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How to Eat Healthy When You Travel and Avoid Getting Fat

To avoid weight gain, you need to know how much food you eat on a daily basis. When you’re traveling, that can be tough because everything looks and tastes like a great idea. But if you’re going to be eating the world and don’t want to look like you actually ate the entire world, then…well, let’s discuss how you can at least develop some control over what you eat as you travel. Over the long run, it’s possible to eat healthy, enjoy yourself, and not gain much weight while you travel.

What’s the Point of Tracking Food?

Nutrition labels, health articles, and even restaurant menus often tell us that the average adult should eat about 2,000 calories a day (this is highly variable, but bear with me). Yet we’re really bad at estimating the amount of food and calories we eat on a daily basis. I mean, can you even tell me exactly what you ate for dinner two nights ago?

Probably not with any degree of accuracy. And that’s the thing. If you don’t know how much you really eat day to day, you might be surprised one Tuesday and break down into tears when you discover your pants don’t quite fit anymore. The benefits of knowing what you’ve eaten are that you learn a lot about your own eating habits, and at the very least, start to know what real portion sizes look like. The other thing is that if you really want to do something about managing your weight, especially when you’re traveling long term, then you first need to look at what you’re eating. Using your “gut feeling” is basically depending on fairy dust to help you lose or manage your weight.

And you know what else works against you? Your memory. So did you remember exactly what you ate two nights ago? Probably not, huh? I’ve been tracking food for a long time, so I can just whip out my phone, pull up Cronometer, the food-tracking app that I use, and then list off all of the foods I ate, including the exact amounts and the calorie information. I’m not saying this to brag. In the last 14 months of travel, I’ve maintained my weight with fluctuations of one to two pounds and have gotten stronger in the gym. And this is with me eating fairly freely. I have this habit of tracking food to thank.

At first, tracking food will seem like a hassle and too time-consuming, but don’t worry, I’ve kept the traveler, remote worker, or vagabonding soul in mind so there will be strategies that don’t require you to use an app if you don’t want to.

Should You Track Calories or Macronutrients?

Cities have been burned to the ground over the debate of whether you should count calories or count macronutrients. There is a difference.

Macronutrients are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, the very things that make your food taste so damn good. When you “count macros,” you try to hit a specific daily ceiling of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. For example, my daily needs are about 2100 calories total (for neither gaining nor losing weight). This typically translates to about 250 grams of carbohydrates, 50 grams of fats, and 130 grams of protein. Seems very confusing at first, but that’s okay, counting macros is a skill. Getting into how to count macronutrients is beyond the scope of this particular article, but this incredibly detailed guide does a better job breaking it down here. 

Counting calories, on the other hand, is using second-grade math to add up the numbers on the packages, based on the serving sizes you ate. Just keep in mind that the nutritional labels aren’t necessarily accurate.

In any case, counting macronutrients lends itself to greater flexibility, which is key if you plan on tracking your food during your long-term travels. Think about the concept of Food Tetris, where the fun is figuring out how to make foods fit your eating plan. It’s my preferred method.

What You Need to Track Your Food

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To start tracking, you need a phone with a food-tracking app downloaded.

There are a myriad of food-tracking apps, but the most popular ones are MyFitnessPal and Cronometer. MyFitnessPal is more widely used than Cronometer, but Cronometer has a nicer interface and breaks down your vitamins and mineral intake too. MyFitnessPal has a much larger food database, so you can find a ton more foods there.

Once you’re down with an app you like, you basically start logging. Search for the food you just ate or are about to eat. Let’s say you just wolfed down a sirloin steak. It was about the size of your palm, so that’s about 4 ounces.

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Step 1: You search “sirloin steak.” Usually, there will be a lot of choices, so pick the one that best describes the steak you just ate. How was it prepared (grilled, pan-fried, broiled, roasted, etc.)? Was it eaten with sauce? How much fat was on it?

Step 2: Make sure your selection is the cooked version, not raw meat (unless you ate it raw, you fiend, you).

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Step 3: Input the quantity (4 ounces, in this case).

Step 4: Voila! Your app should do the calculations for you. Now do this with all of your food and take a look at your app’s daily total for the day.

For best accuracy, it’s best to log foods individually, but you could also log entire meals (like the information from restaurants) to have a basic idea.

This seems like a lot of work, and it most definitely is when you’re just starting out. You’ll eventually have to get comfortable with a system: If you know what you’re going to eat ahead of time, plan out your meals (restaurants or otherwise) and log your foods before you even eat them; or log them after you’ve already eaten the meal. The downside of the latter is that you realize you’re human and you forget.

What If There Is No Nutritional Info Available?

In most countries, you won’t find accurate, good, or even any nutrition info. Obviously, you’ll have to eyeball things, but I did point out earlier that we’re generally terrible at guess-timating food portions. Of course, you can be less terrible with a lot of practice, but before you become God-like, there are smart ways to go about it:

  • Just focus on protein: If there’s one thing I recommend keeping track of, it’s protein. The protein helps keep you satisfied and meet your daily needs, which are high if you’re also working out. In fact, I recommend doing so with the “hand-size” technique I’ll explain a little bit about in the next section.
  • Give yourself a buffer: In the end, overall calories should be relatively consistent day to day. If accuracy is important to you, you’ll need to assume your best estimations will still be off by at least 25 percent or so. Add about 10 grams fats and 30 grams carbs, from coconut oil and sugar, respectively, to your tracking app to give yourself some wiggle room. This way you overestimate.
  • Find an equivalent: An equivalent is something that you can find on your tracking app and is the closest match in terms of macronutrients to the thing you’re eating. This particular tip is quite advanced, as you’d need to have a firm grasp of what most foods are made of. For example, I ate a lot of tsukemen in Japan. There’s simply no tsukemen in most food tracking apps, so I’d go with the next best thing: about 2 servings of egg noodles and a reasonable soup, depending on how oily it is.

If You Don’t Want to Track, There Are Easier Ways

Right, so knowing how to track your food is all gravy, but I agree, it’s really not practical at all to do when you’re more interested in stuffing your face and moving on to see ancient ruins and desktop background-esque sceneries, or whatever.

So far we’ve discussed methods that overall require limited attention and energy. I still think tracking your food is a valuable skill, but I don’t want you to divert energy away from enjoying your travels and doing good work either. Here are some alternatives to controlling your food:

1. Use Your Hands.

The geniuses over at Precision Nutrition came up with this idea of using your hands to eyeball your portion sizes of even carb and fat sources. I think it’s perfect for people who just want to estimate yet eat sensibly enough.

The quickest way to find a proper portion size of your protein is to use your own palm as a measuring tool. If you have really, really tiny hands, or big, gigantic hands, they’d obviously skew the portion, but for the most part, your hand is a reliable estimate.

Basically, aim for two palm-sized proteins per meal (that’s assuming three meals per day), if you’re a dude. That should be more than plenty of protein if you consistently are able to eat that much. Go for one palm-sized protein per meal (assuming three meals) if you’re a lady like me. Personally, I’d probably go for more like one and a half palm-sizes.

For carbs, aim to get two curled-up fist sized portions of carbs. That means, imagine yourself grabbing two fistfuls of rice or berries; that’s your serving if you’re a dude. For women, it’s generally half of that.

2. Carb Cycling

Now we’re getting into some advanced stuff.

With carb cycling, you alternate between a day of eating high (or normal) amounts of carbs with a day of eating lower-than-normal amounts of carbs (usually about 50-100 grams fewer carbs–that’s the equivalent of about three slices of bread or somewhere close). How much you cut back depends on the number of calories you eat on a daily basis.

Let’s say you eat 2,100 calories on a typical day. So on Monday you eat your normal amounts of carbs (let’s say 250 grams, or approximately five bowls of rice). On Tuesday, you eat half that amount, which means you cut then you’re back to your regular amount on Wednesday. Up, down, high, low, on repeat. There are many ways to carb cycle.

This seems like an awful lot of extra thinking about your day to day eating, but it’s simply a method that high-end fitness models and competitors use to get their bodies in tip-top shape. You can use this to effectively maintain your weight. To understand why exactly, you need to read a bit more about the role carbohydrates play in keeping you and your workouts fueled, as well as how they regularly interact in your body with the homies, fat and protein. It can be quite complicated, but if you’re interested Body Recomposition is a great resource for learning more.

For our purposes, just know there’s nothing inherently magical about carb cycling, other than it allowing you to manipulate your calories while you’re traveling. This gives you a buffer for the times you just enjoy the heck out of yourself and evens things out in the long run, provided the rest of the time you’re eating a normally sound diet.

3. Intermittent Fasting

Put simply, intermittent fasting (IF) is when you intentionally not eat for a set period of time, usually for about 14 hours. It’s not as bad as it sounds because you’re sleeping for most of that time, then you just skip breakfast and don’t eat until noon. At that point, you can eat one or two large meals for the day and stop eating to fast again until the next day. This protocol takes some practice and you can shuffle the time around as you need to.

I know it sounds sacrilegious to not be eating around the clock when you’re eyeballs deep in all of the tempting food of the world, but the real benefits to intermittent fasting are that you gain “freedom” and a lot more flexibility. For one thing, IF teaches you a lot about hanger management and that it’s okay to be and feel hungry for a bit. You may even find that you won’t shrivel up like a prune and die because you didn’t eat that donut.

The initial learning period can be a bitch as you struggle to fight your old urge to immediately stuff your face as soon as your stomach gurgles. The trick? Lots of black coffee, hot drinks, and sugar-free gum, but also just focusing on getting work done during this fasting period. Some people report feeling more alert and productive when they do IF.

Once you get better at handling hanger-induced outbursts, you learn to actually listen to your body’s cues more often and possibly–gasp–eat less frequently. These perks all directly benefit your weight on the road without a whole lot of effort. Try IF for a month, and if you end up hating it, no harm, no foul. You can go back to your regularly scheduled breakfasts and hanger tantrums.

Applying These Strategies to Your Travels

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Okay, I’ve just given you a lot of options to soak in, so what should you be doing? Here’s what I think you should try in this order:

Method 1: Track your food for two weeks. Just two weeks. When you can, weigh foods, such as rice, noodles, bread, peanut butter, oatmeal, and maybe some chicken or other protein, on a kitchen scale (I recommend this portable one that I use). To you, that seems like being obsessive about your food, but to me, it’s a good start for helping you realize that food portions are always bigger than you think. Once you can sort of eyeball portion sizes, you can be more mindful of the overall amount of calories you’re eating each day.

Method 2: If you hate tracking your food via the mobile app, use your hands as a rough guide. Aim to nail the protein part.

Method 3: Try intermittent fasting. This can be especially helpful for other writers or people who generally have a lot of work to get done in the morning. Productivity-wise, it makes sense to get all of your work done in the morning anyway, and then head out for lunch for a nice meal once you’ve got a bulk of your work done.

Method 4: If intermittent fasting works well for you, try combining with carb cycling if you tend to have too many “indulgent” days.

The key to traveling, especially if you stay somewhere long-term, is to develop and stick to a routine. For example, if you’re going to skip breakfast, do it consistently. Don’t overcomplicate it because all you should focus on is eating around the same time every day and stick to this routine about 80 percent of the time.

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