What I’ve Learned from Eating Abroad

Inine_What_I've_Learned_from_Eating_Abroad_10.05.17I’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.

Then I figured out how fasting helped with another unavoidable aspect of travel: jet lagAirline food service typically hews to the schedule of the departure time zone. Food is a powerful circadian entrainer, so this prolongs your body’s adaptation to the new time. I hew my eating to the schedule of the arrival time zone. This hastens my body’s adaptation.

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?

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care!


TAGS:  big agra, gluten

About the Author

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.

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41 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned from Eating Abroad”

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  1. Ah, the Paleo cave art of the Dordogne and a fois gras shop on every angled, cobbled corner. Yeah, and a lot of walking. Magnifique.

    1. While traveling, I also see it’s more easy to go Primal than vegan, or vegetarian. Especially in China.

  2. Makes me wish I was off traveling tomorrow instead of getting up to go to work. Top article, thanks Mark.

    1. Thanks, Ant. Writing the article got me a little restless. I might have to at least cook up something from one of those trips tonight.

      1. oooh – and share the recipe some Saturday, please? I need to get out my cookbook from our trip to Spain and do a recipe a week. Easily done primal! Thanks for this inspiration.

  3. Years ago, when traveling by train in Europe, we met a British guy across the aisle. He was, hilariously, about three sheets to the wind, but he did manage to make an astute observation or two. In talking about the great quality of most continental European food, he said, “The Brits eat shit. But so do the Americans.”

    It isn’t just the wheat that’s bad here; it’s almost everything–unless one takes the time to scout out (or grow) fresh, healthful foods and ingredients. Unfortunately, eating well is expensive. And it shouldn’t be. America is famous for providing supply where there is demand, however, so I’m hoping high-quality food will become increasingly more available/affordable, with the cheap, processed crap full of fake ingredients eventually disappearing into history.

    BTW, there are recipes online for jok (or jook, as it’s often spelled). It’s also known as congee in China. You can make it bare-bones (just rice and water) or you can cook it with broth and various meats or seafood. Somewhat similar to our Southern chicken bog, jook is Asian comfort food, creamy and delicious as a now-and-then treat for those of us who are more 80/20 than religiously VLC or keto..

  4. Interesting article and I’ve heard similar anecdotes regarding wheat from others. Wheat/gluten kicks my butt. Everything from digestive issues to dry har+skin, lethargy and red swollen knuckles. I was tested for Celiac and it came back negative, however after switching to the Primal way of eating 7 years ago I’ve avoided gluten and feel 100% better. When at a restaurant I tell them that I’m Celiac to avoid exposure. I haven’t been to Europe in at least a decade, but the last time I was there (traveling through Spain) I didn’t have any of the systems mentioned above.

    My wife and I are thinking of taking a trip to Iceland this coming spring and Italy next fall. I may roll the dice while I’m there and see how I react.

  5. I concur on the wheat/bread situation abroad. When I’m in Switzerland visiting the wifes family, eating the beautiful loaves with some good local cheese never affects me in the least. Chapati in India, no problems. Here in the states the bread kills me with bloating and lethargy.

    I always look for eating establishments that are packed with locals. I do a lot of pointing to nearby plates of fine looking food, if the language barrier is difficult.

    Thumbs up to crickets in Mexico, sea urchin soup in Chile, rabbit in Greece and monkey arm in Ecuador. Snails in France…you betcha.

  6. Great article. One note, though: pita bread is traditionally leavened with yeast and is therefore, as I understand it, a fermented bread. The places you mentioned still rely heavily on traditional yeast/fermentation-based methods of bread baking, unlike the United States, which mostly relies on chemical leaveners like baking powder. That could be another factor in your increased ability to tolerate grain products in these European countries.

  7. When traveling abroad I try to eat a meal prior to boarding the plane. And I like to pack healthy snacks as well. Staying hydrated on long flights always helps. Once I arrive at my destination I try to locate a few healthier options for meals.

    1. We essentially fasted on a flight to southeast Asia about 2.5 years ago (before I found MDA). we were both amazed that the 12 hour time change was hardly noticeable. Totally agree with staying hydrated on long flights.!!

  8. Now I have the problem:
    I am supposed to not eat today for 24 hours. Now I read this post 🙁

  9. What a great article! Now I am ready to plan another trip somewhere…
    When I was newly primal, a few years back, we traveled to Mexico with a group of friends. My husband and I had access to the VIP room with “free” breakfast options but there was nothing I could really eat. At first, I panicked, how would I make it for at least 5 hours until my next possible meal? Then I remembered that fasting was good, so I did. It was my first realization that I was no longer sugar-addicted.
    At our all-inclusive, in a remote part of the Baja peninsula, I vowed to stay as primal as I could, given what I assumed would be the food options. This place was not a Sandals or a Club Med, by any stretch of the imagination. But it did have local foods cooked from scratch and it really was not hard for me to avoid the tortillas and beans and rice with all the fresh veggies and meats that were offered. In fact, short of the alcohol (no beer though), I was able to stay fairly strictly primal. And I felt awesome!
    And I loved Kauai for the same reasons stated above; the farm to table options were so numerous and a pleasant surprise after Maui. I always feel bad when I realize the crappy food that the SAD has foisted onto so many cultures. Are we reaching a point yet when other countries DON’T want to be like us Americans?

  10. Great post! Eating abroad solidifies the concept of turning back the clock in regards to food supply. The USA is unique in terms of industrialization of food and the problems that come with it. Diabetes was rare in Belarus before they started importing American wheat. In places like Croatia, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Bavaria, the towns still get their food supply from the local farms like they have since before air travel and the combustion engine. They don’t have to add sulfites to their wine unless they want to export their product to California. In respect to eat where locals eat, never do what they say watch what they do. I once followed an elderly gentleman in Erlangen, Germany. He seemed to know everyone in town as he was greeted by shopkeepers and passers-by. I was determined to eat where this guy eats. I asked, “Where is your favorite place to eat, Essen, Essen?” His finger popped up and a big smile appeared on his face and he said, “Das Vappah”. He motioned with his finder to follow him as he picked up the pace. We walked a few blocks and around a corner as I was anticipating something like veal schnitzel or something equally authentic. Much to my dismay, he took me to Burger King! The moral of this story is American junk food is invading all reaches of the planet and the locals see it as something new and more desirable than their historical diet.

  11. Correct about the kudo biltong in SA. In addition, the sea-going crayfish are as good as any lobster, and Karoo lamb match any fine steak.

  12. I’m all for learning but I would never eat a broad. Or a gent. Bugs yes, people no. Sorry, Mark, that’s where I draw the line with meat.

  13. Good stuff. My wife and I just returned from 10 days in Tuscany. I ate pasta almost every day (even made it from scratch one day – Pici in a pesto type mix), bruschetta every day before dinner, wine every day (sometimes lunch and dinner with wine tastings, etc.) You would think I would have swollen up like a tick and felt like garbage. However, almost everything we ate was local, including wine, cheese, olive oil, bread, etc. made or picked that day (the tomatoes were to delicious), we walked many miles every day in the fresh air and sunshine and like you say, ate very modest portions. We also ate outside many days and evenings which is a hugely pleasant experience. I never felt bad at all even though I do not behave like this at home in the States, and a few days after returning home, I checked the scale and weighed almost exactly what I did pre-vacation. And the Italians have 1/4 the obesity rate that the U.S. has. Yes, we can learn a lot from other countries.

  14. I love France, and have made it my destination my last two trips abroad (3 weeks each time). Every morning, the routine is pretty much the same…. go to the local Patisserie for a croissant (Breakfast) and coffee. Then comes assembling lunch.. a stop at the Boulangerie for a baguette, a stop at the cheese shop for the local specialties, and then to the Charcutier for some meat. and finally a bottle of the local wine. The only thing left is where do we stop along the side of the road to enjoy! Now I definitely do not eat this way at home…. in fact we never have any bread/sweets in the house and adhere to a ‘whole foods’ approach to eating. But needless to say, I never have felt any effects from changing things up while abroad. I find it interesting that Mark has not had issues with read while in Europe and it may well be due to the fact that they do not enrich their wheat as we do here in the US. Richard Nikoley of Free the Animal has a couple of very interesting posts on his site that explains many of the negative consequences of this enrichment (https://freetheanimal.com/2015/06/enrichment-theory-everything.html), (https://freetheanimal.com/2016/05/enrichment-promotes-everything.html).

  15. I just returned from a few months in Vietnam and while I was i there I ate noodles (something I eat once a week tops in US) pretty much daily. I thought I would gain weight but it didn’t happen and I felt great the whole time. Wholeheartedly agree that there’s something amiss with the US food supply. Thanks for writing this up, excellent insights.

  16. Over my 15 years working at DoD, I’ve traveled to 67 countries, some multiple times. My favorite food, when asked, is “sheep on a stick.” Shashlik is best with small cubes of lamb (or mutton) interspersed with cubes of tail fat. My advice when asked how not to get sick: “Burnt meat and beer are always safe.”

  17. So I live “abroad” (Ethiopia) and what’s amazing is the difference between the rural areas and the capital city. In the former, we get amazing fresh produce, spicy stews with lentils and split peas, the occasional chicken and goat right after slaughter – all eaten with injera (made with the fermented teff) and a gorgeous chili mix called berebere. In town, fast food joints are springing up everywhere, vats of soybean oil can be seen in restaurant kitchens, and there seems to be a growing fad for cream cakes. And sadly, there are still parts of the country suffering drought and food shortages. It’s a country that is going to have twin epidemics of malnutrition and obesity/diabetes, while it’ incredibly varied, healthy traditional diet is being squeezed out by aggressive marketing campaigns of processed food corporations.

    1. Advertising is a small part. You have to get the customer to come back. Flavorists are probably a bigger part of the problem. The thing is the industrial hoodlike substance manufactures try to make their product attractive. Attractive here has gone to the point of addiction.

      As a business you have to compete and if you restrain yourself in making your product attractive you lose out.

      By cheap and sell dear,
      Profits roll in all year.
      By dear and sell cheap
      End up on the rubbish heap.

  18. glad to be a Kiwi. It’s all grass fed beef and lamb, organic means something and the butter is delicious.

    1. Don’t forget the seafood. I spent 10 days living on feijoa, smoked kahawai and fresh pua sautéed in that local butter.

  19. Mark, not fair! Now I’m jonesing for some travelling as well as Kudu biltong! Cannot remember when last I had kudu!

  20. When I am in Europe I can eat wheat products and cheese with zero issues. When in the US, if i have just a bite (even if organic, raw, etc) I immediately break out in hives and eczema. I thought maybe it was in my head and I was justifying my love of European bread and cheese, but its great to hear it’s not just me!

  21. Problem with wheat in the US? Hello glysophate. Thanks Monsanto! It’s sprayed on wheat (and oats, barley, and other stuff) just before harvest to kill it and dry it out to make the harvest process more efficient. Stay away from this toxic man-made compound. Bad for the gut and will cross the blood brain barrier. Gluten sensitive and dementia anyone?

    1. I suspect that in many cases people who think they are gluten sensitive are probably reacting to the grain itself, not just the gluten. The stuff they spray it with, the way it’s stored, and the many chemicals and additives used by manufacturers… These things add up and none of them are good for the human body. In the case of US-grown dwarf wheat, it can likely causes problems just being what it is.

  22. Thank you for very nice article Mark.

    Let me share a view from the other side – European travelling to US. I live in central Europe. In 2002 I spent 3 and half months in Yosemite national park on work and travel student program (gorgeous place by the way).
    Right after landing in US we hit some grocery store with my friend just to buy something to keep us going during the long bus trip to the park. I remember buying some crackers and a bag of regular toast bread. The crackers turned out to be the sweeting thing I ever ate till that time and I may have not even finished them. And when trying the bread I was shocked that it tasted sweet as well. I mean sweet bread, wth? During the rest of my stay in US I found out that many food that was not sweet in Europe was sweet there and sweet food was usually too sweet to my taste.
    This was really shocking and the major difference between European and US food at that time.
    And it was not just food but also beverages – for example I worked as a cashier in grocery store and many people were buying these energy packed sport drinks of various colors (drink name usually ending with ‘*rade’). Mostly people who definitely did not look like an athlete needing to get some extra carbs.

    I haven’t been to US since that time but I would like to believe that the situation improved since then.

    Thanks to Primal Blueprint I am thriving on primal “diet” for more that 3 years now.
    When I travel on business across Europe (Germany, UK, Sweden, Hungary) I always try to taste local cousine (and beer). Preferably visiting restaurants with locals – they know good places to visit.

    1. Hey you have to eat one plate lunch, if you can handle it, and follow it by a 24 hour fast.

      “Local boys don’t eat until full;
      Local boys eat until tired.”

      But, of curse, Hawaii is part of the US, to which that restriction should be extended.

  23. I have wondered about breads but perhaps a different thought. I can eat Pita here. I can eat crackers. I can eat sprouted wheat bread with no additives. Cannot eat pizza, buns, pasta, other bread. Someone suggested it may be higher gluten-additional gluten added? Is it dough conditioners or other stuff in bread? I heard that french bread can only have flour, salt, yeast, water. Interesting puzzle.

  24. Bonjour from the Eurovelo 6 in France where I am in the midst of a 3 month cycling trip. Don’t forget that the croissants here are made with lots of delicious local butter…so I may be eating wheat but I am also getting some of my daily healthy fat quotient!

  25. I live in Europe. Believe me the bread sold in the supermarkets are just as bad as in the US. They also grow the short wheat grains on a massive scale. We have to go to health food shops if we want the alternative grains like Teff, Spelt, etc and bake my own bread..

    Mark, I travel a lot and my motto is look for eateries that are full of locals and order what they order. That will give me confidence that I am eating something freshly made. If they poison the locals they will be out of business pretty quick.

  26. Agreed whole heartedly. I think the wheat problem in the US is because of fortified wheat, not because of dwarf wheat vs something else. As for biltong, a S. African expat in Jersey sells great biltong here (grass fed beef options available) as well as… venison biltong. I think it is even better than kudu or springbok biltong. Just saying.

    I travel every week for work and find myself fasting for much of my travel. As a type 1 diabetic, I can’t really eat restaurant food for the most part, as so many sugars are snuck into sauces, dressings, etc without us knowing it. Until I check my blood sugar after eating a salad.

  27. Great Article – and practical tips on the jet lag. Thanks Mark!

  28. Recently honeymooned in Thailad, and I completely agree that all of the foods I have reactions to here in NY I had 0 to very little reaction to over there. Even though I did not eat fully primally (it was a planned and accepted indulgence to eat as much fresh fruit as possible, some noodles and dumplings, and sticky rice though I had as many fresh eggs, meat, vegetables, and fermented food as I could as well) I didn’t gain nearly as much as i expected and digested well. Could have been the constant walking too…

  29. I haven’t been to the US, but everyone I know who has comments on the excessive sweetness of everything and the enormous portion sizes. Unfortunately the huge portion sizes seem to be becoming more of a thing in restaurants here in South Africa too (I think as an excuse to hike prices maybe) I often feel like I’m being served a meal for two on a huge serving platter instead of a reasonable portion on a normal sized plate. Not that I can complain too much, we’re pretty spoiled here for good restaurant food at good prices, which is another comment I’ve heard from travellers to the US – that good food is available, but helluva pricey (the exchange rate might be a factor here) and that the junk food is just so much cheaper.

    As for biltong – kudu is too dry for my tastes, I prefer good old fashioned beef, and none of that pre-sliced, pre-packaged nonsense, which is usually dry and flavourless. The best way is to go into the shop, pick your own chunk of beef off the rack (preferably “wet” ie: not dried all the way through, so the centre is still moist and pinkish, akin to a medium steak, and a bit fatty) and then have the assistant cut it to whatever your preferred thickness is (I like chunks but the husband likes thin slices).

  30. I live in Berlin and if I was to eat like a local, I’d be eating sausages, bakery goods, potato salad/pommes (fries) and kebabs and drinking lots of beer and apfelschorle (sparkling apple juice)-and I’d still be thin! I’m always envious of this!

    It can be really hard to find grain free food from fast food places (unless you go for kebab meat and salad) but produce is usually pretty good (if not as abundant as my native Australia) and supermarkets have a good supply of gluten free if that’s your thing. We even have a keto restaurant!

    I was in New York last week and as i’m a poor freelance journo i stayed in a airbnb in Brooklyn for a few days before an event. Around where i was staying the supermarket was a 30 minutes bus trip away and no food outlets nearby had seating so everyone eats standing up outside. I went to a shopping centre and was no fresh food sold, someting i find strange-shopping malls here and in Australia always have a grocer, butcher and at least one supermarket.

  31. My American niece has been saying the same thing every time she comes back home. Italy, Spain eating bread without feeling bad, the second she is back in US, it’s doctor’s visit after visit.
    I also live in U.K. and notice the bread difference between here and France. Of course French bakers are under legal obligation not to add any nasties to their products!

    Nice to hear confirmation of the US wheat being different. This makes sense now! Thank you