I travel a lot, both professionally and personally, and although it is definitely more challenging to eat healthy on the road, it is far from impossible. Travel makes it easy for us to make excuses about our diets, but where there's a will, there's a way! Here are some tips to help you execute your nutritional plan, regardless of your schedule.
Have a plan
A little foresight can go a long way. If you know that you're going to be stuck in a car, on a bus or on a plane (and let's be honest, we almost always have a pretty big heads-up if we're going to be travelling), planning ahead will save you from deviating too far from your typical diet. Here are a few key tips to setting yourself up for success:
- Make a grocery list with your travel plans in mind; what is nutritious and easy to eat on the road? Fruit, veggies, nuts, cheese, eggs (hard-boiled, obviously), milk, dried/cured meats, etc. Ensure that you have ample containers and/or resealable bags as well!
- Chop up veggies as soon as you get home from the grocery store. Not only will this make for a healthy and convenient snack when you're at home, but it simplifies the process of packing a lunch or snacks for travel. I even do this with cheese so that I have easily-accessible and acceptable portion sizes to snack on or to take on-the-go.
- Hard boil 6-12 eggs and keep them in the fridge. Eggs are essentially the perfect food and having them readily available will make everything in your life amazing. This is an overstatement, but seriously, eggs are incredible.
- Wake up 10 minutes early, even if you have no reason to. I always seem to forget something in the mornings (or something new pops up that I didn't plan for), so it's nice to have some leeway when I'm getting ready to hit the road. This additional 10 minutes can be the difference between packing proper supplies and eating fast food, making this short period of time quite valuable.
- Invest in a durable water bottle. I've had the same Nalgene for almost a decade now, and I take this thing everywhere. It's an extension of my being. A good water bottle will ensure that you are always well-hydrated and will keep your metabolism firing on all cylinders.
- Set aside time weekly to prepare meals for the rest of the week. Sunday is typically the best day for this. Take the afternoon to make a list, do your shopping, and prepare your food for the week. This doesn't have to be an OCD-thing, but taking a few hours to prepare a few things (as per the tips above) will save you loads of time in the following days and will keep you from making dietary excuses. If this once-a-week ritual seems too daunting, plan to wake up a bit earlier every day to give yourself time to prepare foods/snacks for the remainder of the day.
- Invest in a blender, some shaker bottles, and a protein powder supplement. Whole foods should compose the majority of your diet, but a quick protein shake can really come in handy! Shakes allow you to be creative as well -- blend up your favourite fruit, berries, vegetables, nuts, oils, oats, etc. and create a delicious super shake. It's quick, easy, and healthy -- you just have to be prepared with the right equipment!
- If you travel a lot, supplements will make your life a lot easier. Protein powder, meal-replacement powder, a greens supplement, fish oil capsules, etc. are ideal for those of us that are constantly on the road. Protein bars and pre-prepared protein/meal-replacement drinks can also be good, but most are filled with too much sugar, artificial sweeteners or low-cost fillers that won't do your body any favours.
Think outside the box
Just because restaurants exist does not mean that you have to eat at them when you are on the road. Grocery stores (and even good convenience stores) sell a wider selection of food than most restaurants, and you can pick and choose exactly what you want, all for a lower price. It might not be as sexy to grab a piece of fruit, a carton of milk and a quarter rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, but it will be better for both your wallet and your body. It always disappoints me when I walk into a service station on the highway and people are lined up for the various fast food options, when they could easily walk into the convenience store and get a healthier meal for less money. It doesn't make sense.
Bonus tip: Keep napkins and a few utensils in the glove compartment of your car. Prevent yourself from making excuses by eliminating small obstacles!
Even at restaurants, you can make good decisions
It's always nice to have your food prepared for you, but people use restaurants as an excuse to eat like crap. Don't get me wrong -- when I'm on vacation or out for a nice dinner, I throw my inhibitions to the wind and indulge myself. We all need a break from the usual. But if you're on the road for business and trying to stick to a plan, it is easier than you think to eat out and still adhere to your diet. Most fast food places now offer salads as a healthier alternative -- just be careful with the dressing! Other restaurants offer main protein dishes with steamed vegetables as a side option. As unsexy as they are, Swiss Chalet and Subway are my two staples when I'm on the road. All-white quarter chicken and steamed vegetables, hold the roll; Oven-roasted chicken breast salad with double meat, extra hot peppers, grated cheese, no dressing. Both options are delicious and nutritious, and don't force me to deviate from my diet at all.
It's also quite easy to eat out in most big chain restaurants or small-town diners. Many places even have "healthy" food options on the menu (be wary of these though, as restaurants can label whatever they want as "healthy"). As a rule of thumb, either order a salad (preferably spinach) with chicken breast and dressing on the side, or grab whatever sort of grilled meat they offer (sauce always on the side) and have it come with veggies or a salad. You may even have to ask for double the protein and veggies if the portion sizes are too small (most places unfortunately serve very large carbohydrate servings with significantly smaller helpings of protein and veggies). Just remember: Although restaurants have set menus, the customer is king, and most places will make whatever adjustments necessary to satisfy a paying customer. Politely ask questions and explain your needs; you'll be surprised how easy it is to get what you want!
At the end of the day it comes down to what is more important for you: your unique health and lifestyle goals, or saving a few minutes and just taking what society lays out for you. Let them have their fast food, I say, and eat it too. We'll be the ones looking great, feeling great, and banking our sick days for vacation!
While processed foods are slowly but surely cutting back on trans fat, it's still smart to investigate labels for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils and leave those packages on the shelf. Trans fats can induce inflammation by damaging the cells in the lining of blood vessels, according to the Mayo Clinic, part of the reason many companies are limiting use to begin with, says Sandquist. Although small amounts of trans fats do occur naturally in certain foods, the majority are manmade and therefore difficult for the body to process, Black explains. "Our body doesn't have a natural mechanism for breaking it down," which can trigger an inflammatory response," she says.
"Trans fats should be old news, sugar should be new news," says Black, calling it the food item we most ignore when it comes to our health (although, that may be changing). "I don't think our body was meant to break down as much sugar as we consume," she says. Too much sugar can alert the body to send out extra immunity messengers, called cytokines, Daniluk wrote for CNN.
White breads and pastas break down quickly into sugar, and in turn lead to inflammation. In a 2010 study, researchers found that a diet high in refined grains led to a greater concentration of a certain inflammation marker in the blood, while a diet high in whole grains resulted in a lower concentration of two different inflammation markers. White breads are a telling example of inflammatory foods, says Daniluk. "They've been refined in a way that goes against nature, goes against what our bodies need," she says. Processing away the nutritional properties of whole grains leaves "fast-digesting carbohydrates beyond empty calories," she says, which irritate our bodies.
Animal fats have been linked to inflammation in a number of studies. One tracked how our beneficial gut bacteria change after eating saturated fats and found that "as the balance of species shift, it can trigger an immune response that results in inflammation and tissue damage," Scientific American reported. Saturated fats also contain a compound the body uses to create inflammation naturally called arachidonic acid, according to U.S. News. Diets lower in this molecule have anti-inflammatory effects and have been shown to improve symptoms in rheumatoid arthritis patients. The way you cook your meat could also be a factor, says Daniluk. Grilling it on high can result in inflammatory carcinogens, and a sugary marinade won't do you any favors, either. Keep in mind, the experts say, that some saturated fat is needed. Just be sure to consume in moderation.
Alcohol is naturally irritating to our insides, says Daniluk, but shouldn't cause lasting problems unless you overdo it. With a few too many drinks, however, bacteria can more easily pass through the intestinal lining, leading to irritation and inflammation, according to U.S. News. "It's immediate sugar when it's metabolized," says Black, "so you have to weigh the benefits and drawbacks." Small amounts of alcohol have been linked to lower risk of heart disease and Alzheimer's, for example, "but if you get past a certain threshold, you stop getting the positive effect," she says.
The average American gets more omega-6 fatty acids via diet than omega-3s, but this imbalance can lead to inflammation, according to U.S. News. "We're thirsty for omega 3s, which can turn off the inflammatory messengers," says Daniluk. To quench that thirst, cut back on omega-6 heavy seeds and vegetable oils and add more fatty fish and walnuts.
While moderate intake of low-fat dairy can actually guard against inflammation, whole milk or even two-percent is still high in saturated fat and could mean trouble. But a majority of adults have at least some difficulty digesting milk, so overdoing it could trigger a true inflammatory reaction, says Black.
There's some research in animals to suggest that the preservative and flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate can create inflammation. While few of MSG's effects are understood in much depth, it may be best to avoid, the experts say. "We probably don't really understand the mechanism behind MSG [causing inflammation]," says Black, "but it's not a chemical your body is used to. It's not like it's a part of broccoli."
Even without a diagnosis of celiac disease, a number of people report feeling better after eliminating gluten from their diet. In fact, a full 30 percent of American adults are now actively avoiding gluten. Science is still largely inconclusive on what's been called "gluten intolerance," but Daniluk thinks sensitivity that leads to bloating or digestion changes could be an inflammatory response to gluten.
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