The Traveling Athlete’s Guide to Healthy Eating
Eating healthy meals while traveling is impossible.
Well, not impossible, but it certainly feels that way for many people. This is especially true for athletes who are often more careful about what they eat. Traveling should be fun, and it shouldn’t have to ruin your nutrition plan.
In this podcast, exercise physiologist and chef Allen Lim will teach you how to find, prepare, and enjoy healthy meals no matter where you go.
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The Feed Zone Cookbook by Biju Thomas and Allen Lim
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**Armi Legge:** You’ve just landed in a new city or town. It’s about mid-day and you’re hungry. The obvious choice is fast food. On the other hand, you’re trying to save money, stick to real food as much as possible, lose a few pounds, and have energy for your workouts. What should be your first step? In this podcast, exercise physiologist and chef, Allen Lim, shares his secrets of eating healthily while traveling. After listening to this show, you’ll know exactly how to select, prepare, and enjoy healthy meals no matter where you go.
You’re listening to episode three of Impruvism Radio, the podcast that uses science to help you become more awesome. I’m your host, Armi Legge. If you like what you hear on this show and you want more information like this, you should navigate to impruvism.com, enter your email address in the box on the right side of the page, and click submit. After you do, you’ll get free updates whenever we publish a new article or podcast.
Today, we’re speaking with Dr. Allen Lim about how you can eat healthy meals while traveling. Allen is an exercise scientist with a PhD in physiology and has advised some of the top athletes in the world, including Levi Leipheimer, Tom Danielson, and Lance Armstrong. He has also worked with the pro cycling team, Garmin-Sharp, and professional NASCAR racers to help optimize their diets no matter where they go.
Allen is going to share some of the tricks that he uses to help elite athletes eat healthy meals while traveling across the globe so you can do the same on your adventures.
Let’s say you just landed in a city and it’s about mid-day and you’re hungry, and you’re thinking about stopping at a local fast food restaurant to eat, but you’re trying to save money and stick to real food as much as possible. What would be your first step?
**Allen Lim:** That’s so hard, right? I think the problem with America today and a lot of our industrialized society is we often land either in food deserts or situations where there just aren’t really any good choices, especially for athletes who are traveling or you’ve got a certain diet that you’re sticking to. What I tell the athletes who I work with is you can’t expect to find what you need when you get there. A lot of times you have to just prepare ahead of time and bring your own food with you and pack your own portables.
That being said, if you can identify the food and it’s in its own package, you’re probably going to do a lot better than going and getting a cheeseburger. I think the best way I can answer is to use your own common sense and realize that you probably already know what’s going to work for you and what’s not going to work with you. You just kind of have to just almost triage.
**Armi Legge:** What are some of the biggest nutritional mistakes people make when traveling that hurt their efforts to either lose weight or stick to a certain diet? You just mentioned not planning ahead. Would that be one of them?
**Allen Lim:** I think not planning ahead is a big one, but kind of giving in to the stress of travel is another big one. Nobody ever said it as going to be hard or easy being an athlete. Certainly, one of the difficulties is the work and extra work it takes to plan out your meetings. I think of the big paradigm shifts is the idea that when you do travel, you can still do quite a bit of cooking on your own and you can rely pretty easily these days on good grocery stores to get a lot of your food rather than relying on chain restaurants or fast food restaurants. In some ways, we’re also lucky in the States. There are a lot of Whole Foods and a lot of great little grocery stores around. There are a lot of great, little farm-table restaurants out there that you can find a great meal at. Just doing a little bit of research and taking your time to find those places makes all the difference in the world.
**Armi Legge:** Maybe doing a bit of background research where you’re going and then when you arrive, stocking up on good foods would be a good first action?
**Allen Lim:** Absolutely. That’s always a really good first step. Some of the athletes who I’ve worked with will bring little portable kitchens, whether it be a rice cooker or a little electric pan. Sometimes that’s all you need to make some really great, healthy meals on the fly. It’s better than maybe boiling an egg in a coffee maker.
**Armi Legge:** So what kind of tools do you usually bring? You mentioned rice cookers and an electric pan. Is there anything else?
**Allen Lim:** Those are really the big ones. A good knife, a cutting board, electric pan, a rice cooker. You can do a whole lot with just those two items from cooking great oatmeal to the morning to making rice cakes for your race event or for your day and creating a nice little stir-fry post recovery. You don’t need that much between those simple tools and planning ahead and finding great local restaurants in your area. I think there’s a lot that can be done to maintain a healthy diet when you’re on the road.
**Armi Legge:** Let’s say somebody cannot do some cooking for whatever reason in their hotel room. Either they didn’t bring the right tools or it’s too late. What are some good foods people can make ahead of time that travel well?
**Allen Lim:** I think there are a number of things that people can make that travel pretty well. Burritos travel really, really well and different types of wraps travel really well. Depending on what you put in that burrito or wrap, you can make that extremely healthy. We do a lot of rice-based products with the athletes who I work with. We’ll make different types of rice cakes or rice sandwiches, essentially sushi rice. Layering that down in the pan and then adding whatever the individual likes, whether it be literally like peanut butter and jelly or whether it be something more savory.
We’ll cut out little rice cakes and these recipes are in “The Feed Zone Cookbook” if anybody’s interested. Wrap those up to travel with. Ultimately the simplest things are simple fruits and vegetables. Take the time to cut up some carrots and cut up some vegetables. Travel with a bag full of nuts, an apple, a banana, etc. Those are all really simple foods that can keep you going throughout the land that you can graze on while you travel.
**Armi Legge:** Sounds like keeping it simple would be a pretty good theme for eating healthy while traveling, too.
**Allen Lim:** Absolutely.
**Armi Legge:** So let’s say somebody has just arrived in a new location and it’s pretty late and they are just not going to prepare anything and they don’t have anything prepared ahead of time. If they absolutely have to eat at a restaurant, are there any best practice tips you can share with our listeners that you’ve used with athletes to help source good, healthy food from local restaurants even in unideal situations?
**Allen Lim:** I think it’s relying on common sense. I think that most restaurants have menu items that are a little healthier or more all-natural. Not to be silly about it, but if you can identify the food, then you’re taking the first step in the right direction. I think it’s easy to do when you go out to eat, whether you’re traveling or not traveling. It’s easy to be tempted by the really, really greasy, savory, fried foods. That’s a bit of a guilty pleasure and vice that I suffer from. Sticking with the fish instead of the fried chicken. Making sure that you get a really big salad with your meal and plenty of greens with your food and plenty of greens going with, say, the baked potato verses the French fries. There are a lot of substations that aren’t too difficult to make.
I think it’s also reasonable for a lot of athletes to simply talk to their server and see what the kitchen can do. Most kitchens can really make anything. Oftentimes, when we travel and go to restaurants, as long as it’s a nice kitchen, we often don’t even order off the menu. If it’s a big group of athletes, we’ll just go family style and ask the restaurant to bring out x amount of pasta, x amount of potatoes, x amount of rice, x amount of chicken, x amount of steamed or stir-fried vegetables. We’ll just go family style and build the plate ourselves.
**Armi Legge:** Wow. That sounds pretty interesting. A lot of people would say it’s impossible to sometimes make those healthier choices. I’ve got another impossible mission for you. If you choose to accept it, your task will be to give our listeners an example of a simple, healthy, cheap travel recipe that they can make in a hotel room with nothing more than a microwave and ingredients they could find in a local supermarket.
**Allen Lim:** I think a stir-fry is super, super easy, right? You could literally find some rice, you can find some fresh meat. You can find some veggies and just simply, if you had an electric frying pan, not necessarily a microwave, you could make that stuff up pretty easily. I think that if you were left with only just a microwave, maybe the simplest thing might be oatmeal. The nature of it is it probably would be simpler to go to a restaurant and ask. It’s amazing what happens when you simply ask people to cook a little healthier for you. Most restaurants are willing to to accommodate.
**Armi Legge:** So if we were to summarize your tips for healthy eating while traveling, number one would be do a little bit of research and stock up when you get there so you can find healthy food.
Prepare healthy meals ahead of time at home and then travel with them.
Cook in your own hotel room. Bring your own tools. Prepare your own food once you’ve bought it.
Keep things simple. Don’t try to make grand expectations for your eating while you’re traveling.
Make healthier choices whenever possible.
Don’t be afraid to ask the kitchen to do something a little bit different for you.
**Allen Lim:** Absolutely. I think it’s that last recommendation of not being afraid to ask restaurants to make something a little more custom for you that really ends up being the go-to when you travel just because everything else takes some time and planning and can be difficult and I realize that can’t always be practical. Asking is a huge part of it. Not to be neurotic with every restaurant you’re going to but I think a lot of people really understand that we’re all trying really hard to be healthy out there.
**Armi Legge:** Allen, thank you so much for coming on the show. Where can people learn more about you, your work, and maybe most importantly, your amazingly tasty food?
**Allen Lim:** They can learn a lot more at https://www.skratchlabs.com. You’ll find some links to the “The Feed Zone Cookbook.” It’s a book that I co-wrote with Chef Biju Thomas about healthy eating for athletes. I guess they can go from there.
**Armi Legge:** Excellent. Thank you so much.
**Allen Lim:** Alright, you’re very welcome.
**Armi Legge:** Thank you for listening to episode three of Impruvism Radio. Please join us again next week, when we hear from writer, published academic researcher, and drug-free bodybuilder, Brad Schoenfeld, about a new scientific method for gaining muscle.
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