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How to eat well while travelling in the United States

24 Oct 2016 3:28 PM -

I was recently in the very fortunate position of having a whole month away from my naturopathy clinic to indulge my love of travel. 

I spent a fabulous four weeks in the United States, visiting New York, Virginia, New Mexico and Southern California. I also spent a week in Baltimore completing the first step in certification as an accredited functional medicine practitioner through the Institute for Functional Medicine (but that was no holiday!).  

So it would be fair to say I had a chance to observe the Standard American Diet ("SAD") (especially when eating out as many Americans seem to do for every meal) and to practice how to eat well while travelling.

There has been a lot of research and commentary on the SAD diet and the contribution it makes to the incidence of obesity and chronic disease such as diabetes, arthritis, heart disease and more. And it is no surprise that the Standard Australian Diet (also SAD) closely follows in the footsteps of the American diet (especially when you look at the number of home delivery services and burger joints popping up around town and the plethora of apartments being built without adequate cooking facilities). In a nutshell, the typical diet is low in fibre, high in saturated fat and refined carbohydrates and sugars. 

Anyway, here is what I learned. 

We found the breads and breakfast cereals much sweeter than in Australia.  I'm sure if we lived there we would eventually have found something to suit our palates but it's not easy when you are on holidays and they may not be in the mainstream places.  

I certainly think our U.S. friends eat a lot of salad.  It comes with most meals (except fast food of course...and they do love their pizza!) however it is often greens, tomato, cucumber and maybe radish so sometimes the variety is a bit limited.  Given the range of vegetables we saw in farmers markets and even supermarkets, I thought this was a little disappointing. 

It is far to easy to make very unhealthy food choices but it is possible to eat well while travelling with just a little bit of effort.

Tip No 1 - Portion sizes

Almost without exception they are HUGE!  From a simple salad sandwich to a steak dinner, it seems "big is better" and it has come to be what is expected as a mark of a "good meal".  It is also very common to take advantage of "doggy bags" to take home left overs.  I'm not sure how I feel about depends on the meal but from the look of some of the stuff people were taking home I'm not sure I would even want to feed it to my dog. (A day-old half eaten burger and fries...hmmm).  I think this might be a false economy...large meals will generally lead to eating more than you need or increased food wastage and neither one of these is desirable.

If you are lucky enough to be able to share with someone then do so.  Avoid ordering starters and extras as you'll only be tempted to eat them and you really won't need them.  

If you can't share, try ordering a starter only, or maybe a couple of side dishes. You are never going to go hungry and you can always have something else later if necessary.

My partner and I made a habit of ordering one main meal to share or perhaps a starter and a couple of sides. Not once did we feel like we had under-eaten and the people serving us never batted an eyelid! 

Tip no 2 - Sauces

Americans love their sauces and marinades. 

Many dishes (and certainly all the salads) come with a very liberal "coating"  of your choice of dressing or sauce which, in my mind at least, sometimes spoiled an otherwise lovely dish. In most cases, the sauce will be laden with hidden sugar or salt.

I do think there has been a gradual improvement in this over the years, but in my opinion, there is still a tendency to "over-sauce" things.

Remember to ask for the sauce or dressing on the side so you can control the amount you eat.  You will consume much less that way and it won't ruin an otherwise delicious meal.

Tip no 3 - Ordering coffee

For some, (me included) coffee is a pleasurable part of the day. I enjoy a daily coffee treat and it's part of my travel experience to sit in a cafe and observe the locals (as well as rest my weary legs and plan my next few hours of sight seeing). 

It is quite possible to find cafes now that serve what we in Melbourne consider a good coffee but the choice of drink sizes seems to be big, bigger or gigantic!  Most cafes sell cappuccinos or lattes in either 12, 16 or 20 oz sizes.  By my maths this equates to 355, 470 or a whopping 590 mls.  That is a lot of milk!  Even the smallest size was too much for me.  

If you enjoy your daily coffee, order an espresso or macchiato or order a small (12 oz) and then ask for it to be only 2/3rds filled. I got a few funny looks when I did this but some even said "Oh, would you like an 8 ounce cup" (they have them but they don't offer them) and a few even acknowledged that this was the preferable option but most people don't ask for it.

You can get a good (normal size) coffee, you just need to ask.

Tip no 4 - Avoiding temptation

It is not easy to stick to a healthy eating plan when you are travelling.  Temptation is everywhere and the healthier options are often "hidden away" and require more effort to find especially when you are in unfamiliar territory or tired at the end of a long day.

We were determined to eat well on this holiday and found some fabulous cafes and restaurants serving wonderfully healthy food. Apps like "Happy cow" and even just Googling "healthy food" can help you find great local options.

Sometimes the "path of least resistance" is the best option in the circumstances so cut yourself some slack and don't let that spoil the holiday.  In fact, it might be part of the holiday experience to have a hot dog at a baseball game or a giant pretzel in New York city, just don't overdo it.

Do some research (ideally before you go - I found Instagram great for this).

And for the record, I would recommend Urth Cafe or Cafe Gratitude (multiple locations mainly on west coast), and Candle 79, Avante Garden or Franchia vegan cafe in New York. Check out my instagram page for more ideas. I will concede that these places will cost you more than the burger or pizza joint down the road but I don't believe it is worth compromising your health just because you are on holiday (within reason).

Tip no 5 - Self-cater

Part of the fun of travelling (for me at least) is trying the local fare, dining out and eating things I wouldn't necessarily eat at home (I had the best donut ever from a little family donut shop in Port Hueneme, California many years ago and I haven't had a donut since). 

However, doing a bit of self-catering can really help you keep your eating plan (and budget) on track. In many cities, we found the local Wholefoods supermarket, grabbed a couple of their salad containers and utensils (thanks Wholefoods) and we were able to create our own muesli from their bulk foods department then add in some fruit and yoghurt and we had a healthy and filling start to the day. It also meant we were often able to skip lunch or just have something light.

It's also a good idea to carry some nuts and seeds or fruit for quick and healthy snacks (especially when you are flying).

So, if you share whenever possible, go for smaller sizes, opt for salad (dressing on side) instead of fries, avoid the "extras" and go for fish or lean meat options and do a bit of self-catering you can limit any "damage". (It also helps if you boost your incidental exercise by taking the stairs, walk everywhere and climb to the top of lookouts!) 

And for the record, I managed to come home the same weight and body composition as when I luggage was considerably heavier though! 

If you have any great tips for eating healthily while you are away, please add them in the comments below.

In good (travelling) health,


Kaye Wright
Melbourne CBD

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