You know more of a road by having traveled it than by all the conjectures and descriptions in the world. –William Hazlitt
At some point, all of us travel from one place to another — for pleasure, business, or some other reason. And unless a trip is extremely short, the need to eat will eventually arise.
When you’ve got diabetes, healthy eating is an essential part of your diabetes treatment plan, and because your diabetes goes along with you wherever you go, so should healthful eating. Sticking with your meal plan while traveling may take more work than it does at home, but it is possible.
Planning ahead is key. As you think about the other aspects of caring for your diabetes on the road — how much medicine and monitoring supplies to bring, how changes in activity level may affect your blood glucose, and what health-care services are available in the locations you’ll be visiting — take some time to research and plan for your food options, as well. You’ll want to think about what will be available to eat while traveling, as well as what will be available at your destination.
Traveling by car
Traveling by car gives you the most control over when you leave, what route you take, and where you stop along the way. It also gives you the option of bringing your own food with you to eat on the road and to have at your destination. For food safety purposes, it’s best to use a cooler (with cold packs or ice) to store any foods that would normally be kept in a refrigerator. A cooler is also useful for storing water and other beverages, such as fruit juice to treat hypoglycemia. Foods that can normally be kept at room temperature may be OK in the car for short periods or in cold weather, but in hot weather, it may be safer to place anything that could spoil (such as bread) in a cooler. Place foods that could absorb water in secure plastic bags.
Before you start driving, check the road map for the locations of rest stops. Many rest stops have picnic tables, so if the weather permits, you can eat your homemade lunch or snacks outside. If you plan on buying food along the way, take some time to research what restaurants you are likely to pass and to review their nutrition information. Most chain and fast-food restaurants post this information on their websites, or you could purchase a book that contains this type of information, such as The Calorie-King Calorie, Fat & Carbohydrate Counter. Identify the healthier options at the restaurants you expect to pass on your route.
Several mobile applications (apps) can also help you find places to eat, and some allow you to preview the menu. Some examples include TripAdvisor (locates restaurants and includes reviews but not menus), Google Places (locates restaurants and includes reviews but not menus), GoMeals (an app specifically directed at people with diabetes; locates restaurants and includes menus and nutrition information), My Calorie Counter by Everyday Health, Inc. (does not locate restaurants but lists nutrition information for restaurant items and compares selected foods with other foods if desired), and Calorie Count (does not locate restaurants but lists nutrition information for restaurant menu items, including fast-food restaurants).
Taking a cruise
A cruise ship could be thought of as both a mode of transportation and a destination all in one: As the ship travels toward its official destination, you relax and enjoy the on-board amenities, including the food. Typically, food is available at all hours, and between the dining rooms, specialty restaurants, all-you-can-eat buffets, casual cafes, snack bars, and 24-hour room service, it’s easy to overeat on a cruise.
On the plus side, cruise ships can usually accommodate special dietary needs such as vegetarian, low-fat, or low-sodium meals. It’s best to call ahead to arrange for this, and you may even need to submit your requirements in writing.
On the minus side, portion control is up to the individual, and it can be difficult when surrounded by so much temptation. Some tips that can help you to eat moderately are listed in “Take-Away Dining Tips” and “Using Your Hands to Estimate Portions.”
When traveling by air, planning for food is a must. On many flights, no food is served, and even when it is, it may not fit well into your meal plan.
Start by noting whether food will be served (or sold) on your flight and what will be available — full meals, snacks, or only beverages. Your reservation record should include this information, and you can often find details on an airline’s meal service options on its website. However, as the airlines themselves caution, “Product selections may vary and may not be available on all flights.” In addition, you never know when a flight will be delayed, possibly also delaying your meal or keeping you en route for much longer than you expected.
To avoid going hungry, always bring some food in your carry-on bag. Choose foods that travel well and that won’t spoil quickly at room temperature. You can buy food at most airports, but your choices may be limited, and you can’t count on having time to make a food purchase; a delay getting to the airport or an unexpectedly tight connection may have you scurrying to your gate. Being prepared with some food from home guarantees that you’ll have something to tide you over.
While most planes have water as a complimentary beverage option, it may depend on the length of the flight and/or the level of cabin service. Once you have cleared security at the airport, it may be wise to purchase a bottle of water (or fill your refillable bottle) to carry on board. It’s also a good idea to bring a nonliquid hypoglycemia treatment such as glucose tablets with you to avoid trouble at security and to have a quick remedy on hand.
If you do need a carbohydrate-containing drink to raise your blood glucose level while flying, ask a flight attendant. Most planes carry beverages, and flight attendants are generally accommodating in situations such as this.
Your destination can have a big effect on your dining options. If you’re going to a large, Westernized city, you should be able to find familiar foods pretty easily. However, if you’re going to a small, isolated town or a developing country, your food choices may be limited and/or largely unfamiliar. And even if you can get familiar foods, often part of the fun of traveling to another part of the world is trying new foods. So it always makes sense to find out ahead of time what the local cuisine is like and — as best as possible — how it will fit into your meal plan.
These days, it’s possible to look up the cuisine of almost any country or part of the world on the Internet and learn about common ingredients and popular dishes in the area. Write down the names of any unfamiliar foods, as well as the names of familiar foods in the local language. Make a note of which foods are fruits, vegetables, and starches (or starchy vegetables), and which foods are meats or other protein sources. Even if you don’t know exactly what you’re eating, knowing what type of food you’re eating will help you estimate the amount of carbohydrate and other nutrients on your plate.
Your choice of accommodations can affect your eating options during a trip. If you stay in a rental unit or hotel room with a full kitchen, you may be able to prepare some or all of your meals yourself — as long as you can shop locally for groceries or bring food with you from home.
Some hotels have microwaves and/or refrigerators available to their guests, allowing for simple meal preparation. Sometimes these are provided for free, and sometimes there’s a fee. You may need to supply your own dishes and utensils, and you’ll need to bring food or find a place to shop locally.
Hotels and lodges that cater to skiers and other outdoor winter sportspeople often have a 24-hour hot beverage bar. Using hot water from the bar, you can make instant oatmeal or soup or any beverage mixes that you bring for yourself.
If your hotel or lodgings serve food, such as a complimentary breakfast, call ahead to ask what items are served and how are they prepared. If the hotel has a full-service restaurant, you can likely review the menu online or have a copy faxed to you so you can plan ahead. And it’s always a good idea to research what other restaurants are located nearby in case you find you need other options.
Ask the expert
Need some help figuring this all out? Make an appointment with a registered dietitian before your trip. Most insurance plans, including Medicare, cover a certain number of sessions per year with a dietitian. A dietitian can help you sort out all kinds of dining dilemmas, including the following:
• How to plan meals when you are away from home
• How to make healthy choices when eating out
• How to estimate portion sizes and carbohydrate amounts as accurately as possible
• What foods and beverages can be used to treat low blood glucose
• How to fit alcoholic beverages into your meal plan and how to anticipate their effect on your blood glucose level
• How to plan for the effects of changes in your physical activity level on your diabetes control and when and how to adjust your food intake to compensate for them
If you take any medicines as part of your diabetes treatment plan, your dietitian may consult with other members of your diabetes care team to recommend any medicine adjustments that may help you to maintain optimal diabetes control during your travels.
Take notes for next time
Traveling is always a learning experience, and the things you learn on one trip are often transferable to the next. To be sure you remember the lessons learned, take notes during your trip. Keep track of what worked well to keep your blood glucose in range, and what you might do differently the next time around. Jot down questions you’d like to ask your dietitian or other diabetes team members once you get back home.
The better you feel while traveling, the more you’ll enjoy your trip. And the more time your blood glucose levels are in your target range, the better you’ll feel. Stay healthy — and have more fun! — by planning ahead for the best possible control. Safe travels!