Mark Twain once said that travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. I have that quote on my Home page.
But travel can be as unhealthy as it is rewarding. Food and all things diet-related have an impact on health which is why I’m devoting a whole post on eating healthy while travelling, based on my own experiences and traditional remedies handed down through generations.
Disclaimer: This post is not intended to replace medical advice, nor to diagnose, prescribe or treat any disease, condition, illness or injury. You should consult your physician or health professional before making changes to your lifestyle or before trying any of the below advice. By reading this post you accept this post-specific disclaimer in full and the Arrivals Hall Site Disclaimer. The author reserves the right to modify this post at any time.
HEALTHY EATING DURING THE JOURNEY
- Staying hydrated: Water is required for normal body functioning and with the increased stress of travelling dehydration is a possibility. I carry a reusable bottle and fill up at water fountains.
- Reduce the booze: Better still, no booze. Alcohol may be a popular option for steadying travel nerves and coping with awkward fellow passengers but it causes dehydration and irritability…you then become the awkward passenger. On the other hand, alcohol masks the blandness of travel food and some spirit-based drinks (e.g. Hot Toddy) are excellent respiratory condition remedies.
- Avoid too much caffeine: Caffeine is both a stimulant and a diuretic and I avoid too much of it if I want to snooze on a journey. Conversely, caffeine is recommended for preventing driver fatigue on long journeys as this article illustrates. Like alcohol, coffee masks the blandness of travel food. While I can drink black coffee at a push, my preference is for a milk-based version (e.g. cappuccino) as I find the protein content balances out the drink’s side-effects. And it tastes nicer as well.
- Breakfast like a king: If there’s one thing we do exceptionally well in Ireland, it is breakfast. With the exception of the saturated fat, calorific full Irish breakfast, everything else is super healthy. Porridge is my everyday staple and its raw ingredient of wholegrain rolled oats accompanies me on trips where I have access to cooking facilities. In the absence of porridge, other healthy breakfast options I’ve tried are fried tomato, wholegrain bread, smoked salmon, fruit, smoothies, yogurt topped with berries/chopped seeds, and eggs done any way. A good breakfast makes eating healthy while travelling easy. Having a mix of protein and complex carbohydrates increases satiety and regulates blood sugar levels. That’s a fancy way of saying that I’m ready to seize the day.
- Don’t load up on carbs: Unless I intend to run/hike to my destination I balance carbohydrates with protein and vegetables/salad. In fact, I try to ensure that half of my plate is veg/salad. Check out this UK NHS post on carbs for further information. Transportation centres such as railway and bus stations are paleo hell with high-sugar carbs the predominant food item usually available. This is where prepped salads and protein bars come in useful.
- Fibre: Wholegrain carbs, fruit and vegetables is where fibre is found and this is why a banana and an apple have as much a place in my handbag as my passport. I’m not a vegetarian but I believe it should be compulsory for airports to have a vegetarian restaurant. I’ll let the UK NHS explain the importance of fibre.
- Small portions: Travel involves a lot of sitting and waiting around, something which doesn’t require a great deal of calories. Smaller portions will be digested more easily and won’t disrupt the blood sugar level cycle in the same way that a heavy meal will. I bring snacks in my hand luggage (fruit, brown scone, protein bars) but not every country will allow food to be brought in from abroad.
- Avoid the following: Where consciously possible, I avoid foods containing Monosodium Glutamate (aka MSG, E621, flavour enhancer) and artificial sweeteners (e.g. aspartame, saccharin). This boycott isn’t restricted to travelling. I try to avoid eating these at all times.
- Reduce stress: Both physical and mental stress cause hunger and both stresses are present to some extent on most journeys. It is at this point that extra discipline is required although I find berry and banana smoothies indispensable at counteracting travel stress. In the absence of a smoothie, a Snickers bar or a Baileys on ice will appear more tempting than a vitamin-laden complex carbohydrate banana but one must try and resist the temptation of the former two. Sometimes I fail. I am human after all. Tips for reducing pre-travel stress can be found on my Pre-Travel Checklist post.
- Have a jet lag plan: Jet lag is a condition whereby the sleep and wakefulness cycle of the body is disrupted, mainly caused by crossing time zones. Jet lag along with a general lack of proper sleep is one of the biggest travel stressors and poses a challenge to eating healthy while travelling as stressors will lead to junk food consumption. Eating foods rich in tryptophan such as turkey, dairy, nuts and bananas aid sleep. My jet lag plan involves eating healthy, hydrating properly, chilling out, eye covers, ear plugs and thinking happy thoughts.
- Hygiene: Ever since observing, in a communal washroom, that 25% of the women and 75% of the men didn’t wash their hands a mini bottle of hand sanitiser gel has become an essential travel item. The survey sample consisted of only 16 people but I saw enough to draw a scientific conclusion. I won’t linger on this point.
- Research airline food: As airlines are reluctant to advertise their meals in advance InflightFeed has the most comprehensive review of airline food that I’ve found. Most budget airlines do not serve complimentary food.
EATING HEALTHY AT THE DESTINATION
- A good night’s sleep: The panacea for most ills which is why I choose my accommodation carefully and/or go off the noise-free beaten track.
- Eat according to the climate: Cold weather for me equals hearty soups and stews. Beach holidays equal homemade salads.
- Stay hydrated: Not only will loss of water be a problem but also a loss of electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. Electrolyte sachets are available but I make my own inexpensive isotonic drink by dissolving half a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of sugar in 500ml of water.
- Eat fruit & vegetables: As well as tasting and smelling nice, they contain fibre and vitamins. This is why Spain is one of my favourite countries to travel in.
- Observe the locals: Especially at water fountains. If no local is drinking from a water fountain then neither will I.
- Treats: Beware of the little things with big calories and big prices. Ice-cream springs to mind as do churros con chocolate.
- Probiotics: As someone with a background in microbiology I see the digestive system as the battle ground where good bacteria fight the eternal evil of bad bacteria. Probiotics are caped crusader bacteria which have multiple digestive benefits as outlined in this Harvard Medical School post.
- Eat garlic: It may not render a person the most socially acceptable but it’s an excellent antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral remedy. Decide whether you want to be popular or healthy.
- Listen to the body’s cravings: A craving for chocolate could mean low blood sugar levels or a magnesium deficiency.
- Cook everything well: And beware of salads, particularly those with mayonnaise-based dressings.
- Bring comfort food from home: Like every other Irish person on the planet my comfort food from home is tea.
- Be picnic ready: Reusable Tupperware & utensils are excellent for transporting salads and cooked foods. I have to be mindful of the non-fridge time between prepping it and eating it, especially in hot climates – I can never remember to bring a cooler bag. I find vinaigrette-based dressings the most robust for transportation.
- Kitchen Access: I alternate my accommodation options so that I can access a kitchen as much as possible (i.e. apartments for longer breaks). Hotel rooms with mini-bar fridges and a kettle are essential.
TREATMENT FOR DIGESTIVE DISTRESS
- Peppermint tea: A good all-rounder for digestive problems.
- Soda water: Tonic water is equally good but unfortunately most brands now include artificial sweeteners.
- Coca Cola: So far I’ve been preaching against the consumption of high-sugar foods but I’ll make an exception for Coca Cola as I find it surprisingly good for stomach-settling purposes – a one-off glass suffices. What about Pepsi, you ask? Pepsi was invented with dyspepsia in mind so I guess it’s a case of personal preferences.
- Milk: Those of you who know me may feel this is a biased inclusion given my family connections to the Irish dairy industry but, honestly, I find fresh cold milk excellent for settling the stomach. Unfortunately, fresh milk can be difficult to source in some countries.
- Prunes: If your fruit and vegetable consumption is lacking and you don’t want to travel around with a box of All-Bran then prunes will be your best friend for counteracting constipation.
- Ginger: Clinical studies in the last few years have shown that ginger is an effective treatment for nausea and vomiting, something the Chinese have known for thousands of years. This is my excuse for eating ginger biscuits.
- Slippery Elm: This herb is associated with the treatment of acid reflex.
- Listen to your body’ cravings: Did I mention that chocolate cravings could indicate a magnesium deficiency?
Living a healthy lifestyle is my other passion besides travel and as most of my family are medically qualified there’s plenty of support and advice on hand. Those who are not medically trained work in food production.
But what’s good for me may not suit you which is why you need to explore the options in this post with your health professionals.
Eating healthy while travelling is a challenge as discipline is difficult to maintain on the road particularly when the only options available are high-sugar, high-fat or processed foods. Bon voyage can easily turn into bonbon voyage moreover when in holiday mode. Brief flirtations with unhealthy choices are reversible. Unfortunately, long-term stress has a profoundly negative effect on dietary behaviour and overall health.
On the other hand, preoccupation with weight, food, calories, carbohydrates, fat grams, and dieting is equally concerning from a medical perspective.
Food is an excellent way of discovering the heart and soul of a destination and with that philosophy I usually dive straight into new cuisine, oblivious of calorie count and saturated fat levels. Each country has its own healthy specialities and that’s one of the many benefits of travel.
For someone starting the healthy lifestyle journey I highly recommend Move, Train, Nourish: The Sustainable Way to a Healthier you by Dominic Munnelly and Gráinne Parker. The book not only covers healthy eating and exercise but gives some great positive pointers on overall wellness.
What are your tips for eating healthy while travelling? Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below.