Eating healthfully can be hard enough when you’re in the comfort of your own kitchen, with Whole Foods, farmer’s markets, and recipe books at your disposal. But traveling abroad adds a new set of nutritional diversions: bad airport and plane food, the excitement of sampling new cuisines, a different language, bouncing from hotel to hostel to bed and breakfast…
I recently spent two weeks in Argentina and Chile visiting my sister, who lives in Bariloche. As the always-hungry person I am, I had to prepare for a brand new food culture as well as long days traveling (it took us 30 hours to get home). With these tips and a bit of research, you can maintain a healthy diet half way around the world.
Plan for the airport and the plane.
When you’re travelling abroad, you may spend a whole day – or more – in airports, on planes, and in cars. Take these steps to ensure you have healthy, nutritious food for your long traveling day!
Pack a whole meal – or more. Airport food can be both ridiculously expensive and limited in healthy choices (McDonald’s, Cinnabon, and Dunkin’ Donuts are the most common). And plane food – unless you’re flying first class – is generally horrible. On your way to the airport, pick up your favorite healthy sandwich. Once you’re sitting on the plane, you’ll be happy to have a healthy meal while your fellow passengers eat Big Macs and fries.
Pack fruits and vegetables. Planes are pretty skimpy with food these days, so you’ll need healthy snacks to tide you over. Instead of resorting to convenience store treats and candy, pack fruits, vegetables, and nuts in your carry-on. Before you leave, make a stop at the grocery store to pick up apples and bananas. Bite-size produce – like blueberries, baby carrots, and snap peas – are ideal because they travel well, and their similar-to-candy size helps keep M&M and Skittles cravings at bay. Pick up some nuts at the grocery store, too; unlike airport trail mixes, they won’t be mixed with heavy ingredients like yogurt-covered pretzels and banana chips. Filling yourself up with fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts will help you maintain your already healthy diet and keep you energized through your long day.
Order a special meal. When you book your tickets, most airlines allow you to choose a “special meal.” Many have broad choices these days that cater to a wide range of diets: diabetic meal, gluten intolerant meal, Hindu meal, and low-calorie meal are just a few of the options. Opt for a low-fat or low-calorie meal – not because fat and calories are inherently bad, but because those meals are simply healthier. Their virtue lies in the fact that the meal comes with lean protein and vegetables and most importantly, without the heavy, creamy sauces that usually ruin (in taste and nutrition) the regular meals. On our plane down to Chile, my parents looked on with jealousy as I ate my fruit plate and high-fiber cereal; their regular breakfast was pancakes covered in a sugary fruit compote.
Travel with nutrition boosting “condiments”.
Foods like chia seeds, ground flaxseed, and hempseed are tiny packets of big nutrition. Such “condiments” can add a considerable amount of protein, fiber, monounsaturated fats, vitamins, or antioxidants to a meal that might need a nutrition bump. A tablespoon of chia seeds, for example, has 68 calories, 2 grams of protein, 5.5 grams of fiber, and 4.5 grams of fat. I always carry a mix of chia seeds, ground flaxseed, and cinnamon to add to oatmeal and cereal, as well as Justin’s Nut Butter Squeeze Packets, which add protein and fiber to toast or apple and banana slices. Research shows that adding fat or protein to high-carbohydrate meals lessens the impact on blood sugar, making these foods a great pairing for the white toast and refined cereal your hotel might serve.
Travel with mini-meals.
When you’re abroad, you often don’t have a kitchen – let alone a refrigerator – to hold the snacks that would normally tide you over between meals. Instant oatmeal and snack bars are whole grain options that only require hot water to prepare. Look for bars with at least 3 grams of fiber, 5 grams of protein, and no more than 18 grams of sugar – Larabars, KIND bars, Pure bars, and Bumble Bars are good choices. They’ll give you the energy you need to trek around town (or up a mountain) and to your next meal.
Check out the grocery store.
Just because you’re on vacation doesn’t mean you have to avoid the grocery store. Stock up on grab-and-go fruits and vegetables like apples, bananas, carrots, and snap peas. Having produce on hand for snacks is especially important, since you’re most likely dining out more than normal and forgoing tedious salads for local specialties. In most countries, you’ll also be able to find yogurt – a convenient, fast breakfast or snack. Look for varieties without added sugar; luckily, most other cultures actually prefer plain yogurt to the sickeningly sweet American varieties. Bonus: the probiotics found in yogurt will help improve digestion, which can get out of whack when traveling.
Embrace the local food culture.
Savor the local delicacies, but don’t go overboard. When you travel abroad, you’re sure to find that each country has a few culinary specialties. Some are healthy, and some are far from it – but that doesn’t mean you should completely avoid them in the name of nutrition. Argentina, for example, is famous for its huge offerings of meat. Asados, the Argentinian barbecue, consists of course after course of meats: ribs, steaks, lamb, pork, chorizo, and blood sausages are common in just one meal. And Bariloche, specifically, is known for milanesa – breaded, fried meat piled high with melted cheese – and fondue (there’s a large Swiss and German influence). But next to these cheesy, fried, fatty cuts of meat, there’s also a healthy choice: Bariloche is a mountain town based around a lake, so fresh and smoked trout make an appearance on most menus. Most other cuisines have specialties that end up on both sides of the spectrum: Japan has sashimi and tempura, France has moules mariniere and croque monsieur. The key is in enjoying the local delicacies in moderation – you don’t need to eat them every day! Find a restaurant that specializes in what you really want (or better yet, if you have friends in the area, get an invitation to a home-cooked meal!) and savor each bite. Sandwich your indulgent day with healthy, vegetable-packed meals.
Pick up some new recipes and eating habits.
With more than two-thirds of the population obese or overweight, America is the fattest nation among those with advanced economies. With a culture based around fast food and little exercise, we could stand to take a couple of pointers from our healthier-eating counterparts. When you’re abroad, take note of the healthy recipes and eating habits that you encounter. In Chile and Argentina, instead of caffeinating with whipped cream and caramel-covered frappuccinos, the locals prefer to start their day with yerba mate, a tea-like infusion made from leaves of the holly tree. The drink is filled with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants and provides the same boost of coffee without the crash. From South America to Europe to Asia, there are plenty of other eating habits to emulate: eat your sandwiches open-faced to cut out refined sugars like the Swedes, eat small dishes like the Chinese’ dim sum or Greeks’ mezze, and use a heavy hand with spices as in Thailand and India.
Learn a few phrases in the local language.
If your Spanish/French/Thai/Arabic language skills are poor, ordering meals in restaurants can be difficult. Of course, having a sister who is fluent in Spanish is your best bet for ensuring a delicious and healthy dinner; arming yourself with a dictionary with culinary terms is also helpful. Memorize a few phrases that will always improve the nutrition of any meal. Because many restaurants (all over the world) rely on heavy amounts of butter and oil for flavor, ask for your fish, meat, and vegetables to be prepared sin aceite (without oil) or sin mantequilla (without butter). It’s also helpful to learn adjectives that describe the preparation of a food; the difference between vegetales al vapor (steamed vegetables) and vegetales salteadas (sauteed vegetables) is huge.
Maintaining your healthy diet while traveling abroad will give you the energy to explore and enjoy a new country. And while it is tempting to completely indulge – you’re on vacation, after all – stuffing your body with excess fats, sweets, and alcohol will only weigh you down. As long as your keep your daily calories in check, remember that at the end of the year, your body won’t remember a two-week stretch where you barely ate a single vegetable. Upon returning to your beloved kitchen and local grocery store, load up on fresh produce, whole grains, lean protein, and nuts to continue your healthy eating plan.