pork kidney, ground pork, some type of bitter green topped with salted pickled chilis. It wasn’t in any restaurant guides (I looked). Maybe it’s on Yelp or TripAdvisor these days. But I never would’ve found it if I hadn’t gone walking and noticed the long line and incredible smells.
Go Where Locals Go, Not Where They Say to Go
Many times locals will change their recommendations based on what they think you’ll like. So, the Beijing taxi driver will take you to the place all the other tourists visit, not where he takes his wife for date night. What you want is to eat where the locals actually eat. See where the workers go for lunch, the businessmen for dinner, the laborers for snacks. Watch for teeming crowds, then go eat whatever they’re eating.
Eat the Local Specialty (Allergies and Intolerances Permitting)
Clichés can be tiresome. But they shouldn’t be ignored. They develop for very good reasons, especially when they involve regional delicacies.
Parmigiano-reggiano is not a fad in Modena. Place a crystalline shard on your tongue and try to deny its greatness. Beef is the real deal in Argentina. Eat a ribeye medium rare slathered in chimichurri with a glass of Malbec and call it a cliché. South African biltong destroys any jerky I’ve had back home, especially if it’s made from kudu. Carnitas street tacos with pickled carrots and chilis may be a cliché in Mexico, but you’ll eat three of them at a time if you know what’s good for you.
This being a Primal website, you’re probably leery of certain foods. People with established allergies or intolerances to certain foods should not eat those foods just because they’re the local delicacy. But if you have some leeway, if your physiology allows straying, if the symptoms aren’t that bad, by all means: Stray! Let it be part of the experience.
That said, “stray” does not mean gorge. “Try the hand-pulled noodles this old Uighur grandma serves with cumin lamb” doesn’t mean “Eat it every meal.” Sample. Taste. Enjoy. Appreciate. Move on.
Those are the general lessons I’ve learned from eating abroad. That’s what I’ve taken back, and it’s what I’ve used to extract large amounts of meaning and enjoyment from my travel experiences.
What tips do you have for eating abroad? What have you learned?
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.