Just like keeping fit, sticking to a healthy diet is harder when you travel. Backpackers can often find themselves eating high-calorie convenience food, eating out a lot, or drinking too much alcohol. Eating healthily while you travel is easier when you understand more about food as a fuel source. Find out why you need carbs, the importance of fats, and good sources of protein in this handy guide to healthy eating advice for backpackers.
- ‘Good’ vs ‘Bad’ Foods
- Being Carbo Conscious
- Eat Enough Fat
- Choose High Protein Snacks
- Why You Need Enough Water
When you’re travelling you can’t check the nutritional information on your food like you can at home. Food packaging often doesn’t contain nutritional details on it, you can’t exactly input your street food into MyFitnessPal, and you’re hardly going to carry a food scales with you to weigh out your rice. These simple things that guide what we eat back home aren’t available to us while we’re travelling so we use other methods to determine what to eat.
‘Good’ Vs ‘Bad’ Food
The problem here is that most of us don’t really know the science behind why we should eat certain things, so our methods for determining what’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ usually come from magazine articles or diet advice that we’ve seen online. We’ve learned to see food in terms of numbers – and when we don’t know the numbers we don’t know what to do. We know carbs make you fat, we know avocados are good, chocolate is bad, sugar is the devil, and that we’re supposed to snack on ‘a handful of nuts’ – but we don’t really understand why.
Understanding how your body uses the food you eat is the key to learning how to eat well and nourishing your body properly. Learning why you need fats, when you need carbs, and how important it is to eat the right amount of protein will help you to make an informed decision about what to put into your body.
In this post I’ll give you some fast facts and key bits of information from my nutrition module and show you what your body does with the food you eat. I’m going to break down carbs, fats and proteins for you and tell you when, why, and in what quantity you should eat them.
Be Carb Conscious
I should preface this by saying that I am not an advocate of the Atkins diet. I think it’s bullshit and bad for your health – and it leaves people feeling like a failure for not being able to stick to a diet that the human body is not meant to follow. But while it is important to eat carbs, it’s even more important to know when to eat them. I’m going to give you a little background into why you need carbs and why they are attributed to weight gain.
Why do you need to eat carbs?
Carbohydrates are your body’s most efficient fuel source. Once eaten, carbs are broken down into smaller sugars – glucose, fructose and galactose. Glucose is the one we’ll focus on here as it is your body’s number one source of energy – it keeps your brain and nervous system functioning properly, and provides you with energy for high intensity exercise.
When your blood glucose is low you can become lethargic and disoriented, your concentration can suffer, and if you’re my husband you will become extremely moody! When you eat carbs, any glucose that your body doesn’t immediately need for energy will pop over to your liver and muscles to be stored as glycogen, ready to be accessed and used when you need a burst of energy later. However your muscles and liver can only store a certain amount of glycogen and once those glycogen stores are full any extra glycogen will be stored as fat. So regular low activity levels combined with a high carb intake will result in weight gain.
How much of your diet should come from carbs?
What you want to do is eat more carbs on days that you’re active and less on inactive days. It’s pretty straightforward! You still need to keep those glycogen stores topped up so you will need some carbohydrates, but on average only 20% of your diet should come from carbs on inactive days compared with 40% on active days.
In Asia dishes can be very carb-heavy, and you’re often served rice or noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wholegrain rice, pasta and bread are not widely available which means you’re eating lots of simple carbohydrates. This makes it very easy to gain weight, so here’s a few things we do to stop carb overload on inactive days:
Order one portion of rice between two (if both dishes come with rice we just ask for the second one to come without to save waste).
Order vegetables instead of a carbohydrate with my main dish. Garlic and pepper chicken with a side of garlicky morning glory or pak choi is delicious.
Try egg noodles instead of white rice ones.
You can get some great salads in Asia, and they’re all made fresh so you can usually specify how spicy you would like them to be.
For breakfast I have eggs and fruit without toast if I’m not working out that morning.
I always, always eat carbs with lunch. The afternoons are always the most active part of the day so you will need the energy that carbs give you. How much I eat depends on what our plans are: if we’re hiking or doing anything strenuous I have a full portion of rice or a rice / noodle based dish. If we’re taking it easier I’ll just have a half portion.
Eat enough fat
Don’t be afraid of fat, fat is great! Fat is wonderful! It gives you lovely shiny hair, great skin, healthy nails, better concentration levels and keeps you feeling full. Like carbs, fat is used as a fuel source, but to break down fat effectively your body must break down a certain amount of carbs.
Why do you need to eat fats?
While carbohydrates fuel high-intensity exercise, fat is used to fuel low to moderate intensity activities. So it contributes about 50% of the energy your body uses when you’re resting or walking around sightseeing. You need fat to maintain a healthy body and to keep that body moving.
How much of your diet should come from Fat?
All fats are definitely not equal and there are obviously good and bad sources of fat. Unfortunately dishes in Asia tend to contain more of the bad than good fats. What you want to have in your food is monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which you’ll find in foods such as:
• Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, trout and sardines): Fish can be very easy to find but can unfortunately be a little too expensive for a backpacker budget. You only need 2 portions of omega 3 & 6 per week so this might be affordable.
• Avocado: the more touristy places have avocado, but a lot of time it’s on the menu but they don’t have any. Check this before you choose a restaurant because it has avocado on the menu!
• Nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, peanuts, macadamia nuts): I pick up bags of unsalted nuts when in convenience stores to snack on, order dishes that have whole nuts in them, and also usually have natural peanut butter in my backpack.
• Seeds: you can buy bags of sunflower seeds in many convenience stores, pumpkin, flax or sesame seeds are great too but can be harder to come by.
• Soy milk or tofu: tofu features on a lot of Asian menus, and soy milk is really popular too – you’ll find it in most convenience store fridges in Thailand.
About 20% – 30% of your daily diet should come from fat. I’ve found it hard to eat enough good fats from my meals so I top up my fat intake with supplies from convenience stores. Pre-boiled eggs are a great way to get some fat into your diet!
Choose high protein snacks
The protein you eat will be used for very important things like building, maintaining and repairing bodily tissue and therefore shouldn’t be used as fuel. So unlike fat and carbs, you don’t need protein for energy but it’s still extremely important for a healthy body.
How to eat enough protein in Asia
Most meat eaters won’t have a problem getting their daily protein intake in Asia but I have struggled a bit as I don’t eat a lot of meat. This section is mainly for vegetarians or people like me who eat meat but not very much and not very often.
It’s very easy to find a restaurant that serves tofu in most Asian countries. A lot of the time if a menu has even one dish with tofu they will make any meat dish on the menu for you with tofu if you ask. I’ve got a 100% success rate with this in 2 years of travelling, probably because we eat in markets or street food a lot. Food here is usually made fresh so substitutions are easy.
Eggs are a great source of protein and fat. In convenience stores or street stalls you can buy hard boiled eggs for a high protein snack on the go, and you can also buy little bags of edamame beans in Japan and Taiwan.
Consider carrying a bag of protein powder and a protein shaker with you. I do this and it’s great for ensuring I have an adequate protein intake, I have one after a workout or as a snack when we’re on the go.
Soy milk is very popular in Asia, you’ll find small cartons of it in most shops – of all different flavours.
Greek Yogurt is high in protein and is available in lots of stores, sweetened and unsweetened.
If you’re a seafood eater there should be plenty of opportunity to eat fresh seafood, especially if you’re spending time on islands. I found that in some places, like Thai islands, fish can be expensive for a backpacker but it’s much more affordable in Vietnam and Indonesia.
Drink enough water
We all know that we should drink plenty of water to keep our skin clear and to ‘flush out toxins’, but staying hydrated is also really important for many other reasons. Ass you’ve seen above, your body needs nutrients from the food you eat to work properly and stay healthy. Digestion is key to breaking down your food into parts small enough for your body to absorb and getting those nutrients where they need to go.
Why do we need to drink water?
Water is vital for digestion and needed at almost every stage in the digestive process. If you’re dehydrated your whole digestive system goes out of whack and you’ll find yourself nauseous, bloated, sluggish or fatigued. Hydration is key for a healthy and well functioning digestive system, and to keep your body healthy and nourished.
When you travel you can easily become dehydrated due to the hot weather, forgetting to drink water as you’re busy, or just not carrying enough with you. As a result lots of people suffer from the above symptoms while they’re away. People tend to blame the local food a lot when really they just haven’t drunk enough water.
My tips are to drink lots of water with your meals and after you eat, and try to drink a bottle when you first wake up and before you go to bed in the evening too. And remember soft drinks and beer are not a substitute for mineral water!
I hope you’ve learned something from this post and that it will help you to make more informed food choices while you travel. It might even be helpful for when you’re back home too. Just remember to eat intuitively and listen to your body!
Thanks for reading!