Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Eating to Live on the Road: What to Eat and What to Avoid

"One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things."

-- Henry Miller

Whenever we travel, we open ourselves up to immense opportunities.  We can meet new people with whom we may form business relationships or friendships.  We can learn new customs, words in a new language or listen to music we have never heard before.  Traveling, even to the next state, can enrich ones' life and have a profound, lifelong impact on the traveler.  However, when we travel we are also vulnerable, being constantly thrust into new situations.  The traveler is a friend of the unknown because s/he has no other choice.  So the traveling man or woman must constantly adapt to circumstances beyond their control.   For the occasional traveler, the temporary perils, pitfalls and temptations of the road can be survivable.  The negative effects of losing a couple nights sleep, skipping a meal or eating greasy fast food can be overcome if it is a rare indulgence. The stakes are higher for the professional traveler.  When the occasional unhealthy or untimely meal or snack turns into the daily routine, the results over time can be deadly.  Couple that with a lack of exercise and excessive consumption of alcohol, nicotine or caffeine and we are headed towards an eventual disaster....unless we begin to change.  

This blog is dedicated to all travelers, from the occasional to the professional, with the aim of sharing the survival skills that I have learned in my 20 years on the road as a professional musician.  I have learned that if we are to take charge of our health, we need a new way of seeing things.  My hope is that ones will be inspired to make small changes in their daily travel regime that can increase their quality of life, both on the road and at home.  Small changes can make a big difference, for good or for bad.  If we look at travel in new ways we can move towards safeguarding our health.  This first installment is all about finding the healthiest food options on the road among a variety of poor choices. 


Of all the options available on the road, fast food restaurants are the most numerous.  However the 'food' they peddle is also the most deadly.  When you consider that McDonalds buns, burgers and fries do not spoil, no matter how long they are exposed to the air (we are talking years here), it is easy to see that this food is not good for you.  Of course the occasional indulgence is a far cry from the frequent traveler who eats it with regularity. But even the occasional indulgence can lead to severe health problems over time.  While many of these corporations are now promoting 'healthy' menus and salads, smoothies and the like, they are well aware that most people step into their restaurants in search of the traditional burger and fries with a Coke.  This is what is known by many as the classic sugar and salt delivery system: a routine that if followed with regularity is an effective recipe for hypertension, inflammation, constipation, bloating, and a host of other ailments including bowel cancer and diabetes.  People have known for quite a while now that fast food is bad. But for the traveling musician and others, it is often the only option available at the moment.  So how can we make the best of it?  Is it even possible?

Today there are many restaurants that are making a big deal about the healthier menu items.  Take for example the salad at McDonald's. There is a big difference in these 'healthy' salads. Consider this: a plain side salad is only twenty calories without the dressing, while a southwest salad with cripsy grilled chicken will give you 450 calories without the dressing!  And the dressing matters: the balsamic vinaegrette has only 35 calories, but the creamy caesar salad dressing packet yields a full 190 calories.  Here we are only using McDonalds as an example.  These are the extremes of the spectrum, but you get the picture.  If you want the salad, choose wisely.   If toppings such as nuts are available in any fast food restaurant, that is much more preferable to toppings such as McDonald's crutons, which are often loaded with salt (140mg) and can add 60 calories with no extra nutrition.  It is also good to remember that the lettuce, the main ingredient, is mostly water and has very little nutritional value.  The healthy solution in this case is to choose a lower calorie dressing if you must eat a salad in a fast food restaurant such as McDonald's or the like.  Skip the extras, and of course, skip the burgers, chicken, fries, apple pies and sodas and milkshakes altogether!  

Many traveling vegetarians and vegans who are new to the lifestyle or may who not know what really goes into McDonald's french fries will readily order a fries and a salad, perhaps thinking they are playing it safe.  But what are they really eating?  The 'kid' size has 101 calories and 72 mg of sodium, while a large fry has 500 calories and 355 mg of sodium!  We will discuss shortly why this is hardly a sustainable diet for the traveler.  Let us also remember that when starchy foods such as potatoes are fried in oil above 248 degrees, the cancer causing chemical known as acrylamide is produced.  Combine this with the fact that the simple sugars in potatoes are rapidly converted to glucose in the body which can quickly lead to a host of health problems.  It is also worth noting that many fast food corporations use the preservative THBQ as an additive to the second frying process (the first is at the factory).  This preservative is linked to stomach ulcers, among other health problems.  Skip the fries, too! 

We may try to avoid the convenience of fast food.  But it is nearly impossible ignore their advertising.  It seems as if the corporate fast food franchises, new and old, are popping up like poison mushrooms along the highways in every state.  Generally, when I am traveling and I cant avoid eat ing at a fast food restaurant, I chose to spend my money at Subway or Panera.  Why?  I like these places because they are both relatively inexpensive and offer a range of vegan and vegetarian options.  Panera has the added benefit of having hot soups, of which one is always vegan.  They also have healthy toppings like nuts and dried fruits.  It is a little more expensive than Subway, but it can be well worth it on those days where the options are few.  Normally I don't eat much bread, as I try to limit my sugar intake.  I have found that consuming less sugar actually gives more energy because I figure that I am actually saving energy in the long run by not subjecting my system to the sugar and rush and the inevitable crash which comes afterwards.  As a musician, preserving my energy before the show is crucial.   A full day of traveling combined with high sugar intake, high calories and little real nutrition (vitamins and minerals) will leave a performer feeling totally depleted of energy before s/he even walks on stage.  Drinking plenty of water as well as eating raw veggies, nuts and fruits in moderation throughout the day and prior to performing will give you the nutrition and energy that your body needs.  These foods are easily digested and will not drain your energy like cooked food can do.  We will return to this subject later.

Now that we have dealt with the 'best' choices available among the fast food and corporate restaurants, let's now focus on other places where a healthier meals can be found:

Chinese (and other Asian cuisines)

Yes, the quality of this worldwide favorite can vary drastically, but here is where you will always be sure to find a variety of vegetables to give you the nutrition you need to keep healthy on the road. Though fried foods are often featured here as well, there may also be soups and noodles which add even more variety.  Truly, Chinese food is one of the few types of cuisine that is readily available on every continent.  When I order chinese food I first make sure that they do not use MSG.  I also make sure that I know what is going into the sauce.  I have been told by an acquaintance who runs a chinese restaurant that many will use chicken powder in the sauce for what would normally be a vegetarian or vegan dish.  This may be in addition to generous amounts of sodium, sugar and cornstarch.  Often there may be a 'healthy' option on the menu that features steamed (instead of fried) veggies as well as simpler, more healthy sauces.  Many restaurants will let you decide what you want in your sauce, so don't be shy!  Let them know your concerns, and if they really want your money they will work to accommodate you.  It is also a good idea to limit your rice intake.  Beside being low in essential nutrients, the starch in rice can also can cause rapid weight gain and deplete your energy. This is because starch is converted into glucose by the body soon after eating it, resulting in a sugar high and the inevitable sugar crash.  

If Chinese is not available, I look for Thai or Vietnamese.  Both cuisines are heavily influenced by Chinese culture and so have similar healthy offerings.  In many areas of the country, we find Vietnamese restaurants that specialize in pho, an inexpensive, and very filling hot soup that is usually served with veggies and either beef, chicken or pork.  Many of these restaurants will also advertise vegetarian or vegan soups, but from my experience I have found that often they use the same soup that they use for the meat based soups, so though you will not be chewing on any meat, you could very well be drinking animal fat in your soup!  My best advice to any vegan or vegetarian on the road: don't be afraid to ask plenty questions about the food that you will buy and put in your body. It matters!

Other cuisines that are also friendly to the vegan or vegetarian palate include lebanese (featuring plenty salads and fresh veggies as well as protein rich foods like hummus and falafel), mexican (black and pinto beans provide plenty protein--make sure the beans are vegetarian--and salads and veggies are standard) and indian.  Italian food is found everywhere and here you will be sure to find salads and veggies.  However, go easy on the pasta: like rice, filling up with this starch on the road is a sure way to drain precious energy since your body will convert the starch to sugar which can result in a sugar crash.  High glucose intake can also cause you to gain a considerable amount of weight. Extra weight only makes travel more difficult and uncomfortable.  If we want to travel into our old age, in comfort (and in elderly style!) we have to be serious about getting our weight under control. We will talk later about how we can lose some of this extra weight and keep it off, even on the road.

Soy products: Fermented or Unfermented?

Many people eat tofu for its protein content.  In fact, in the past twenty years or so, soy has come a long way from the health food store.  However, do some research on this miracle food and you will find that it is best eaten in moderation.  Why?  Many studies have shown that the high vegetable estrogen (phytoestrogens) content of the soybean can lower men's testosterone levels and sex drive. Phytoestrogens can disrupt endocrine function, cause infertility and increase women's risk of breast cancer.  Other studies have shown that just two glasses of soymilk daily contains enough antinutrients to alter a woman's menstrual cycle.  Moreover, feed soy to your child and the effects are increased dramatically.  When parents give their infants soy formula, they may be giving them up to 20,000 times more estrogen than those babies who are breast fed or receive other formulas.   Infants who are fed soy formula consume an estimated five birth control pills' worth of estrogen every day.

In addition to phytoestrogens, both organic and conventional soy contain potent antinutrients such as saponins, soyatoxin, phytates, trypsin inhibitors, goitrogens and phytoestrogens.  Other studies have shown that populations in Japan and China display a lower incidence of breast and prostate cancer than people eating the typical American diet.  These studies have often credited a traditional diet that includes soy.  However, the Japanese and Chinese diets both include only small amounts of soy -- approximately nine grams per day -- of fermented soy products such as tempeh, natto, miso as well as tofu.  This is significant because fermented soy contains probiotics, beneficial bacteria (also found in yogurt) that aid in digestion and overall maintenance of a healthy gastrointestinal tract.  Contrast this with soy food products in the United States (snacks, shakes, soy burgers and the like) which can easily have over twenty grams of nonfermented soy protein in one serving.  Fermentation also destroys toxic antinutrients, making fermented soy products the healthiest choice in soy products for the conscious eater.

Many studies that have linked nonfermented soy with growth problems in children (high phytic acid levels inhibit assimilation of calcium, magnesium, calcium, copper, iron and zinc).  It has also been linked to protein digestion problems and pancreatic disorders.  Soy also contains goitrogens, powerful chemicals that inhibit synthesis of thyroid hormones and can lead to hyperthyroidism and even thyroid cancer.  Goitrogens also interfere with iodine metabolism. Hemagglutinin is a powerful substance that promotes clotting of red blood cells, reducing the absorption and distribution of oxygen in the body.  Soy also contains a compound that mimics the vitamin B12 but can not be used by the body, so it actually contributes to B12 deficiency, this is especially true among vegans.  In addition, soy cooked at high temperatures contains denatured proteins.  Fragile proteins are drastically changed during processing to make soy protein isolate, hydrolyzed vegetable protein and textured vegetable protein (TVP).  This chemical processing causes the formation of toxic lysinoalanine and nitrosamines that are highly carcinogenic.  Finally, soy foods are high in aluminum, which is toxic to kidneys and the nervous system.  The high levels of manganese can damage a baby's immature metabolic system.  Let's also consider the by-products of the soybean.  Soy lecithin, is a waste product of the processing of the soybean that is used as an emulsifier.  Soy protein isolate, a common ingredient in many processed foods, was originally invented for use in cardboard, not as a food ingredient.  As if all this bad news wasn't enough, the potent neurotoxin known as MSG (aka free glutamic acid) is created during soy food processing.  Even more MSG is later added to mask the unpleasant taste of soy.  Aspartame is also a by-product of the same process.  All of these health hazards naturally occur in organic and non-organic unfermented soy, so the question is if we should be eating any unfermented soy at all.  

Of course, we all make our own decisions based upon our situation.  It is my hope that this information will help some of us to see our health in new ways while traveling.  It is easy to gut stuck into old ways of doing things, especially while we are traveling.  Routine can help us by providing structure and comfort when we are far from home.  But routine can also kill us if we are not mindful of the effects of our diet (or as the Rastafari say, 'livit')  The old people will tell you, "When you know better, you do better."  In the next blog post I will offer more advice about what I do to stay healthy (and well fed) on the road.  We will also discuss simple (and inexpensive) ways to keep fit while traveling.  Until next time....don't let the road kill you!