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How to Eat Low-Carb When Traveling

Photos by  Anne Lopez Studios

New on the blog: a guide I wrote for the terrific LCHF site, Diet Doctor. Whether you are low-carb or not, this post should help you eat more real food (and more healthy fat) while traveling. Now that's vintage... enjoy!

Are you tired of lousy food options at every airport, train station or rest stop? Hit the road with confidence. A little preparation goes a long way. We've made it easy with this guide to low-carb travel.

Six tips–

 

1. Eat well before departing

real food breakfast

Fill up on your low-carb favorites before you leave. Home is the easiest place to eat right. Don’t rush – start your journey nourished and satisfied.

A filling low-carb breakfast before your travel begins can be quick and easy – hardboiled eggs, cooked bacon, reheated egg muffins, or plain Greek yogurt with cream, berries, and nuts. If you have more time, sauté sausage with mushrooms and tomatoes or slice an avocado and enjoy with olive oil or mayonnaise.
 

2. Pack low-carb snacks

When the flight attendant passes out pretzels, resist temptation and reach for one of these delicious and portable snacks tucked in your carry-on:

  • Nuts and nut butters (Which nuts are best? Check out our guide.)
  • Peeled hard-boiled eggs – don’t forget some salt!
  • Cheese of any type – packaged Babybel cheese is a popular option
  • Jerky, dry salami and cooked bacon
  • Low-carb Sesame Crispbread
  • Parmesan Cheese Crisps
  • Celery filled with cream cheese or nut butter
  • Ham and cheese roll-ups
  • Crudité with dip
  • Salmon and Cream Cheese Bites
  • Leftovers (yesterday’s low-carb dinner makes a great snack or meal)
  • Butter (for coffee, tea and crisps)
  • Olive oil (for salads and veggies)
  • Dark chocolate (≥ 70% cacao; no more than a couple of squares per day.)

Containers

You could pack your snacks in their original containers or in a plastic bag. But you could also get creative, like in the picture at the top.

Here are some smart containers to make travel easier, and keep your food fresh for longer:

When in doubt, pop your container into a large zip-lock plastic bag for extra protection against leaks.

 

3. Use coffee to keep hunger at bay

butter coffee

Coffee, either black or with heavy cream or melted butter, can take the edge off of hunger until you make it to a place with better food. This works with tea or bullion, too.

 

4. Try fasting

If intermittent fasting is part of your low-carb routine, use it strategically to skip meals and make travel simpler. Perhaps you rush to your early morning flight and wait to eat until lunch. Or, eat a hearty low-carb breakfast before leaving home and don’t eat again until dinner at your destination. One nice thing about fasting is that you can do it anywhere.

Look here for more on why intermittent fasting can complement LCHF.

 

5. Master restaurant dining

Eating out with confidence is a key part of success when traveling. Common sense should rule – say no to bread, ask for double veggies instead of the starch with your main course, and choose olive oil and vinegar for your salad. Ask for butter to melt on your cooked vegetables and protein. Skip dessert, or choose a cheese plate or berries with heavy cream.

Drink mostly water – champagne, dry wine, light beer, and straight spirits are okay in moderation. (Our guide to low-carb alcohol is worth consulting.)

For more expert tips to help you enjoy low-carb meals at restaurants, check out our dining out guide.

 

6. Commit to success

No excuses. Traveling is not a reason to cheat on your low-carb lifestyle. Make health your priority and decide to make low-carb work before you leave for your journey.

For more on low-carb travel, check out our tips for longer vacations – holidays, cruises, camping, and more… coming soon.

 

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Better Than a Fitbit

Fitness trackers that count our steps can be fun and motivating. But, if you want to avoid pre-diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease, spend your money on a blood glucose meter.  For less than half the cost of a Fitbit, you can have a meter (and some test strips and lancets) that tells you whether your body is able to manage sugar levels in your blood.  This measure can alert you to hidden problems and help you craft a diet that is better suited to your body’s needs.

Diabetes is a big deal. It is costly to manage, destructive enough to take years off your life, and basically to-be-avoided. It is a huge risk factor for heart disease, too. The sooner you can catch your body veering from healthy toward pre-diabetes, the better. A Fitbit can’t help you catch the gradual creep upwards in fasting blood sugar that tells you that your metabolic balance is off. But a blood sugar meter can. And, since there are often no signs or symptoms associated with pre-diabetes, regular testing is the best way to make sure you are still healthy.  There are more than 86 million pre-diabetics in America, and most (~90%) of them do not know they are sick. Early detection enables people to reduce refined carbohydrates in their diet and often reverse their disease. Early detection also minimizes the damage that elevated blood sugar levels inflict.

Just like a Fitbit, it is pretty easy to use a blood sugar meter – yours should come with basic instructions. The most important test is to measure your blood sugar when you wake up in the morning, after going at least 8 hours without eating.  This gives you your fasting blood sugar level…  healthy levels fall between 70-90 mg/dL. Levels from 100-125mg/dL signify pre-diabetes, and levels above 125 mg/dL signify diabetes. Once you have your meter, you can also test how long it takes your body to get blood sugar back in check after a meal. Blood sugars should be below 140 two hours after eating.

Just as a Fitbit can motivate you to get off the couch and walk a few extra steps, a blood sugar meter can motivate you to eat more balanced meals that work for your body.  Simply monitoring your blood sugar every 15 minutes after a typical breakfast can show you what sort of a ride your blood sugar level took before returning to normal. Seeing what is actually happening in your body empowers you to tailor your meals to suit your particular needs. Through trial and error, you can find a mix of whole foods that satisfies yet does not put you on the 'wild ride' of the refined carbohydrate-induced blood sugar roller coaster.  Above on the right, you can see a graph of how two breakfasts, similar in total calories, affected my blood sugar. Both breakfasts were built around yogurt. The first was full-fat Greek yogurt, plain with a little stevia for sweetness, plus a couple of tablespoons cream, 1/4 cup blueberries, and two tablespoons slivered almonds. The second breakfast was similar, yet low in fat -- organic fat-free blueberry yogurt, an apple, and a granola bar. Without a blood sugar meter, we are unaware of this ride that so many of us jump on at breakfast and stay on until bedtime. With a blood sugar meter, you can see the peaks and valleys, and plan a way off that ride (eat less sugar and flour!)

Are you one of the 78 million American adults with undiagnosed pre-diabetes? Stop by any drug store, invest in a blood sugar meter, and you will know tomorrow morning. It’s that simple. And, it is much more important than knowing (exactly) how many steps you took yesterday, don’t you think?

 

 

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Juiced On Juice

Every month or so, I buy a 16oz container of freshly squeezed orange juice. And, I noticed that the always-helpful cashiers at my grocery store usually ask me, “Would you like to keep that out?” By this, they mean would I like to keep the OJ separate from the bagged groceries because I might want easy access to this beverage? Presumably, so I could chug it in the car on my way home???

My reply is always, “No thanks.” But, actually, what I want to say is…. “This is orange juice for my family of five. We will all get three to four ounces of juice in a small (juice) glass on Sunday morning. It’s a treat – we do this once a month. So, NO, I will not be downing this on my drive home.”

Orange juice, although delicious, is full of sugar. Two cups (16oz) of orange juice has more sugar than a 12oz Coke.  And, juice is fruit stripped of its fiber, so we tend to over-consume it. 16 oz of orange juice is the juice of roughly six medium oranges. That is a lot of oranges... The juice contains a trace amount of fat and a couple of grams of protein. Most of the calories are from sugar. Basically, orange juice is a carb-fest.

But the cashiers had me thinking… Lots of customers must say, “Yes. Please leave it out.” (Or they wouldn't ask, right?) And at least some of these shoppers must proceed to drink all or most of that 16oz container on the long ride home. So I thought, hmmm… what would happen if I chugged the orange juice?

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 10.07.47 PM.png

This graph gives you a picture of what happened to my blood sugar during this little adventure. Not pretty. And, I was definitely a little buzzed... I felt a rush. I felt a little bloated (that's a lot of juice!) and a little dazed. I could NOT CONCENTRATE (perhaps explaining the warning on the label, 'NOT from CONCENTRATE')? And then, two and a half hours later, I was starving. So I would say, being 'on the juice' is a bad idea. Even if you mean fresh, organic orange juice.

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Just a Spoonful of Sugar...

How much sugar (well, glucose, if you want to be more precise) is floating around in your blood right now? A normal, healthy, average sized adult has about a teaspoon of glucose dissolved in his or her blood. ONE TEASPOON-- a little more, perhaps even double, after a carbohydrate-rich meal. Blood sugar levels are closely monitored by your body. You need some, or you fall into a coma...  but too much blood sugar damages tissues. This is why diabetics, whose bodies are struggling to keep blood sugar levels in check, have serious troubles with circulation, vision, and kidney function.

If you have not yet heard the news, we are in the midst of a startling epidemic -- about 45% of adults are either pre-diabetic or diabetic... So, since blood glucose levels are at the center of this disease, perhaps we should consider how much glucose we are shoveling into our stomachs. Table sugar is half glucose, so that is an important source. But starch, such as grains and potatoes, tend to be an even bigger source of glucose. And starch is broken down into glucose in a flash in your stomach... just minutes after a starchy meal or snack, your blood glucose levels will be on the rise.

For example, consider your breakfast of 1/2 cup Grape Nuts, 1/2 cup skim milk, and a banana. How many teaspoons of glucose might be in your breakfast? A lot. After those digestive enzymes do their thing, roughly 54 grams of glucose gets absorbed into your blood.  That's ELEVEN TEASPOONS. Wow. Your body scrambles to get that glucose out of your bloodstream and into storage, (either in your liver, your muscles, or your fat cells), because all that glucose in your blood would be toxic. This 'fire drill' -- this scramble to get glucose out of your bloodstream, becomes a struggle for pre-diabetics. 

ELEVEN TEASPOONS. For context, a 12oz Coke has 39 grams of sugar, but only roughly half ~ 20 grams is glucose.  That is about 4 teaspoons. 

Hmmmm... For breakfast, if we reduced the starch and added more fat, we could cut way back on the glucose we ask our body to process. Here are some diets that will help you find a better way eating - Vintage Eating.  Real food. More fat.

 

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Whole Grains - Do We Need Them?

No.

(Hmmm... Stop there or elaborate a little?)

People have been eating grains for thousands of years. But, before that, people thrived for hundreds of thousands of years without grains. And, there are (and were) many traditional societies whose diets are (and were) completely grain free. So, it would seem that, no, a healthy diet does not NEED to contain grains.

But what about nutrients? Aren't grains a wonderful source of vitamins and minerals? Not really. On a per-calorie basis, when you compare grains to an equal serving of non-starchy veggies, the vegetables are a much better source of nutrients. Check out this chart from Jonathan Bailor's blog. Even vitamin enriched whole wheat flour pales in comparison to veggies.

But what about fiber? Although whole grain products have twice as much fiber as, say, a doughnut or Wonder Bread, they don't measure up to non-starchy veggies. A serving of veggies with equivalent calories has seven times the fiber of whole grains. So if you want fiber, load up on veggies (with butter, of course)!

And, if you like skeptical musings, you might enjoy this post, entitled 'Fun with Fiber: The Real Scoop' from Mark Sisson's blog, questioning the very notion that fiber is important in a healthy diet.

Whole grains. Traditionally, that meant the whole grain. As in, the whole kernel. Think: pearled barley, wheat berries, steel cut oats, farro.  Grains were soaked, boiled, fermented (like beer), and sprouted. These are the whole grains that have been consumed for thousands of years. Modern eaters tend to turn to whole grain flour. Let's look at the difference, from the perspective of the glycemic index (GI) -- a measure of how quickly those grains turn into glucose in our blood:

  • White Bread 73 GI

  • Whole Wheat Bread 71 GI

  • Coco Pops 77 GI

  • Grape Nuts 75 GI

  • Special K 69 GI

VERSUS

  • Wheat Berries 30 GI

  • Pearled Barley 28 GI

As you can see, when whole grains are pulverized into flour for breads or cereals, they lose all of that 'whole grain goodness', at least from a blood sugar perspective, and perform very much like white flour. But who wants to eat wheat berries for breakfast? (Maybe porridge? That's vintage.) The reality is that our love affair with grains is almost entirely a love affair with highly processed food - the breads, cereals, crackers, chips, pastas, and pizza crusts made with flour.

So why do we keep hearing so much about “heart-healthy whole grains”? Observational studies. That’s right. Almost all of the science that looks at the benefits of whole grains is based on weak associations (and imprecise food frequency questionnaires). With any epidemiological study, the “healthy user bias” creeps in… after all, who eats whole grains other than health-minded people who have many healthy habits that improve their outcomes? So if you read a headline about whole grains, check to see if the reported result is an actual experimental result or just an unreliable observational association.

Bottom line -- whole grains are a great source of CALORIES. And whole grain flour is a great source of the kind of calories that spike your blood sugar. So, if you need more of that, go for it!

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Fed Up With Processed Food?

What role do food giants like Kraft or Nabisco play in our current health crisis? They make a lot of the food that is bad for us, sure, but ultimately, we are the ones putting the products in our cart. Why, oh why, do we buy?

Well, food manufacturers are good at marketing, and we are often governed by our 'reptile brain'  - the part of our brain that likes the hot model in the commercial and that wants quick and easy food...  more, more, more. Our food corporations engineer attractively packaged, convenient, and even tasty or addictive food that lasts in our pantries. And they put it in front of us -- both in the grocery aisles and in the media -- with remarkable creativity. Yes indeed, they intentionally tempt us, and they are skilled temptresses.

Movies like Fed Up do a nice job of pointing this out. But what they fail to point out is that expecting much more from the food giants is a little naive. Given that their corporate charge is to maximize shareholder value, not improve our collective health, can we really expect change? After all, poisoning people really, really slowly with an addictive product is actually a reasonable business model. 

If Big Food is doing its free-market thing and isn't going to change anytime soon, is there any hope of improvement?  Why, yes. We can change the advice we give eaters and, in turn, eaters can change their behavior. Nothing will change the food industry faster than educated consumers walking away from aisles and aisles of processed crap. 

So why, oh why, do we buy? We buy the current, crappy offerings, in part, because of both the advice we have been given and the advice we have not received. "Avoid fat" comes to mind as an example of bad advice.  "Avoid refined carbohydrates" comes to mind as an example of advice that we have not received with enough consistency. So again, why do we buy that yogurt with 24 grams of sugar? Perhaps because we have been assured that yogurt is 'healthy.' And, perhaps because it is labeled 'low-fat', which, in the mixed-up construct that is the USDA's dietary advice, would make it even healthier, right? So, although we wouldn't dream of feeding our kids 'dessert' for breakfast, we hand them the brightly packaged nutritional equivalent without giving it much thought. The double whammy of the misinformation we have received about dietary fat and the missing 'avoid refined carbohydrates - yes, even in yogurt' advice leave us adrift in the sea of bad breakfast options, unable to find the shores of real food that await us a few aisles over.

Imagine a world where, in 1980, the USDA had just told everyone to eat more real food and less processed food, particularly sugar and starch.  Would you guess that the yogurt offerings would look different?  Absolutely.  Because the food corporations actually do at least try to please both the USDA and consumers by meeting the demand for 'healthy' products, whatever the current definition of 'healthy' dictates.

Let's redefine healthy.  Let's vote with our grocery carts. Remember, "If you are dumb enough to buy it, they will be smart enough to sell it." The best way to get the crap off the shelves is to, collectively, stop buying it.

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A Universal Law

Most of us would rather buy a used car from the little old lady down the street than the 24-year-old drag racing dude from around the corner. Why? Because we know that the drag racer has been slamming his foot on the accelerator every chance he gets... and the little old lady? She has been using her car with great care. So her car will last longer.

When you wake each morning and consume a carb-heavy breakfast, low in protein and fat, YOU are that dude slamming your foot on the accelerator. Your blood is quickly flooded with the glucose from the sugar and starch in your fruit, breakfast cereal, and skim milk (or your oversized bagel, low-fat cream cheese, and orange juice), so your pancreas scrambles to pump out insulin to keep you from slipping into a hyperglycemic haze. Your blood sugar spikes, your insulin levels spike, and you begin a roller coaster of a day, slamming on the accelerator and the brake from a blood sugar perspective. This is not easy on your body - your pancreas, your tissues, your teeth - high blood sugar and high insulin levels are just not good for any part of you.

Look here for a graph of blood sugar levels after two very different breakfasts...  eggs vs. cereal.

Take it easy on your body. It is your home. Use it gently.  Eat real food.  Eat more fat.

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