How do you react to a lack of control of your diet?

May 14, 2009

Yesterday there was no blog post because I got sick. Again. I was bedridden the entire day and it felt really awful. I think I’ll be holding off from eating too much unusual food for a while!

While I was lying in bed all sickly and exhausted, I was thinking about how little control we have over the health of our diets when we travel. Particularly in a place where we cannot read any of the labels. The language here uses characters rather than the alphabet we’re all used to, so I’m completely lost when it comes to reading the labels on anything in the grocery store. One thing that I have been eating regularly here is yogurt. It’s plain yogurt and that’s the extent of my knowledge of it. I have no idea what kind of ingredients are in there, but I do know that it has a decent amount of fat in it because it tastes delicious and doesn’t need anything added to it to make it taste really good! I also have noticed the number “130” among the characters, so I’m assuming that that’s how many calories are in the single-serving portion. But the rest is all guess-work. For someone who is as enthusiastic about reading ingredients lists and nutrition labels as I am, it can be a bit frustrating.

Because my dad has a gas-powered stove which he doesn’t much enjoy using, and because there’s just him living here, and because the ants in the kitchen are terrible (if anything is left on the counter, the ants appear within minutes), he tends to eat out every day. I love eating out so I don’t mind that at all! However, this also means that I have even less control over knowing what’s going into my mouth. It’s hard enough to make an educated guess of the food in the grocery store, but it’s even trickier to judge how healthy a food is at a restaurant. Besides that, eating at restaurants means that I don’t know how the food is prepared. My mother dear (she arrived just this past week to join us in Phnom Penh) thinks that the reason I’ve gotten sick was because my food was contaminated from being in contact with raw food at the restaurant. So even that is out of my control.

The difficulty is even more increased when it comes to asking for substitutions. When you don’t speak a word of the language of your server, and they speak only a handful of words of your language, you really can’t start asking for the sauce on the side or to have a side of steamed vegetables in place of French fries etc. I admit, I did try it once: the bread that they serve here is very thin slices of white bread, and I asked for multigrain. I got a similarly confused look when I asked for poached eggs. Needless to say, I settled for white bread and scrambled eggs that morning (which was still very tasty).

Tap water is something else which we have to be really careful about here. Bottled water is the only kind we can drink because our immune systems can’t handle the tap water. I’m really surprised I’ve become sick twice while living here, because I’ve always thought of my immune system as being quite strong. But it’s got nothing on the immune systems of the locals. The fried insects sit out in the sun all day and the raw meat at the market is crawling with flies; kids play in the dirt and garbage alongside the river and even go swimming in the river, but they all appear to be in fine health. I grew up surrounded by animals and playing outside all the time, but being here makes me feel as though I’ve lived in a little safety bubble my whole life.

I’m really glad with how I have been handling the situation of control while living here. There have been times in the past when I’ve freaked out about not having enough control over my food back in Winnipeg, but I have not freaked out even once since arriving here! A real accomplishment. But it makes me wonder, is the reason for that just because the control is so far beyond my reach that it has reached the point where it simply doesn’t matter anymore? In Canada, I know the language and I can read the labels so perhaps that understanding then leads me to try to get even more control. Here in Cambodia, I don’t know the language and can’t communicate the specifics of what I want, so perhaps the extreme of my total lack of understanding is what makes me shrug my shoulders and just roll with it.

What do you think? When you have more ability to control the situation, do you become more of a control-freak? Do you start to relax more when you can’t control it quite as much? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!


  1. I think it’s a classic case of controlling the controllable and not fretting about the uncontrollable. And that is a sign of good mental health!

  2. ah, you poor thing! I hope you feel better soon. Reminds me of when I used to go to India when I was young, always got sick. Argh!

    I am not too controlling about what I eat to be honest. I try my darnedest to stay away from processed foods, but anything other than that is fair game to me!

  3. I definitely struggled with letting someone else decide my eating choices while abroad. Eating with my host family was wonderful, I was able to try local favorites and bond with them, but it always meant that I had to let them choose what my breakfast, lunch, dinner, was going to be. Sometimes it was frustrating when I really didn’t want something (again) or I knew how unhealthy it was when they were convinced it wasn’t but then I realized how “bratty” that made me seem. Here I was, being invited into someone’s home, sharing in their mealtime ritual and I was complaining, even if it were only my head I knew that wasn’t the person I wanted to be. So I stopped freaking out over my lack of control. The truth is, even with pre-determined choices I was still allowed to choose how much of each item I wanted to eat and I realized that as long as I was active there were room for treats and splurges. Otherwise, the world has got me convinced that they understand healthy eating at a far higher decibel than us North Americans.

    Hope you’re feeling better soon 🙂

  4. This can be a challenge. I have done a lot of traveling. I have to say that I have always found a way to eat healthy if I wanted to. I have declined foods, and have even asked if I could look in the kitchen and find something else. If you present your needs politely and kindly, it can work. I was wondering, have wars started this way 🙂

  5. Don’t knock your immune system! It’s all relative. They would probably get sick a lot at first if they moved to Canada. You have all my sympathy though – i remember spending two weeks in Germany completely knocked out & feeling the worst I have ever felt in my life. Nothing sucks more than being sick, than being sick in a foreign country! I’m glad your parents are there to help you out. I bet it will get better soon! (((hugs)))

  6. PS So sorry you are not feeling well! I know you will get through it, and in time your memories of the trip will be about all the good stuff!

  7. Food allergies? No, I don’t feel like a control freak, just very very careful.
    Your immune system can’t handle stuff it’s never met before; it’s trying its best.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  8. Awww poor you. I feel the more control I have the worse I eat. When I was traveling in SE Asia with no control, I seemed to manage a lot better, go figure!

    What helps for me when I’m traveling and suffering from the sickness is to stop eating for at least 24hrs, drinking plenty of fluids and if you can get some charcoal tabs or pepto bismol type stuff.

    Good luck, I’m sure you’ll be over it soon and back out there enjoying the sun and the sights.

  9. […] Read more from the original source: How do you react to a lack of control of your diet? « Living … […]

  10. I so sorry you’re havign all these sick-days Sagan! I hope you get used to the new-ish environment quickly and are done with the health issues!
    I’m a control-freak, especially with my diet! I literally carry so much food with me when I travel! I ALWAYS have a bag of All-Bran in my purse, as well as hard-boiled eggs, tuna cans and some sort of fruit. I just don’t like depending on fiding food in restaurants that I’ll feel right about eating. It’s stressful for me not to know if I’ll find food that will please my crazy standards!
    Hahaha I’m sounding extremely inflexible, I swear I’m otherwise lovely!

  11. I absolutely control more when I have the option to. When I’m on vacation or in a new place and I don’t have control – I can go with the flow. When I’m at home I HAVE to do everything exactly how I want it. It’s very strange, but good to know that other people experience this too.

    I’m working on a guest post if you still want them!

  12. Sorry to hear you are sick again. Unfortunately our immune systems don’t stand a chance in less developed countries so I wouldn’t worry about the state of yours. I’ve noticed since trying to be healthier this year, that I have gotten uncomfortable when say the only option was white bread instead of wholemeal and to be honest, I hated the feeling. I guess on the grand scheme of things it’s more important to enjoy life than worry about whether the food presented is up to my usual standards. So I’d enjoy the deep fried bugs cause it’s probably a once in a lifetime opportunity! BTW have you tried any of them yet??

  13. oh no! i hope you are feeling better soon!! i have never done such a trip while being more healthy-conscious, so I can only imagine the difficulty! best to listen to your body I guess!

  14. Hanlie- you put it so well!

    Rupal & ttfn300- am feeling better now, hopefully for good 🙂

    Danielle- I know exactly what you mean. There’s that line between wanting to be healthy and just seeming bratty and ungrateful, isn’t there?

    Dr. J- oh I’m sure they have, ha.

    Charlotte- thanks! And I hope that you haven’t been too sick lately with the little one on the way.

    Mary Anne- ooh yes, you’ve gotta be REALLY careful with those allergies.

    Berni- pepto bismol is a God-send.

    Marta & Maggie- ahaha you both sound so much like me!

    Spring Girl- not yet, I wanted to wait until my immune system was built up a little better. But I really do want to try them before I leave!

  15. Oh, poor you! I’m sorry to hear you are sick again – hope you’re better soon. At least mom is there now (we all want our mom’s when we’re sick, don’t we?).

    My only issue with control over my food is whether the kitchen it is prepared in is clean. But then, when you are traveling, you can’t know for sure.

  16. Sagan – Get well soon, sorry you’re having such bad luck with the food there. I HATE being sick, especially when traveling so I just throw the control out the window when sick and want to feel better asap… 🙂

  17. such an interesting post and question.
    I lived in the third world for 5 months, didnt speak the language, & ate ANYTHING pretty much (what I didnt eat was 100% fear of getting sick and not any other reason).

    Im with the bag lady on the control issue (is this place clean?) and realized DAILY there that I had to let go 🙂
    and got so sick as well.


  18. Wow, I would HOPE I could get to the place you have and learn to just accept that things are different, but I’m afraid I’d probably be in major freak out mode!

    Sounds like you’re making the best of a really challenging situation. Thanks for sharing the fascinating details–makes me realize how little I knew about Cambodian life.

  19. So sorry to hear you haven;t been feeling well! HUGE accomplishment on letting things go while you are over there (for the most past). I would be having a difficult time, I am sure. Hope you are back to feeling 100% soon!

  20. Eating out is a blast, but I used to get so uncomfortable. When I’m at home I can make whatever I want–yea, it may be a salad but its exotic and tastey and healthy. I really don’t like going out and having to order a house salad (so boring) but sometimes there’s just no other option. Now, I let myself order what I want, and I’ve found that I still go with the healthier option because it feels better. I just don’t eat it all if it is higher in calories (doggie bag it) or I share it with the table…it makes eating social, which is ten times more enjoyable.

  21. Wow what a really eye opening post. Great article! 😀

  22. […] Sagan wants to know how you feel when you don’t have control over your diet […]

  23. an $80 UV pen will eliminate that need for bottled water!

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