Looking up across the table, I could see utensils paused halfway between plates and mouths as their holders stared at me, jaws agape. I was home in America for the holidays and I could tell that I had yet again hit the edge of our shared understanding of the world. “Yeah,” I repeated myself, “in just around four months I’ve dropped over 10 kg (22 lbs) while primarily eating only meat and veggies bought at 7-Eleven.” A piece of broccoli fell from a fork with a soft thud. Truth be told, it was a bit of a lie. After all, Family Mart and the other Japanese convenience stores also played a supporting role too.
Today’s article is going to be a little different! Rather than detail some off the beaten path destination, I want to take a step back and document how I’ve been able to drop a huge amount of weight in a relatively short time frame. While not exactly Japan specific per say, it is my hope that readers will walk away with the knowledge that it is indeed very possible to eat healthy at any of the country’s ubiquitous convenience stores. Without further ado, allow me to to delve into how I managed to turn my diet and life around.
Flashback to August 2017… I was both overweight and out of shape. I had been showing my mother around the likes of Kanazawa and Chikubushima when the two week bender ultimately took its toll. I was fatter than I had been in a very long time and something needed to change. Prior to that catastrophic family time, I had been trying to maintain a ketogenic diet. But darn, that diet was difficult for me to maintain in the land of white rice. I needed something with better compliance. It was then that I dusted off my copy of Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Body and rediscovered biohacking.
The Rules of the Slow Carb Diet
If you haven’t heard of the Slow Carb Diet before, know that it is fundamentally different from a low carb diet. While the diet removes any and all white carbohydrates, it supplements the caloric deficit with legumes. This helps to avoid the terrible sensation of “bonking” (running out of energy) that is common with most other low carbohydrate meal plans. Simplistic in its brilliance, the Slow Carb Diet has only a handful of rules that need to be followed. Taken from Tim’s blog, these are as follows:
Rule #1: Avoid “white” starchy carbohydrates (or those that can be white). This means all bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, and grains. If you have to ask, don’t eat it.
Rule #2: Eat the same few meals over and over again, especially for breakfast and lunch. You already do this; you’re just picking new default meals.
Rule #3: Don’t drink calories. Exception: 1–2 glasses of dry red wine per night is allowed.
Rule #4: Don’t eat fruit. (Fructose –> glycerol phosphate –> more body fat, more or less.) Avocado and tomatoes are excepted.
Rule #5: Take one day off per week and go nuts. I choose and recommend Saturday.
If you’re interested in learning more, see this write up about the Slow Carb Diet by Erin Frey. It covers everything you’ll need to know.
Despite what you might think, the Slow Carb Diet is actually surprisingly easy to maintain in Japan despite the prevalence of white rice. Sure, you’ll need to be picky about your meals to remain compliant but you can easily concoct a healthy meal at any of Japan’s convenience stores. These days, all major chains like 7-Eleven and Family Mart carry both premade salads as well as ready to eat chicken breasts and hard boiled eggs. Once you know what to look for, it really couldn’t be easier!
The only challenge about sticking to the diet will be finding beans. The best option is to purchase multiple cans at once from a supermarket like Niku-no-Hanamasa but this isn’t always an option. Luckily though, many convenience stores carry some sort of Japanese black soybeans that do the job in a pinch. For the dudes out there, just know that these are far from ideal as soy can spike estrogen in men.
Can’t find any beans? Don’t worry; just double up on your protein serving to ensure you get sufficient calories! This is my go to move whenever I am eating out with friends. Even if you have to pay a bit more to order an extra appetizer, just consider it your healthy lifestyle tax.
Slow Carb Diet Cheat Days
Perhaps the best things about the Slow Carb Diet is the mandatory dieters-gone-wild cheat day. Usually reserved for Saturdays, this weekly bingefest is a godsend after eating nothing but protein and beans all week. Affectionately called “Faturday” by many practitioners, this no holds barred window actually encourages dieters to gorge themselves. Personally, I try to time my cheat days with periods of travel so that I sample all of the delicious meibutsu while still maintaining the diet.
One of the counterintuitive things about these Faturday is that you can actually lose weight by systematically overeating. By planning and scheduling the normal cheating that ALWAYS occurs on any diet, you can engineer compliance for the other days of the week. Rather than deny vices (which only leads to cravings), the Slow Carb Diet instead limits these to a single day. This makes it much easier to resist temptation. What’s more, evidence shows that the obligatory overeating ensures that metabolisms don’t downshift from continued caloric restriction.
Interestingly enough, the idea of relegating sin to a specific time and place also has a strong parallel in Japanese history. During the Edo period (1603–1868), the Tokugawa shogunate cracked down heavily on prostitution. Nevertheless, they were wise to the fact that outright prohibiting prostitution would just drive it underground. Instead, they opted to concentrate all the brothels into a select few areas such as Yoshiwara. Outside of these seedy zones, samurai were expected to be paragons of virtue. But inside? That was a different story…
Raising the Slow Carb Diet Stakes
If you could summarize the last few decades of behavioral psychology into a few words it would be this: willpower fails. Let’s face it, even the most committed individuals out there break promises to themselves with embarrassing regularity. Luckily though, human beings are primed for loss aversion and this can be leveraged to engineer compliance. If you really want to up the ante here, sign up for a service like Stickk. This will automatically wire money to the anti-charity of your choice should you fail to meet a weekly goal. Now that’s motivational!
In my case, I began by first creating a private Instagram account and gave the password to a friend with the instructions to make it public if I should not meet my goal. Then, every week on my weigh in days, I took as naked of a picture of myself as I could without it being pornographic and uploaded it to the account. The implications here should be obvious. If I didn’t want the world to see my appalling “before” shots, then I would need to haul my lazy ass to the gym EVERY SINGLE DAY.
In addition to Instagram, I also made a USD 2,000 bet with another friend. We decided to use the aforementioned Stickk to lock in the agreement into place (once you make a commitment on the platform, there’s no getting out of it). I set a lofty but also manageable goal for myself such that if I just stuck to the plan a mere 80 percent of the time, there would be no issues in meeting my weekly quota. After all, life happens and overly aggressive goals can easily lead to abandonment.
Working Out on the Slow Carb Diet
They say that abs are made in the kitchen and not in the gym. While this is definitely true, no good weight loss program is complete without an exercise component. I chose to opt for the Occam’s Protocol set of lifts as outlined in Tim Ferriss’s book the Four Hour Body. This small but effective set of compound lifts is based on a consolidated routine used by the late heavyweight Mr. Olympia, Mike Mentzer.
The exercises are separated into two alternating workouts whereby each is performed for just one set. The object here, is to fail utterly and completely. While excruciatingly challenging would be an understatement, Occam’s Protocol will get you in and out of the gym in no time (great for when in a rush or when traveling by the way).
Rather than go into more detail about the workout plan, I’ll instead recommend you read Ferriss’ work. In typical Ferris fashion, he has done an exhaustive examination of any and all potential questions and can explain the intricacies far better than I.
That said, one thing I did add to Occam’s Protocol was a number of cardio days. Personal testing has shown that due to my roots as a distance athlete, I need these extra sessions to burn fat. Thus, my final workout scheduled ended up as follows. I’ll include links to all exercises for those who are not so well versed in the gym.
Tuesday: HIIT or Cardio
Wednesday: Squats, Bench Press, 40 Minutes of Cardio
Thursday: HIIT or Cardio
Saturday: Faturday GLUT-4 Trigger Calisthenics (see the 4HB)
Sunday: Flexibility & Mobility Work
Following the above workout plan, I’ve been able to DOUBLE my lifts in under half a year while also dropping over 10 kg. The results, as you might imagine, are far from subtle. Truth be told, I could probably do away with the cardio by reducing my total caloric intake but I prefer to sweat rather than go hungry. Furthermore, I write a lot of these articles during my Zen time on the stationary bike (which likely explains my many typos)…
The Slow Carb Diet & Going Sober
The final change I made was probably the most difficult for me and my social life. Despite the prevalence of booze in all elements of life here, I decided to embrace being a teetotaler in Japan. Technically the Slow Carb Diet allows for 1–2 glasses on wine per day plus whatever you want on cheat days. Still, I decided to completely abstain from drinking. The reason? While alcohol on its own may be fine, I was consuming tons of unnecessary carbs like onigiri or convenience store sandwiches after a night out in a vain attempt to sober up.
Some of you may ask why I didn’t just reduce the amount I was drinking. Truth be told, it is far easier to outright not consume alcohol in Japan. Though the Japanese will deny it, alcoholism runs rampant here and it is common for many to imbibe every day. Everywhere you look, there are constant reminders to crack open a cold one. What’s more, it’s culturally very insensitive to refuse another drink unless you’re obviously plastered.
Ending Thoughts on the Slow Carb Diet
In closing, know that Japan is something of a mecca for foodies. Tokyo alone has more Michelin starred restaurants than just about any other place on the planet. While I would never encourage anyone to miss out on the deliciously awesome food in Japan, it is my hope that this mishmashed rant will help the health conscious traveler to find a wholesome meal while on the road.
Eating healthy on the run in Japan is actually harder than you might think. Many people mistakenly assume that Japanese food is always super healthy. In attempt to revise that belief, I’d like to introduce you to my good friend Katsu-don. While there are certainly options for those looking to drop some weight, the prevalence of white rice usually does a number on those reared on western diets.
Still, traveling in Japan need not necessitate compromising your diet. The country does an amazing job at providing easy-to-consume alternatives and many of these are are available at the ubiquitous convenience stores. When in doubt of what to eat, just look for that iconic 7-Eleven sign!
Until next time travelers…