This week we’re going to take a break from dissecting how to visit Japan’s offbeat tourist destinations. Instead I want to shed some light on a topic I get asked every now and then by both friends in Japan and tourists alike. How the hell do you manage to maintain a ketogenic diet in a country known for servicing rice with every meal?
Before going any further, let me define the ketogenic diet for those who aren’t in the know. Essentially, the body uses ketones derived from fat instead of glucose for energy. It is a way of eating that mimics fasting physiology. The diet requires that over 80% of calories come from dietary fat making it a challenge in carb-rich Japan.
Since 2016 I’ve experimented a lot with both ketosis and fasting. I have found the former to actually be pretty workable in Japan if you plan in advance. You’ll need to pass on all sorts of delectables but a ketogenic diet is actually pretty easy if you know what to look for. To help, I’ve put together the following five tips to ensure you don’t need to cheat while enjoying Japan.
Tip #1: MCT Oil
The biggest challenge you will encounter is meeting your dietary fat requirements. This is hard enough at home while on a ketogenic diet but the challenges of travel make it even more difficult. Luckily, proper precautions allow one to maintain the diet wherever they go.
To simplify things, stock up on a bottle of MCT oil before leaving home. I’m a big fan of bulletproof coffee so my go-to brand is Dave Asprey’s Brain Octane. That said, readers can use whatever brand they like. While it is possible to get MCT Oil in Japan it tends to be much more expensive than it is abroad.
While traveling throughout Japan you’re going to want to bring the bottle with you wherever you go. So long as you have the MCT oil, all you’ll need to focus on is protein and vegetable consumption. Then to meet your fat requirements, supplement as needed. Most restaurants have a salad or something so whip that bad boy out and douse your greens!
Tip #2: Macadamias Nuts
Macadamia nuts are a godsend for those trying to maintain a ketogenic diet on the go. They are calorically dense and also comprised mainly of fat. Because of this, a mere handful goes a long way. Last time I looked it up 10–12 kernels totaled more than 200 calories! This means that you can pack light while still having the energy you need. After all, most of the best spots in Japan are at the top of a ton of stairs and you don’t want to be lugging a heavy bag.
Unfortunately for those traveling on a budget, macadamia nuts aren’t cheap. The best buy I have found is a package from the upscale supermarket Seijo Ishii. These cost about 1,500 yen after tax and should last 3–4 meals. Some convenience stores may also be able to help you out here but expect to pay a premium.
Tip #3: Natural Lawsons
When I tell people abroad that I eat food from convenience stores, I get some weird looks. I mean c’mon, who knows how long those hot dogs have been on the grill at any American 7-Eleven! Thankfully, this isn’t the case in Japan. While you can get a healthy meal at any convenience store, Natural Lawsons is king here.
For those on a ketogenic diet, look for their bacon, hard boiled eggs and canned sardines and/or shellfish. Natural Lawson also has ready-to-eat chicken breasts that are a good choice as well. Just be sure to balance their high protein count out with more fat somewhere else!
Tip #4: Eating Out in Japan
Japan has an AMAZING food culture and luckily being on a ketogenic diet does not mean you miss out on the fun. While you’ll need to make choices like sashimi over sushi, it’s entirely doable. Just make sure so long as the rest of your group understands your restrictions. If you need to recommend an alternative, some of my keto-friendly favorites are yakitori and yakiniku.
When it comes to fast food you’ll unfortunately need to pass on having late night ramen with your friends. Opt instead for “beef bowl” chains like Matsuya or Yoshinoya. They almost always offer their signature dish as a side without rice. Combined with MCT Oil, this can save you from the alternative of a potential carb binge.
Tip #5: Drinking on Keto
No discussion about eating habits in Japan would be complete without mentioning alcohol. It’s everywhere and can be hard to avoid if you’re adverse to the idea of drinking. I’ve written about Japan’s drinking culture before but suffice to say, the Japanese love their booze. Many even get hammered daily after work for quasi-mandatory socializing with coworkers!
Those who are on a ketogenic diet likely already know how to drink without dropping out of “fat burning mode.” As a reminder though, try to stick to hard liquors and avoid anything that might have hidden carbs. While not unique to Japan the real thing you need to be weary of is not pigging out on carbs once you’re 4–5 drinks in!
In spite of the above, there’s a very strong argument for ditching the diet while in Japan. The country is LEGENDARY for its awesome food but it’s not conducive to ketosis. Furthermore, even with the above tips in mind, there’s a good chance you might slip out of ketosis anyway. To me this means it’s better to enjoy yourself and then get back on the bandwagon later.
If you must maintain a ketogenic diet in Japan, remember that temporary fasting is always preferable to more carbs. Your body will already be running on ketones so you should be able to keep up energy levels in the absence of food. Look to intermittent fasting as a way to only eat when the right foods are available. Personally, I’ve found some success in dropping to only one meal per day but your results may vary.
Until next time travelers…