Maintaining a healthy diet and reducing stress while traveling abroad

Doesn’t that croissant look good??  France is the center of the world for baked goods and pastries, and gosh has it got me twisted.  This post is about how I have been trying to maintain a healthy diet and stress level during long flights and while living in another country where the diet and grocery stores might differs from those back at home.

I don’t necessarily love traveling – not because I don’t like seeing new places, but largely because it throws me off so much.  I am talking about primarily about my diet and stress levels.  Now, if you follow the typical SAD American diet (sugar, alcohol, and nutritionally deficient), and are used to traveling a lot, then spending 14 hours on a plane, stretching your legs briefly in a crowded airport, before another plane and a bus might not bother you.  You will probably also have no problem finding carbohydrates and sugar wherever you go. Most folks reading this, however, are knowledgeable about the fact that we should consume vegetables and high quality protien/fats over carbs.  They are also familiar with the fact that sustained high levels of stress are hard on the body.  In a short term, they usually precipitate a cold or something worse.  What we are typically challenged by is maintenance of our health goals while on the road, the plane, or while living abroad.

First, to me, “a healthy diet” means one which promotes a fat burning metabolism, high mental and physical performance, and long-term health

The science is out, and a creating a metabolism which burns fat as fuel is great in many ways.  First, this type of metabolism is core to the training strategies being adopted in many sports training regimes, including those promoted in “Training for the New Alpinism” by Steve House and Scott Bennett and in general nutrition books, like “A Paleo Diet for Athletes” by Cordain.

Some of the athletic benefits to a fat burning metabolism are:

  • leveraging the bodies capability to store lots of fat (100,000s of calories) versus about 1000-2000 of glucose (sugar) -> you can do more work before you need to refuel, and tackle larger objectives without bonking
  • you can save glucose and glycogen for when you need it most.  For climbing, this means being able to power through the crux after a LONG approach

In addition, burning fat instead of living off of carbohydrates is great because:

  • it promotes better body composition (lean muscle)
  • you can miss a meal without feeling starved,
  • fewer energy swings throughout your day, you won’t need that afternoon nap, and no more “mr/mrs hangry”
  • overall health (skin, reproductive systems, brain function, risk of cancer, hormone balances…the list goes on)
  • helps you to avoid the need to buy crappy yet expensive food, like on the airplane or in the airport

Maintaining your diet while on the airplane and in a new place

The good news is that creating a fat burning metabolism doesn’t require a specific set of foods, but rather a particular balance of the macronutrients you are consuming: fat, carbohydrates, and protein.

The quality of the food you intake is important, as is the balance in types of fat (for example, omega 3s vs 6s). You can maintain an intake of all the micronutrients you need by eating different foods (think different colored vegetables and different protein sources).

Here are the things I am doing to maintain and IMPROVE my diet while traveling:

  1. First, I fasted for 18 hours between arriving Seattle airport and landing Geneva – no airport food, no drinks, just water, then a few nuts in Geneva.  This helped to reset my metabolism, and had the added benefit that I didn’t spend $5 for crappy airline food.
  2. Packed a few foods I know to be healthy fatty, natural foods for my arrival and my first couple days: nuts, berries canned sardines, healthy bars.  I fell back on these when I couldn’t find something nutritionally satisfying.
  3. Used the first couple days here to acquaint myself with the cooking utensils available in my apartment, and the types of grocery stores available in my area. 
  4. At those stores, I figured out which foods are expensive or cheap compared to home.  For example, here in Chamonix, sweet potatos happen to be very expensive – nearly 6 euro each! Here is a good list of some of the foods to consider beyond our sweet potatoe, salmon, and kale diet in Seattle: Primal Daily Shopping List.  In particular, target good sources of healthy fats and protein, which can be the hardest to come by on shelves loaded with processed foods.  Some I like that seem to be ubiquitous are: canned sardines or tuna, olive oil, coconut oil and milk, eggs, and nuts (macadamia or brazil nuts are great!)
  5. I typically wake up with a coffee + coconut oil for breakfast, and wait a few hours until doing a large grain-free breakfast.  This is another page out of Mark Sisson’s book (see this podcast). Of course this all changes on alpine climbing days (again, see Cordain’s book about ‘event-day’ fueling).
  6. I am taking a supplement containing L-Carnitine, an amino acid which promotes a fat-burning metabolism.  When taking correctly, it is amazing how quickly your food cravings for sugar and carbohydrates decrease.  This, even after I got off track by overloading on croissants the first couple days I was here (hard to say no to the croissant in the cover photo – chocolate and almonds, oh my!).
Examples of staples I found at small groceries in Chamonix after a little bit of looking (olive oil, eggs, coconut oil, canned tuna, macadamia nuts). The coconut oil wasn't cheap but it should last me the whole trip if used in moderation.
Examples of staples I found at small groceries in Chamonix after a little bit of looking (olive oil, eggs, coconut oil, canned tuna, macadamia nuts). The coconut oil wasn’t cheap but it should last me the whole trip if used in moderation.

Maintaining and dissolving stress

Trying to eat healthy while abroad, if you also want to be strict with yourself, can create of lots stress.  So can moving to Europe, quitting your job, and moving out of your house (all of which I happened to do the last two weeks in Seattle).  I also cycled 200 miles, ran 10, and went climbing in Leavenworth, washington pass and at Index…not a brag, just setting the stage for all the sources of stress that I wanted to control.

There are a couple things that made it possible to maintain an even keel during all of this.  For one, I made sure to get a good night’s sleep and to eat healthy foods before and during this mess of activities. More importantly I viewed the chance to do all these things, and figure out how to live healthy in Chamonix for cheap, as a learning opportunity. For example, in Chamonix, I got to:

  1. Explore a town by looking for the stores that stocked what I needed
  2. Practice my french, in particular my vocabulary – “coconut oil”?  “is this fish wild”?

Finally, like above, I am supplementing my diet with some specific items, this time vitamin B (methylated) and D.   The former helps with immune function, mood, brain and nervous system health, and energy metabolism.  The latter helps with immune function, among many other things.

To close, I’ll note that I am not a nutrition expert or a scientist. I just know that these are the ways I am aiming to manage my diet and stress while in Chamonix.  You might not like supplements, or you might be vegan, in which case you’ll have to make changes to my own lists above, but I hope that they get you thinking about how you can live more healthy yourself!

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