How to Eat Healthy While Traveling

Featured Image credit: Karen Hong Photography.

Every region, city, or town we travel to is bursting with its unique cuisine, flavors, ingredients, and scrumptious morsels that are just calling for our taste buds and quite a bit of drool. Be it Taipei, Taiwan, where they stuff giant chicken wings with glutinous rice; or Paris where butter croissants have the perfect harmony of flakiness and crispness; or fresh, springy ramen noodles swirling in a pork bone and fat-infused broth in Japan–these are the triumphs of culinary exploration that really get my nomad senses tingling.

There’s just one problem: it’s too easy to go overboard.

Stephanie Lee on the Lanikai Pillbox Hike, Hawaii
Stephanie Lee on the Lanikai Pillbox Hike, Hawaii via Instagram.

So how do you eat healthy while traveling when sampling everything you can get your grubby mitts on feels irresistible? Especially when you think you’ll never have another chance to try the same stuff back at home. That’s fine if you’re on a two or three-week vagabonding stint–go wild, my friend. For many months on the road, however, eating like the Nintendo character Kirby may be problematic for your health and waistline.

As a traveling fitness and health writer who loves food like nobody’s business, I’ve managed to keep my weight steady, fluctuating between 2-3 pounds, and actually get stronger and fitter over the last 15 months, while traveling and enjoying all the local cuisine. I won’t lie; it takes conscious effort and a sense of balance for what’s really worth your time and what’s not. Here are my tips on how to eat healthy while traveling and not gain a whole ton of fat, without sacrificing the enjoyment of travel–eating all the things.

Stick to the big, un-sexy basics of nutrition

Nutrition information can be very confusing and conflicting, but there are a few basic things that everyone agrees on: minimize artificial sugar intake and eat your damn vegetables. It’s basically the common wisdom your parents taught you and that was repeated to them by their parents and grandparents.

As fitness coach JC Deen once said to me, “Don’t eat what your grandma wouldn’t eat.” That means centering your diet on real food (that is, food that doesn’t come prepared in a crinkly package) and emphasizing animal or plant proteins, legumes, vegetables, rice, bread, and fruit.

Some people prefer not to eat a lot of carbs, that’s fine. I personally eat a good amount of them. Basically, just aim for food that keeps you feeling full. Here’s what that looks like in real food terms:

‘Real Food’–How to Eat healthy while traveling

Meat protein: any animal that has four legs, including cow, pig, bison, venison, veal

Fowl: chicken, duck, goose, squab, turkey, eggs, quail eggs

Seafood & Fish: shrimp, mussels, clams, octopus, salmon, tuna, yellowtail

Offal: tendons, cartilage, livers, hearts, ears, tails

Plant protein: soybeans, tofu, edamame, tempeh, bean curd

Vegetables: broccoli, spinach, bok choy, cabbage, tomatoes, jicama, beet root,

Fats: Sesame seeds, avocados, butter, full-fat yogurt,

Fruits: apples, bananas, persimmons, mangoes, pineapples, oranges, watermelons, grapes, etc.

Carbs: potatoes, sweet potatoes, burdock root, kabocha squash, rice, beans, lentils, bread

I included offal, the internal organs and odd bits and pieces of the animal, because, if you haven’t already, you’ll quickly discover that in much of the world, most of the animal does not go to waste. Be a little adventurous and you may find that you’ll actually enjoy them, too!

To better estimate portions, use your hands as your guides

In general, portion sizes are often a bit smaller than what I’m used to in the States, though I’ve had my fair share of surprises (sup London?). In any case, to make sure you don’t go overboard, the nutrition coaches at Precision Nutrition suggest using your own hands as a guide for meat, carb sources, and measurable fat sources (like nuts and avocados). It’s not perfect, but it’s a reliable estimate.

Let’s assume you eat three square meals a day. If you’re a guy, aim for these at each meal:

  • 2 palm-sized proteins
  • 2 curled up fist fulls of carbs
  • 2 thumb-sized portions of fats

In general, the average sedentary woman eats fewer calories than the average sedentary man per day. This changes depending on how much muscle you have, how active you are, and your genetics. But in general, if you’re a lady like me, try for:

  • 1 palm-sized protein (I like one and a half for myself)
  • 1 to 1 1/2 curled up fist fulls of carbs
  • 1 thumb-sized portions of fats

Aim for 70% healthy and 30% whatever

Most people say to eat well 80 or 90% of the time, but that level of focus is much harder when you’re traveling and out of your element. Just aim to have your daily meals 70% healthy and let yourself be more flexible the rest of the time, while you get your bearings in a new location.

Find access to a kitchen

You don’t realize how much you miss a fully functional kitchen until you’re stuck in a 200-square foot studio trying to boil eggs on an electric stove top. A kitchen that at least has a stove and fridge can do wonders to help you eat more real food. That way, you get to manage what goes into your meals, rather than praying that Chef Random, who you caught plucking chickens in the back alley, really did wash his hands before dipping a thumb into your bowl of wonton noodles.

Depending on where you are, home cooked meals save you money, to boot. If possible, book Airbnbs or find hostels that give you access to basic cooking wares. If you’re not sure how stocked the kitchen will be, it doesn’t hurt to ask the Airbnb host or hostel manager before you book. Stick with basic recipes like various egg dishes, meats, fish, stir fries, etc. If you find great ingredients, you won’t need lots of seasoning and you’ll have an awesome excuse to dive into the local markets.

Get creative with the local foods

You’ll quickly learn that staples vary country to country. Some staples (rice, for example) stay relatively consistent throughout the region or part of the world, but otherwise you may need to educate yourself on what ingredients are available locally. For example, I’m an avid breakfast eater, but in Japan I didn’t have my usual oatmeal mixed with protein powder (which were just harder to find). Instead, I learned to fall in love with natto (fermented soybeans) laid on top of rice and mixed with a raw egg. It’s a standard meal that not everyone loves, but it’s also very Japanese. It still gave me a good amount of protein.

Knowing what is or isn’t easy to find takes a bit of time to learn. Once you’ve had a look around, it’s fun figuring out what you can substitute to make your favorites with a local twist.

Usually, when I arrive somewhere new, I spend the first week going to markets, local stores, farmer’s markets, outdoor markets, and things of that nature to observe and learn about what they sell. If possible, I ask fellow shoppers and street vendors plenty of questions and for ideas on how to prepare the ingredient. Then I scope out the restaurants and, of course, consult the Great Google for more information. Through experience and experimenting, I’ve assembled a little recipe database of simple dishes I can make. Simple is best because I don’t like to spend a lot of time cooking elaborate dishes when I can go out for those truly mouth-gasmic specialty dishes.

Make sure the food is piping hot

One of the most rewarding (and delicious) experiences of travel is being able to sample various street foods: chicken satay skewers, piping hot buns stuffed with a juicy meat filling, exotic, cut-up fruit, a bowl swimming with curry fish balls, and then some. As delightful as they are for your taste buds, food poisoning can be an issue.

In most places, a good rule of thumb is to be a bit cautious when getting street food from lonely vendors. You can follow the crowd in tourist hotspots, but a better move is to keep an eye on the savvy locals to find food stalls off the beaten track with a healthy lineup. Typically, you want to make sure the food is piping hot to the point of seeing steam billowing out. You also want to make sure you’ve watched the person prepare and cook it in high heat. Otherwise, skip it, no matter how much you want to eat it. Better to be safe than sorry.

How to Eat Healthy While Traveling – Writer Stephanie Lee Eating Street Food (1)
Image credit: Karen Hong Photography.

Try intermittent fasting

When you’re out and about, you may find it easier to simply not eat for certain periods of time. That’s actually a viable and great strategy to keep your weight and appetite under control. Called intermittent fasting (IF), this eating strategy means doing all of your eating inside an 8-hour feeding window. For the remaining 16 hours of the day you ‘fast.’ Occasionally skipping a meal is not the same thing.

It’s not as bad as it sounds because you’re sleeping for most of that time. A typical protocol is fasting until noon and then eating two large meals, no later than 8 p.m. Then you wait to eat again until noon the next day. As you get over the adjustment period and see what works for you, you can fiddle with your eating window as you need to.

You can experiment with IF at any time–just be prepared to put in some time to get used to it. At first, it’s difficult because you feel like your stomach is trying to eat you alive, but over time (usually a week) you learn to manage that “hanger” and gain a lot more flexibility. In fact, you learn that it’s okay to let your stomach gurgle a bit longer than is normally comfortable. The trick is to drink lots of coffee and tea, chew gum, and concentrate on getting shit done. You may even find that you’re more alert and productive when you do IF. 

Tips for alcohol consumption

How to Eat Healthy On the Road – Writer Stephanie Lee Cheers (1)
Image credit: Karen Hong Photography.

Typically, I’d suggest minimizing your alcohol consumption, but I’m not your mom and when you’re out with locals in many of these places, it’s hard (and sometimes rude) not to party it up with them. It’s possible to still enjoy your happy juice and not ruin the day after or your long-term health. Alcohol itself probably won’t make you gain weight (unless you’re drinking liters and liters of beer every day), but the food choices you tend to make during and after drinking can.

  • John Romaniello’s strategy of drinking a glass of water for every alcoholic drink you have is a great way to stay hydrated but also discourage drinking to excess.
  • Sip slowly and nurse your drinks as much as possible (good for both wallets and hangovers).
  • Keep the sugary alcoholic drinks to a minimum, like sangria or flavored soju, as those tend to be too tasty, which can lead to you drinking more and more than necessary.
  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Buffer your buzz and drunkenness with food about 2-3 hours before you drink.

Making it count

Ed’s PSA Disclaimer: If you feel your eyeballs might be irreversibly scalded by the sight of an F-bomb in print, you might want to put on your favorite pair of sunglasses 😎 before clicking on a couple of the links below!

I can share as many of these “healthy-eating strategies” as you can handle. But if there’s one thing to take away from this article, it’s to pick your battles.

You can’t watch every single morsel of food that goes into your mouth. Hell, you’re in another country and the food is awesome. No matter what, I like to employ a little rule I call the “FY!S Rule to Healthy Eating.” 😎 Sound familiar? It was inspired by Mark Manson’s rule 😎 for relationships but repurposed for healthy choices and other life decisions.

The same general idea follows: What you eat or want to indulge in should make you do your happy dance. If not, it’s a big NO. In other words, make sure whatever you’re about to nosh on is worth your taste buds’ time, calories, and any regret you might suffer.

Feel like enjoying a buttery crepe with a very generous gob of nutella and whipped cream from that cute street stand in Paris? Ask yourself: is that what you really want or are you actually feeding a mild dose of homesickness? Make sure the sugar rush (and coming crash) is worth it, and that it fits your plans. If you have time to chill on your balcony and watch the sunset, go ahead, nutella it up! But if you need your energy for an urbex dash out to the 16th Arrondissement to explore the crumbling tracks of La Petite Ceinture later in the afternoon, you might want to skip that gob of sugar after all.

The Secret of Travel

There’s a difference between giving into temptation (which can be hard to resist, I know) and eating something because you’re in the moment, sucking the marrow from your destination (literally). The “FY!S Rule” helps you ask yourself, is this really what you want–not because it’s a distraction, you’re bored, or it’s a temporary comfort?

In the end, we travel to these myriad destinations to immerse ourselves in another culture. We search every little nook and cranny to uncover their best-kept secrets. But we all know that the real secret of travel is the food that makes us yell F😎😎k YES!

Stephanie Lee

Stephanie Lee

Stephanie Lee is the creator of FY!S, a site to tell the good, the bad, and the fugly of being a digital nomad, and regularly writes for sites like Lifehacker, Thrillist, Men’s Health, and more.