Craving Sugar in the Wilderness

I enjoyed my wilderness diet profusely and could feel its positive impact on my overall wellbeing quickly. Yet there was this one food related thing that kept defeating me both physically and mentally from the start to an end – sugar cravings.

Photo: White Rabbit Candy - Traditional Chinese New Year Sweets
Photo: White Rabbit Candy - Traditional Chinese New Year Sweets

I craved sugar in the wilderness more than anything and was dying to have something sweet in my mouth often. Prunes and almond butter did satisfy this craving, but being domino foods, I found it incredibly difficult to stick with proper rationing. I only had limited supply of both and knew I couldn’t have more than one prune and one spoon of almond butter after each meal if I were to avoid running out prematurely. I could not do it.

Domino foods are very treacherous. You start with one, and must have another. The sensation they leave in your mouth makes you want to continue and that power can trick you into breaking any pact you made with yourself. As a result, I unintentionally depleted my valuable sweet tooth resources long before completion of my three months long withdrawal. It taught me how desperately addicted to sweets I was.

After 3 month in the wilderness, and knowing I wanted to do this again for at least a year, I realized that my biggest challenge of all will be to overcome craving for sweets. I would never in a thousand years fathom sweets as a possible holdback. If you asked me prior to my three months in the wilderness what I thought were gonna be the toughest challenges to overcome, sweets would have never even appeared on that list if I’d made it a hundred points long.

Now that I look back at my hermit experience, I’m surprised to realize that none of what common sense would dictate as the most probable causes of concern, such as solitude, deprivation, harshness of the environment, or similar were able to defeat me. At the end of the day, it was the most unlikely thing I would never give a second thought to that did me in.

Out in the civilized world, you’re never too far away from a vending machine or a place selling Snickers bars, or cookies, or carbonated beverages, or ice cream, or cheese cakes. With all these goodies available on every corner, satisfying sugar cravings takes zero effort so one doesn’t even realize how deeply addicted to sugary things we get.

It takes complete withdrawal with no chance of getting an easy sugar fix to realize the extent of this addiction. I learned it the hard way and found three month not long enough to have the sugar cravings overcome. As of right not, sugar cravings remain the most difficult to admit and find a solution to holdback I’ll be faced with on my upcoming long term wilderness experience.

Food Procurement in the Wilderness

When stranded in the wilderness, the most prominent concern of an unintentional survivalist is “what will I eat?” The fear of starving to death irrationally takes over from more rational fears. While each survival situation is different, truth be told – starvation is one of the least severe threats to a person in the wild.

Photo: Procurement of Food is One of the Least Pressing Needs for a Survivalist in the Wild
Photo: Procurement of Food is One of the Least Pressing Needs for a Survivalist in the Wild

As the rule of threes would have it – you can die in three minutes without oxygen or when bleeding profusely (making the need to treat injuries the #1 priority), you can die in 3 hours from exposure to elements (making the need to have shelter and fire the #2 priority, though this priority changes from situation to situation), you can die in 3 days from dehydration (making the need to find source of drinkable water your #3 priority, though this also changes from one environment to another), but it takes more than 3 weeks to die from starvation (making procurement of food one of the least pressing needs in a survival situation).

The rule of threes is well known to the survivalists, medical professionals and other people in the know, yet even though it makes the procurement of food look like a waste of energy when more urgent needs put one’s life at stake, it’s important to realize that even though starvation takes while to kill you, it will leave you weak both physically and mentally and weakened body and mind won’t keep a person alive for very long. Especially not when they’re on their own devices, with little chance of help from the outside sources.

Still, it’s necessary to realize that unlike water (unless you’re in a desert), procurement of enough food to keep you going in the wilderness is an ongoing struggle which requires a great deal of time and energy and needs to be repeated day after day. Water sources, on the other hand, are much easier to find, they do not try to flee from you and once a plentiful source is found, your hydration problem is solved, and it is solved indefinitely.

As an important note, I would only briefly mention that if you’re stranded in the wilderness involuntarily, signaling should be one of your top priorities and should be on your radar long before you even start thinking about procurement of food or water. Unless, of course, you do not want to be found – kind of like when I went into the wild.

My withdrawal into the wilderness was not meant to be a test of my wilderness survivalism skills, even though any stay in the wilderness IS, ultimately, a test of wilderness survivalism skills. Still, I went into the wild to seek answers to deeper questions, to reattach my connection with Mother Nature and to enjoy company of celestial beings, whose company can only be enjoyed in absence of men.

What I Ate in the Wilderness

Since I had a car at my disposal, I stocked up on food before disappearing from the civilized world. Freshly caught fish was to be my source of animal protein, but I brought with me a supply of dried organic pinto beans to use as main accompaniment with the fish. Aside from being very nutritious, beans are loaded with fiber and slowly absorbing carbohydrates so I’d never lack energy and wouldn’t feel hungry. I used beans the same way you’d use rice. I didn’t have salt or any other spices or seasoning, yet I found the taste of beans boiled in nothing but pure water as delicious as ever.

I also packed in a large bag of organic garlic, which lasted for almost whole three months. Garlic is packed with vitamins and contains compounds known for their antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. To satisfy my spicy tooth, a sack of Thai hot peppers was an absolute must have, unfortunately my spicy tooth made me go through them way too quickly leaving the resource depleted shortly after first month.

Another amazing survival food I took with me was organic almond butter. I packed in 5 large jars yet even though I originally thought I was being ridiculous taking so much of it, I went through all of it in less than two month. I started with two spoonfuls three times a day – after each meal – but after one whole jar went empty on me shortly after one week, I restricted the intake to one spoon after each meal. Still, I spent all almond butter long before whole three months were over. There is a lot of goodness and a pile of energy in every single spoonful of almond butter. I strongly recommend it to help with survival when one doesn’t have to carry their food in a backpack with them.

To further help keep myself healthy, I also packed in a huge bag of dried organic prunes (or dried plums, as word prune implies it’s a dried fruit already). This antioxidants rich preserved fruit makes for an amazing desert after meals. Problem with delicious goodness of prunes (which is the same with almond butter) is that they are so tasty, you can’t have just one. I had enough prunes to last me three months if I only stuck with one after each meal. I could not do that.

As a backup in case of emergency, I also brought with me dozens of granola and protein bars. I ate half of them in the first week and a half of my stay. The initial week was the most difficult time when junk food and sweets withdrawals kept me in a state of vicious torment. Diet composed of freshly caught fish, organic beans and garlic however made dealing with withdrawals easier and soon I found myself feeling so internally clean, a mere thought of junk food made me feel sick.

Positive Change in Diet

Cold turkey change in diet left a very positive impact very quickly. I felt much more energetic and healthier within first two or three days. The overall wellbeing of my physical body, just from this immediate change in diet was profound. I heard my body speak to me of how relieved it was having had the burden of awful diet lifted of its shoulder.

I wished I had access to fresh vegetables, as with them, I could make it even better, but alas, it wasn’t the case of this experience. I will, however attempt growing my own garlic, onion and kale when I withdraw into the wilderness next. I’ve been educating myself actively on gardening and feel ready to take this challenge on. I may even attempt to grow Enoki mushrooms which can be grown in small places indoors.

The biggest challenge with wilderness indoor gardening would be to succeed in growing anything at all in winter, when daylight is limited and temperatures extreme. I’ll give wilderness indoor gardening my best try long before winter comes and will rely on trial and error to teach me the ins and outs of it so hopefully by the time winter comes, I’ll have a chance to succeed.

I think the three months in the wilderness was the time in my life when I had the healthiest diet in my life and it did leave its mark. Falling back into the junk food craze was… sadly – easy. My reintroduction into the civilized world didn’t go without stress and peer pressure which resulted in my clogging the digestive system up with crap food very quickly. The crappier food I ate, the crappier food I desired and before I knew it, everything I gained in terms of overall well being with food I ate in the wilderness, was irrevocably lost. Can’t wait to return to the wild again very soon.

MSG – Monosodium Glutamate

Even though excessive amounts of MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) added to the food I was eating with the villagers from Sras Srang during the last day of the Pchum Ben Festival made it taste awful so I didn’t have much of it, I still had enough to cause further stomach problems. At this point I had enough pointers to start being apprehensive about MSG and went on the internet to read up on it.

As with many other things, the information available on the internet is rather conflicting. Some said intake of MSG was harmful, while others stated they experienced no problems whatsoever, even after years of use. It was hard to come to a solid conclusion based on other people’s reports, but potentially harmful side effects caught my attention so I started to ask around in restaurants whether they could cook the food for me without MSG.

Eating MSG Free Foods

Harmful or not, I didn’t feel like eating too much food that had its taste enhanced with chemical seasoning. In my mind, the premise was simple – I’d ask a waiter in a restaurant if it was possible to cook the dish I’d order without any MSG. I said I didn’t care if the cook thought it didn’t taste right without MSG, but I made it a requirement if they wanted to get my business. I made it clear that it didn’t matter to me what they believed each dish needed in order to taste right, or what they’d continue serving to other customers, but as for me… you either ensure there is no MSG in my food, or I will never dine in your establishment again.

Unfortunately, Khmer Family Restaurant was unable to accommodate my requests. I used to dine there a lot but since I couldn’t get anyone to take my requests seriously, I quit going there. Luckily, there is no shortage of restaurants anywhere a guy goes and many will be more than happy to oblige in order to earn your business so this was not an issue. Amazingly enough, after I started asking for no MSG in my food, the stomach problems went away.

Habit of Asking for No MSG

Since I already know what the food with loads of MSG smells and tastes like, I could often tell whether what I was served had the taste “enhanced” with it, or not. However this is not always possible as small amounts of it won’t have much impact on taste. It’s like with salt – if you overdo it, you can tell the dish is too salty, but if you put just right amount, then it simply tastes just right.

There were a few occasions when I forgot to ask for no MSG and I found out about it the following day when the stomach cramps came back. Since I was supporting the establishments that were happy to accommodate my requests for no MSG in my food, after a few regular visits I no longer needed to remind them of how to cook for me. But that threw me off the habit of asking for no MSG each time I was ordering food and failed to do it with a few restaurants in which I hadn’t dined before.

Why Such Sensitivity to MSG?

I attribute my initial sensitivity to MSG to clean digestive system. My diet consisted of at least 80% organic food when I was in Canada. Everything that could be had in 100% organic form was a staple of my diet with the rest consisting of either organic, or if not available, then natural foods. Not everything could be had organic, but majority of my diet was chemistry free (except from occasional fast food munchies) so my digestion was nice and clean.

But then when I came to Cambodia and started bombarding my stomach with excessive MSG, the impact was instantly noticeable. I appreciate that people who eat foods full of pesticide all the time have their digestion used to the chemicals and may not feel the negative effects of MSG so harshly. That’s perhaps how one could explain the conflicting reports on MSG intake on the internet.

MSG Free Dining

From my own experience, MSG is definitely bad for your health and has a very negative effect on your body. Elimination of MSG from my diet resulted in elimination of stomach problems I was experiencing while eating foods that contained MSG. But seeing how more and more restaurants with signs that none of their foods contain MSG keep popping out all over Asia, I’m guessing I’m not the only one who experienced similar problems with MSG and that resulted in growing demand for MSG free dining.

Photo: Growing Demand for MSG Free Cooking Signals There Is Something Fishy About the Additive
Photo: Growing Demand for MSG Free Cooking Signals There Is Something Fishy About the Additive