On a long car trip, your eating options may be limited. But that doesn’t mean you have to get by with greasy rest-stop burgers and gas-station snacks. Smart food choices will keep you comfortable and focused on the road – not bloated and tired when you arrive at your destination. Learn these expert tips, and you’ll make it through miles of diners and mini-marts without packing on pounds…
Your bags are packed, the gas tank’s filled and your GPS is programmed. You’re all set for a worry-free road trip.
But not so fast: What about eating on the way? Will junky road food doom your diet?
It doesn’t have to, top dietitians say.
“The reality is your diet isn’t going to be perfect,” says Lisa De Fazio, a registered dietitian and health expert for the website fitperez.com. “But you can do your best with what’s available.”
Even though road food has a reputation for being unhealthful, making smart food choices can mean the difference between arriving alert and happy or bloated and tired.
Just follow these expert tips on which snacks to choose and lose at gas stations, burger joints and roadside diners.
Road food stop #1: The greasy breakfast diner
Truck drivers pushing the pedal to the metal love to load up on a filling breakfast to get through the drive. But health-conscious travelers don’t have to.
Lose: Sugary cereal or creamy grits
Breakfast choices like sugary cereals or grits (a hot cornmeal cereal without much fiber) might be quick if you’re in a hurry. But they don’t leave you feeling full and prepared for a long day of driving.
Choose: Oatmeal with berries
Oatmeal has cholesterol-lowering fiber, which is good for your heart and will keep you full longer, says Jamie Beckerman, M.D., author of The Flex Diet (Touchstone).
(Try to get slow-cooked or steel-cut rather than instant – they’re healthier because the body digests it more slowly and they taste better.)
And berries add a delicious sweetness – plus they’re full of antioxidants, which help rid the body of cell-damaging free-radical molecules.
Order an egg or some turkey bacon on the side for protein, advises De Fazio.
Protein in the morning will help hold you over until lunch without craving sugar, and increases your ability to focus, she says.
“Protein should always be a part of breakfast, since you haven’t eaten in 12 hours,” she says. “If not, you can crash – [and] get extremely tired and hungry by 10 a.m.”
But avoid salty, high-fat breakfast meats such as sausage, says Beckerman.
Lose: Four-egg omelet
One egg yolk has 200 mg of cholesterol, De Fazio says.
“We should have about 200-250 mg for the entire day, but a whole four-egg omelet would be 800 mg cholesterol,” she warns.
Choose: Egg-white scramble with veggies
Egg whites give you protein without the cholesterol, says De Fazio.
“If you load up your egg scramble with flavorful veggies – which have natural, energy-producing nutrients – you won’t feel sluggish between meals,” she says.
Lose: Waffles, biscuits with gravy and pancakes
The days when a stack of pancakes was considered a proper breakfast are long gone, says chef and nutritionist Christine Avanti, author of Skinny Chicks Don’t Eat Salads (Rodale Books). These high-carb, low-protein meals can send your blood sugar reeling.
“Think of your blood sugar as a freeway,” she says. “When you eat all carbs, it’s metabolized into glucose, like a bunch of cars going way too fast.”
Eating protein, which metabolizes more gradually, is like adding super-slow cars into the mix, she adds.
If you can’t resist these high-carb treats, order a healthy, protein-rich breakfast, and get a pancake, waffle or biscuit on the side instead of toast.
Road food stop #2: Gas-station convenience stores
You’re making a quick stop to fuel up when a snack attack comes on. Here's what to do when faced with aisles of chips and candy bars:
Lose: Cheese crackers, potato chips or corn puffs
Crunchy snack foods are high in simple carbohydrates and low in protein. Eat these and you’ll be hungry before you’ve hit the next town on the interstate.
That’s because high-carb snacks are quickly broken down into glucose, triggering the pancreas to make more insulin to remove it from the blood. That, in turn, makes blood sugar levels unstable, so you crave more snacks to keep sugar levels up, explains Beckerman.
Choose: Peanut butter and crackers, unsalted nuts, turkey jerky
These foods have protein, which slow digestion and conversion of food into glucose. They’ll make you feel full longer, De Fazio says.
“The best thing would be to pack a peanut butter and honey sandwich before you go,” adds Mitzi Dulan, R.D., team nutritionist for the Kansas City Royals and co-author of The All-Pro Diet: Lose Fat, Build Muscle, and Live Like a Champion (Rodale Books). If possible, use “natural” peanut butter and whole-grain bread.
It’s healthy road food that “doesn’t need to be refrigerated,” she says.
A candy bar might satisfy a sweet tooth, but not much else. Just like chips, it’ll spike insulin levels, so you’ll get a temporary energy jolt, but crash a couple hours later.
Choose: Protein bar, trail mix or fruit
Try a chocolate-flavored protein bar, which your body will digest more slowly so you’ll feel full longer.
“Some protein bars have lots of added preservatives, so look at the ingredients and try to eat as natural as possible,” Dulan says.
Choose a bar with at least 30% protein and fewer than 15-20 grams of sugar, De Fazio advises.
Low-carb bars have lots of protein, but they often contain slowly digested sugars known as “sugar alcohols,” which may cause bloating and gas – not something you want on a long car trip.
When buying trail mix, avoid those with chocolate pieces, which just add unnecessary calories, Dulan says. If you can’t find a healthier mix, buy dried fruit and unsalted nuts, and eat them together, she says.
If you’re just in the mood for something sweet, grab an apple or banana.
“Many convenience stores have fresh fruit at the counter,” Avanti says.
Lose: Sodas (regular and diet)
“If people are drinking 3-4 regular sodas, they might be drinking 800 calories a day,” De Fazio says.
Dulan agrees: “Save the calories for food.”
Besides, diet sodas won’t quench your thirst as well as other drinks, says Beckerman. Because they taste so sweet, your body expects real sugar and prepares for a wide calorie load. When that doesn’t arrive, your brain sends out signals for you to drink.
“So people keep drinking without satisfaction,” De Fazio says.
Choose: Sparkling water or flavored mineral water
“Drinking water is best for hydration, because your body can use it easily without having to process the salt and fake sugar in diet or sports drinks,” De Fazio says.
If you’re bored with plain H2O, bubbly or flavored mineral waters may be more interesting to your palate.
Lose: Frozen yogurt
If you pass up ice cream for frozen yogurt, you’re making the healthier fast food choice – it has less fat and more protein. But it’s still loaded with sugar.
Choose: Cottage cheese or yogurt
A better bet is plain low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese, which have the protein and calcium of frozen yogurt without added sugar.
To dress them up, "throw in some almonds, or look for fruit and cottage cheese side-by-sides in the refrigerated sections of mini-marts,” De Fazio says.
Greek yogurt is the best choice because it’s higher in protein than other yogurts, Beckerman advises.
Road food stop #3: The roadside burger joint
It’s lunchtime, and you want a satisfying meal before heading back on the road. You don’t want to stop for food again an hour into your drive.
Sure, they have a lot of protein and will keep you full. But high-calorie cheeseburgers bite back, with artery-clogging fat (mostly the unhealthy saturated kind) and nearly half your recommended daily allotment of sodium.
Choose: Grilled chicken or turkey burgers
A grilled chicken breast sandwich or turkey burger is lower in saturated fat than the average hamburger, according to De Fazio.
But if you’re really craving red meat, “get a small hamburger without cheese,” De Fazio says. “That’s about 250 calories – not too bad."
Avoid mayo-like sauces, which can add 100 extra calories and more saturated fat. Instead, ask for extra lettuce, tomatoes and other vegetables, Beckerman suggests.
Another option to cut calories: Order a kid’s burger, or cut a large hamburger in half and split it with your travel companion, Avanti advises.
Lose: The side of fries
Deep-fried foods are high in saturated or trans-fats, which raise cholesterol levels. They often also have too much salt, which makes you retain water and feel bloated, Beckerman says.
And these days, most burger joints offer healthier alternatives.
Choose: Vegetables, salad or fruit
Veggies and fruit add cholesterol-lowering fiber to your diet, which aids digestion and reduces heart disease, says Beckerman.
But “ask servers to steam the veggies,” Dulan advises. That retains more nutrients than boiling them in water.
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