The group of women with whom I was traveling stared at the menu in some dismay. For those who shunned gluten, meat, dairy, and a category of vegetables known to cause intestinal discomfort to some, there was almost nothing to eat.
“Maybe we can find a supermarket somewhere,” one suggested, but then realized that to do so required driving to a shopping mall a few miles away from the gift shop-congested town center. Fortunately, a few protein bars were discovered at the bottom of someone’s tote bag, and hunger was relieved momentarily. We were in a geographical part of the country noted for heat-infused food from chili peppers, the liberal use of melted cheese with pork products, beans refried in lard, gluten-containing flour tortillas, and a notable absence of soy or almond milk for those lactose intolerant. Although the women were athletically fit and had traveled to spend a few days hiking in remarkable landscapes, their digestive systems did not have the same robustness as their muscles. Eventually, our finding a ride to a large supermarket provided enough food for dinner, as well as snacks for the hikes; an Internet search of restaurants revealed a few that met most of their dietary needs.
But their experience demonstrated how difficult it can be to obtain foods from restaurants in places not accustomed to altering menu options for those whose stomachs need special foods. These days, we assume when we travel, we will be able to get our personalized food needs met. After all, it is no longer the early part of the 20th century when people traveling on the new highways had to content themselves with eating in small Mom and Pop restaurants their typically questionable cleanliness and food preparation skills. Standardization of food for highway travelers came only when restaurants like the Howard Johnson franchises opened around the country. Today the ubiquitous fast-food restaurants and the next generation sandwich shops that make salads and sandwiches to order make it relatively easy to find safe and reasonably tasting food.
But even now, eating as a traveler may mean giving up trying to eat a well-balanced diet. The recommended five servings of vegetables and fruit to be consumed each day may not even be consumed in five days. Vegetables rarely appear on the plate with the main entrée, or are reduced in size to microscopic versions of the natural object. Salads and side orders of vegetables are costly, and the vegetables may come coated in cheese, drenched in butter, or breaded and fried. It is possible, sometimes, to get fruit as a dessert but often the fruit is a few raspberries garnishing chocolate cake or in syrup topping a dish of ice cream. Foods we can obtain at home, such as low or fat-free dairy products (and milk substitutes), may also be hard to find. Many restaurants serving breakfast do not provide low or fat-free yogurt, cottage cheese and milk for cereal and coffee. And finding high fiber foods to maintain healthy and predictable digestion is harder than finding kale in a MacDonald’s.
When traveling is relatively brief—less than a couple of weeks—the scarcity of nutrients or fiber or food items suitable for a limited diet is not going to plunge the traveler into a state of malnutrition. We start our trip well-nourished and certainly are not going to develop scurvy or osteoporosis in a couple of weeks. But many people travel constantly for work and some have the time and financial freedom to travel for long periods for pleasure. This type of travel can result in more than just piles of dirty laundry to take home; it can affect the nutritional status of the traveler. And curiously, we tend to ignore this problem when packing for a trip.
Packing requires anticipating weather conditions, activities ranging from work to sightseeing and entertainment and even sleeping comfort. But how many of us pack to ensure that we are not surprised by eating environments as unpredictable as the weather? Are we making sure that the eating culture at our destinations will provide food meeting our personal dietary needs? And if not, do we have in our carry-on luggage food items that will prevent us from returning several weeks later in a state of sub-optimal nutrition?
Some simple steps to take before a long trip:
Check out the types of foods typically eaten at the destinations. The Internet will provide this information both from a description of the food highlights of the destination, and also from a brief scan of moderately priced restaurants (these are the ones most likely to be visited, not the very pricey ones).
If breakfast is included in the lodging, try to learn what is served. Sometimes a breakfast buffet will provide foods from all the food groups. (Israeli hotel breakfasts have done this for decades.)
Pack multi vitamin-mineral supplements as insurance against many days of vegetable, fruit and dairy deficient menu options. Lactase pills to digest the milk sugar lactose are tiny, fit into a toiletries bag and allow you to add milk to your coffee or cereal if you have lactose intolerance.
Pack gluten-free baked goods if you must avoid gluten, because eventually a need for some digestible carbohydrate will arise. Baby carrots, vacuum-packed apple slices, and a sandwich bag filled with high fiber breakfast cereal will provide some fiber. Oat bran cereal can be put in a sandwich bag as wel,l and if the hotel has a coffee maker, the hot water will reconstitute it as hot cereal.
Pack protein bars that contain 15 to 20 grams of protein. These will be useful when the protein on the menu is incompatible with a vegetarian, pescetarian (fish only), kosher, or low-fat diet.
Although these extra items take up space on the outbound trip, their consumption frees up space for the return home to be filled with whatever your heart, not stomach, desires.