Keeping Your Health on the Road

October 13, 2012

Steve eats a fat bitch

Once I saw that familiar orange and black packaging I knew a chilled Reese’s peanut butter cup was waiting for me behind the glass. Ignoring the lunch of issan sticky rice and sausage from Klok Kloi and the dinner of pepperoni pizza from Mars Bar in Bang Niang, I bought one for 45 Baht and promptly devoured it, the whole while wondering where my self control had taken to traveling this evening… maybe it was on the beach chasing sand crabs. I could forgive myself for a little chocolate and peanut butter, but before I arrived in Thailand I had made a serious effort to eliminate my addiction to pop; it didn’t even take me a week in the sun before I downed glass after glass of Coca Cola and Hong Thong whiskey.

I’ve had a lot of experience managing my heath on the road. Usually, the most precarious time, at which the bar is set, is upon arrival in a new country when everything is exciting and new; it seems as though the law of physics (rather, nutrition) don’t apply to someone in a state of travel euphoria, and you eat everything in sight and indulge in multiple nights of drinking you know you never would at home.

I have a few theories about travelers’ health when we’re abroad, and if you’re concerned about your lack of energy and growing waistline, I urge you to think about them the next time you step off that plane.

Comfort Food

The two most commonly spoken words in the world are OK and Coca Cola (if only it were Dr. Pepper… there’s that addiction). Let’s settle on one thing before we begin: pop has absolutely no nutritional value. Whatsoever. There’s no reason for you to drink it. Thirsty? Get some water. So why do we?

I had been off pop since March before landing in Europe, indulging in only the occasional fancy bottle of root beer every month. But after a few days in Lille, when it was included in one of the lunch sets, I felt obligated to drink. The next week, after a long day hiking the French countryside, my friend and I shared another; I even went out of my way to suggest it. What happened to my willpower?

It would be too simple to pass the blame on lack of familiar food options in different countries. You may not always have access to Odawalla fruit juices or Pom Wonderful, but in any country, there’s more than soft drinks available if you’re looking for something sweet.

I think the reason I indulged in that first sip wasn’t that I was unprepared to try something French, but rather I wanted a taste of home; I was a stranger in a strange land, and here was a drink that reminded me of summers in Texas (my record was thirteen cans in one day). And although I use Coca Cola as the prime example of this, being so widely and readily available, it can apply to anything: pizza, poutine, steak, Reese’s, to name a few.

New Food

Although my diet took a turn for the worse in Canada with maple cream cookies, I really felt myself going off track after only a few hours in Germany, when I was introduced to the custom of coffee and cake in the afternoon. Wanting to embrace a new experience and not wanting to offend my hosts by refusing their elegant spread, I filled my plate with some fine cheeses, salted meats, and a slice of cake.

Ahhh Europe… thou art a foul temptress. Once my palette was whetted by these delights, I thought my original plan of keeping the calories off was ridiculous. After all, when would I be in France and Germany again? How often would I get to taste German black bread fresh from the bakers, or enjoy wine, cheese, and pain au chocolate in the park? I even bought a few chocolate-covered Belgian waffles as we passed through, practically squealing with delight.

The temptation of eating new and exciting foods is the one travel habit I believe may be impossible for all of us to break. After all, you are here for a limited time, and that food is unique for the area. The only thing I can possibly suggest is moderation. Keep up your exercise routine, and limit your gratuitous exploration of the local cuisine to one meal a day, as opposed to every second, every minute you see something you must try.

Where’s the Gym?

Even long-term travelers have difficulty keeping off the kilos due to the change of exercise options on foreign soil. We might have booked a hotel advertising a gym in the hopes of maintaining our fitness, only to discover there’s little more than two hand weights and an out-of-order treadmill. We might be used to running long distances and find ourselves in areas with impassible snow or sweltering heat, or even in cultures that would frown upon people in shorts galavanting across town.

Adapt. Part of the reason I choose running as my preferred method of fitness is the flexibility it gives me when I travel; although I might (and do) encounter the situations I mentioned above, for the most part all I need is a stretch of road and my Vibram Fivefingers to enjoy an active morning. When I am faced with impossible weather or other uncontrollable circumstances, I try not to just sit in my room and let my legs cramp: maybe there’s an ocean nearby for swimming; I can check with the local expat community and learn about a yoga or Tai Chi group.

Lack of Time

One complaint universal to travelers and non-travelers: we experience a lack of time in different ways. Maybe you’ve got a great diet and daily routine going, but you’re simply exhausted after that transpacific flight and don’t want to hit the gym. Or you’ve just booked an all-day tour of the islands around Phang Nga bay and won’t have time to exercise for a few hours. Similar to the pressure to eat the local cuisine all the time, travelers feel the need to do everything they possibly can, especially if it’s a short trip.

Slow down, and enjoy the scenery. A morning spent jogging on a foreign beach or chatting up locals in the gym is just as unique a cultural experience as going on a tour.

Have Another Drink

I mention alcohol last for a very important reason: your tolerance does not change when you cross the border. Seriously. The number of expats I’ve seen who just tossed back drink after drink because they want to meet new people and enjoy drunken conversations at the bar is staggering. I’m all for meeting new people, having a few shots of sake in Japan, and sharing some laughs and raised eyebrows over travel stories, but no one, local or foreign, can keep this up every night for the entirety of their trip.

Yet I’ve seen travelers who try their best, in Thailand especially: taking in a full moon party on Kou Phangan followed by a four-hour bus ride to Phuket, a night of Thai whiskey and cocktails on Patong Beach, and puzzlement as to why they’re sick, dehydrated, and generally drained. Resident foreigners in Korea get sucked in by the low cost of soju; English teachers in Japan feel compelled to join their coworkers for every social outing involving nomihodai; and who can resist all the wine available in New Zealand, Australia, and France?

Amateur travelers overindulge in spirits; most veterans (but not all) have enough sense to know their limits, and understand the same rules apply when it comes to getting intoxicated. The pressure to drink abroad, especially when you’re going solo and using alcohol as a social lubricant to meet locals is beyond anything I’ve faced at university or parties at home. In Asia, with nearly all beverages costing a fraction of what they would in the US, the temptation plagues us all.

Many are happy to just go with the flow, kick back with a few beers every night, and watch as they develop a nice Buddha belly. Others take things way too far, with cases of alcohol poisoning, ending up in jail, or at best just slowly destroying their health. Remember: everything you drink is going to affect you in exactly the same way it would at home.

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