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Absolutely. Follow the tips below to prevent your next journey from becoming another guilt trip.
Many people view a road trip as one long, asphalt permission slip to eat anything, anytime, as long as it's marketed as food. We tell ourselves we have no choice: After all, each rest stop contains nothing but fast-food options loaded with fat, salt, sugar, and caffeine.
Even when fast food is the only option, you can make healthy choices. By eating the right food in small amounts at the right times, you can avoid swerving wildly off your diet, enjoy what you're eating, and skip the guilt trip altogether.
The foods you eat can affect your alertness, so to stay sharp, eat small meals high in protein containing the amino acid tyrosine-found in soy products, chicken, and fish, for example-and low in carbohydrates and fat. Avoid foods containing a lot of the amino acid tryptophan, such as bananas, dairy products, sunflower seeds, turkey, beans, and nuts.
Did you know that even the order you eat foods in a meal can affect alertness? You're better off eating protein before carbohydrates because they stimulate the release of insulin, which competes with all the amino acids except for tryptophan. By eating protein first, you let the tyrosine jumpstart your brain without interference from the carbohydrate.
When you're about to take off on a daylong drive for a new assignment, eat a high-protein breakfast with a complex carbohydrate (such as whole-wheat toast or bagel; oatmeal; corn or whole-wheat tortilla; or whole-grain cold cereal). That will keep your blood glucose evenly regulated for a few hours. For lunch, a small, high-protein, low-carb meal will keep your brain on its toes. Throughout the day, regular, small snacks will serve you better than a few big, heavy meals.
After a long day of driving, a meal that begins with complex carbohydrates can help you relax after all those hours of staring at the road. And to sleep better, try a high-carbohydrate, healthy bedtime snack, such as warm milk.
Caffeine does help to keep you alert-although it won't make up for lack of sleep. And when a big dose of caffeine wears off, you come crashing down. One recent study indicates that people who must stay awake and alert for particularly long stretches (such as medical residents, night-shift workers, or long-distance drivers) might be better off drinking a half cup of coffee every 2 hours than one or more full cups when they first get started.
A cooler is invaluable on a road trip. Great cooler snacks that can wake up your brain without overloading calories include low-fat yogurt-preferably plain; some slices of aged cheddar cheese (string cheese or mozzarella sticks are okay too); tuna salad made with celery and some low-fat mayonnaise; orange, apple, or pear slices; grapes; marinated pieces of tofu; three-bean salad; celery and carrot sticks; hard-boiled eggs; and beef jerky. Go ahead and include some chocolate for a treat, if your diet allows it, but don't overdo it.
Keep beverages in your cooler too. Water is your best bet-drink plenty to help keep junk food and coffee cravings down. (In fact, if your drive is less than 2 hours, consider taking only water and skipping the snacks altogether.) Travel is dehydrating, and coffee, tea, and soda are all diuretics that will only increase this effect. Consider packing small cans of low-sodium tomato or vegetable juice. In general, fruit juice is more nutritious than soda, but it's high in sugar and will give you only a short boost. You might include some skim milk for breakfast on the road-great mixed with a low-sugar, whole-grain cereal (such as Cheerios) and some fruit. Other good snack choices include dried fruit, almonds, roasted pumpkin seeds or soy nuts, and low-fat popcorn. To control your portion size and keep crunchy foods fresh, store these snacks in separate sealable bags.
Even if you don't pack a cooler of snacks for the road, you're not limited to fast-food options. Alternatives include natural food stores and restaurants located within a few miles of major roads and highway exits. Knowing where to look is key, so before your next trip, check out Healthy Highways: The Traveler's Guide to Healthy Eating, by Nikki and David Goldbeck. Packed with helpful maps, this book offers about 1,900 healthier alternatives nationwide.
If you prefer the convenience and low cost of the fast-food options, make good choices. Some general tips for avoiding the worst pitfalls apply to most of us:
* Go for menu items that are grilled, broiled, baked, or steamed instead of fried, breaded, or sauteed.
* Choose regular or junior sizes instead of supersized or double-meat items.
* Ask for dressings, gravies, and sauces on the side, and use them sparingly if at all.
* Ask for extra lettuce, tomato, or other vegetables; hold the cheese.
* Avoid the high-carbohydrate, low-nutrient foods commonly offered on fast-food menus, such as white-flour buns or bagels, white-flour pasta, fries, and sodas.
Many of the major fast-food chains are starting to offer salads and other healthier options, so pay attention to their new items. For your best bets at some of the major chains, see Good bites.
If you're like many of us, the concept of eating healthy food on a road trip takes some getting used to. Don't limit yourself too stringently or you won't stick with healthy choices. Eventually, you'll think of a "treat" as something that makes you feel good in the long run, instead of just for 10 minutes or so.
Emily Law is a freelance writer in Philadelphia, Pa.
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