Long road trips have the potential to wreak havoc on a healthy lifestyle. Not only do you have to sit in a car for an entire day (sometimes a few days), you also have to rely on convenience store junk or rest stop fast food for most meals. For the health minded, sitting in a car with nothing remotely nutritious is a nightmare. The poor food selection combined with physical inactivity leaves you feeling almost sick. Planning ahead and doing a bit of extra work makes the entire experience healthier and the holiday more enjoyable.
There are two main problems with long road trips: nutrition and physical activity. Highway rest stops don't offer the widest selection of quality choices. They are all filled with fast food and gas stations. The choice is between hamburgers, tacos, fried chicken and candy bars. And if fried food and greasy hamburgers aren't enough to make you sick, there's also the 'sitting in a car for 12+ hours on consecutive days' part to top it off.
Grocery Store. Instead of getting on the road and stopping whenever your stomach tells you to, plan ahead and get some healthy foods beforehand. Do a mini-shopping trip at the grocery store and buy some healthy options for the road. Here are a few ideas:
- peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
- driving friendly fruit - apples, berries, pears, bananas
- driving friendly vegetables - carrots, celery, grape tomatoes
Big Gas Stations. Though selection on the road is limited, there are a few healthier options. Bigger gas stations catering to the overnight truck driving crowd have more options than smaller gas station. They typically have a small selection of fruit, nuts, seeds, fresh sandwiches, cereal and even oatmeal.
Caffeinated Drinks. Driving requires energy and during the last few hours of a road trip, energy comes in the form of coffee, energy drinks and soda. The problem with these beverages is the excessive amount of sugar they're made with. Big energy drink cans have 50-60 grams of sugar.
Sugar gives you a lot of energy in a very short period of time but causes a crash soon after. Sugar isn't a practical source of energy for long road trips. If you drink 50-60 grams of sugar, you'll feel good for 10-20 minutes before the sugar crash hits. If you use caffeinated beverages to stay alert, avoid ones with excessive amounts of sugar. Choose sugar free energy drinks, sodas and coffee (calorie-free sweeteners work wonders).
General Road Trip Nutrition Rules. The same general nutrition rules you apply in everyday life are also valid for road trips. First, avoid foods whose main ingredient is sugar. Sugar is digested very quickly and does almost nothing for satiety. If you eat a bunch of sugary calories, you'll get hungry again very quickly. Instead of sugary foods, find options high in fiber. Fiber keeps you full for a much longer period of time, keeping calories low. Snacking often keeps you from getting hungry. Keep a few healthy snacks in the car to avoid hunger and cravings.
Next, avoid drinking calories. Like sugar, liquid calories are digested quickly and leave you hungry. Instead of liquid calories, eat solid foods high in fiber to stay full as long as possible. This keeps calorie intake down. If you need caffeine, choose artificially sweetened energy drinks and coffee (or get used to black coffee) instead of calorie-filled drinks. Water is the best calorie-free way to stay hydrated.
Finally, if you have no choice but to stop for fast food, eat the healthier options. No one is forcing you to get a triple hamburger with bacon, large fries and a chocolate milk shake. Look up the calorie content and pick the least excessive option: salads, fish sandwiches or Burger King's veggie burger.
The other problem with long road trips is physical inactivity. The general recommendation is to take 10,000 steps per day. Doing absolutely no physical activity leaves you well short of the general recommendation. No one likes being stuck in a car all day, especially those used to exercising regularly. There's no easy solution to this because stopping to exercise makes the unbearably long trip even longer.
Walk at Rest Stops. Most rest stops on interstate highways have dog walking areas. These aren't as nice as mile long tracks you would see at a park but a quick 10 minute walk at each stop (or every other stop) adds up to quite a bit of low intensity exercise. Though these walks aren't going to replace rigorous exercise, they do break up the hours of sitting in a car and doing nothing.
See the Sights. The next option is stopping in one of the bigger cities on the way for an hour to explore. If you're lucky enough to pass a big city during non-rush hours, downtown might be a feasible option. Another option is finding a big mall or store (Walmart, Target) and walking around for 20-30 minutes. Use this as an opportunity to load up on some healthy snacks.
The Bottom Line
Road trips aren't fun for the health oriented. Unfortunately, the solutions aren't easy or convenient. While it's much easier in the short term to simply eat the hamburger or sit in the car for 12 hours, doing so leaves you feeling less than optimal., arriving in an unpleasant mood.