If you’re just catching up, here’s the short story: I live overseas, I travel a lot and I just had my second baby. I struggled with post-partum depression this time around (although it has vastly improved with exercise and sunshine) but I still have this on-going issue with fitting in exercise while on the road (and with kids and everything else) plus my travel diet is usually pretty much out-of-control. I’m trying to figure out how to fix that, so as I’m trying out new things I’m writing about my results here, in case anyone else is going through the same thing. However this is not advice! Ask your nutritionist or doctor and don’t sue me, okay?

So the question is this: how do you eat healthy on the road when…

1. You don’t always have a kitchen.

2. You eat out a lot.

3. You want to try local dishes and eat like a local.

4. You don’t always know the calorie count of what you’re eating — or maybe even the name of it or what’s in it (Every tourist in Asia ever: “Excuse me, is this chicken? Please tell that’s chicken… oh god, it’s not is it?”).

So here was my plan: Eat SUPER healthy when I’m able to and that will more than compensate for the days when I don’t. So instead of worrying about calories when I’m out and about in a new city, or enjoying street food in wherever I happen to be, I just make up for it by eating very healthy when I’m able to control my diet more.

Call it The Better Than Nothing diet.

The closest thing I found to the “This is Super Healthy” for a diet is the DASH diet (which is similar to the Mayo Clinic Diet and the Mediterranean diet) and it’s good for your heart and if you’re worried about cancer, heart disease, strokes, diabetes or any of the major killers out there, then eating enough fruits and vegetables and maintaining a health weight are two things you can do to signifigantly reduce your risk (I read that you can lower cancer risk by 60% — when you think about it, that’s a pretty good incentive).

I won’t try to summarize the whole diet, but the great thing is that there are two full pdf guides for the diet (for free!) that you can download. The short guide (6 pages) or the long guide (64 pages). Or just read the US News Review.

Right now, we’re in Mexico but we’re renting a little house that has a full kitchen. So I decided to do the DASH diet for a full week. Here’s what it entails:

  • Intake less than 2300 mg of sodium a day
  • Eat lots of whole foods
  • Lots of veggies and fruits
  • Healthy fats

If you try to lower your sodium to their recommendation it’s impossible to eat badly. I was making all of my food, eating about 2000 calories a day (I’m breastfeeding so I can’t restrict my calories) and basically filling up on fruits and veggies all day, and I still came close to my sodium limits every single day.

How to track it: I put everything into a calorie tracking program, in this case, fitday.com (there are tons of calorie counting apps out there) and set a special goal to watch my sodium intake.

What you eat: Anything you want, just realize that whole unprocessed foods are the lowest in sodium. A typical day for me:

Breakfast: Zuccini omelet with home made salsa (no salt added) and a few ounces of fresh cheese like panela (or mozzarella) and corn tortillas

Lunch: A giant green smoothie (1 cup blueberries, 1 cup pineapple, 1 cup spinach, 1/2 cup yogurt, 1 orange)

Snack: A handful of almonds, an apple and some cheese

Dinner: Grilled chicken (1 cup), pinto beans (1 cup), home made salsa — pico de gallo (1 cup),  and corn tortillas

Snack: A smaller smoothie (1 cup blueberries, 1 cup spinach, 1 cup hibiscus tea, 1 tablespoon honey) and air popped popcorn (no salt)

Needless to say, it’s a ton of food and from tracking my nutrients I was getting 200% of my daily allowance on almost everything (the except was Vitamin A, Calcium, Vitamin E and Iron — although I started adding hibiscus tea which has a ton of iron — but even for those nutrients I was usually at 95% or more of my daily requirements). Note: Vitamin D I get from daily sunshine and I didn’t track water but it was about 10 glasses a day.

This is a snapshot from one day’s nutrients (click image for larger view). Despite not adding ANY salt and eating tons of fruits and veggies, I still went over my sodium intake by 200 mg — that’s because there’s a small amount of sodium in almost everything. It adds up quick. I have no idea how someone can do the hypertensive version of this, which is just 1500 mg a day without a significant calorie cut (but then again I am not a nutritionist either, maybe they have some magic recipes).

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How did I feel: In general, pretty good. I was never hungry, but I did jump at my next meal and devour it. I am breastfeeding so I think the lack of fat was making me feel a little empty after eating. A smoothie just doesn’t fill you up in that totally satisfied way unless you have some almonds, avocado or a little cheese with it, something with fat to make you feel sated  I started to add in more fat towards the end of the week and then it was better.

Here’s the crazy thing: I felt like I was detoxing a little. Like the lower amount of wheat (almost none, really because I was eating corn tortillas, which is not a rule of the diet, just how it worked out) might have meant I was getting a little gluten detox, which basically feels like a cold. My nose was running like crazy. Also I just had a c-section so my body is still healing but this diet made my back pain flare up, like right along where the c-section scare runs but on my back. That might not have been related, but it was towards day 5, so I stopped after day 7 and went back to my normal diet and the side effects stopped.

In other words, for me, it was almost a little too much. I am sure I would adjust.

The big win was the smoothie, it gave me super energy! I think I slept better too.

My weight: I lost 9 lbs during the week, a large portion is likely due to the sharp salt restriction. (I am also 3 months post-baby so I have all kinds of crazy water retention and hormones going on, so this is probably not a typical result).

Equipment needed: I really used my blender a lot and I had to cook all my own meals.

Is it travel-friendly? I would say doing it to the letter probably wouldn’t be realistic unless you’re going to always cook for yourself and even then it’s really restrictive. I used a lot of spicy peppers to add flavor where salt would normally be, so for Mexican cuisine, this works great! You can modify most Mexican dishes to fit this diet. The main Mexican meal, La Comida, which is usually grilled meat plus beans, some kind of salsa, a vegetable and corn tortillas, is a perfect fit as long as you don’t add salt (and it’s cheap especially if you soak and cook your own beans). Having affordable produce makes a big difference too, I think we spend something like $40 for a week’s worth of fruits and veggies but if we were in the States I could see this costing $100+ a week just in produce.

What I took from it: I am a huge green smoothie fan now. I think it might be worthwhile, if you’re like me and trying to eat healthier, to pack your blender when you travel (I KNOW, that’s crazy) but I’m thinking about doing it. Or maybe just buying one in each new city if I’ll be there for more than a few weeks. It’s the only thing you really need, even if you don’t have a kitchen because every place in the world has fruits and veggies you can blend up. They are delicious to boot and really healthy. And so much better than eating a sad little salad with some low-fat dressing. I can’t even taste the spinach and as I got more used to it, I could use less fruit and more spinach. It’s also as powerful energy-wise as a cup of coffee (to me anyway and without the jittery caffeine feeling).

Conclusion: DASH is definitely healthy but labor intensive. The salt restriction will make eating out completely prohibited because salt tastes good — every restaurant puts salt in their food, even vegan places. I can’t see myself doing it everyday, but it’s a nice quarterly way to reset your taste buds. Even the smallest amount of sodium tasted like heaven after a week, and I didn’t feel the need to salt my food at all, the natural salt was more noticible to me.