Useful tips for maintaining good health while traveling
Our family recently completed a sixteen-day vacation. In the 27 years we have been married, this is the most time Dinner Table Doctor has ever taken off work. Whenever we go on a trip, people ask me if DTD is concerned about healthy eating habits, fiber intake, and exercise frequency while traveling. The answer is yes and no. He definitely enjoys food and wine on vacation but is also mindful about the importance of exercise and moderation. The advice he gives patients is that you can have some fun eating and drinking on vacation as long as 99 percent of the time when you’re NOT on vacation, you lead a healthy lifestyle.
**It is VERY IMPORTANT TO NOTE that if you have a serious medical condition, there is no slacking off on vacation. For example, even on vacation, you should severely limit salty foods if you have heart failure, or if you have diabetes, you should limit sweets even on special occasions. Work with your doctor if you have any questions about your own health, and always take important medication with you when traveling.
Our vacation was a once in a lifetime trip to Croatia. We have a dear friend whose parents moved to the US from Croatia, and she has always talked about the beauty of the country and its people. Years ago we decided that when we both celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, we would take a trip to Croatia together. Unfortunately, the year we planned on traveling was 2020, so we were forced to delay. When we finally decided the time was right, we had already paid for part of the trip and had not traveled much for two years, so we went all out on a memorable journey.
Our friend Ana speaks the language and has visited Croatia several times, so she organized most of the activities. We spent the first week on a catamaran sailing along the Adriatic coast and island hopping. This beautiful boat fit 12 people! (DTD and I have three children, and Ana and her husband have four, plus there was a captain.) We started in Dubrovnik, and each day we would enjoy a leisurely cruise to the next island, where we would explore and eat. We saw Mljet, Korcula, Vis, Hvar, and ended in Split. Each night we slept on the boat.
Our time on the boat ended in Split. From there we explored northern Croatia and the Istrian peninsula with a quick side excursion to Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We ate pasta and pastries and ice cream and lots of meat, including processed. We drank wine and beer and cocktails as well. Believe it or not, we still were able to follow much of DTD’s advice on staying healthy, even while consuming all this deliciousness.
Practice Mindful Eating
DTD advises patients to always eat mindfully. Where many of us get into trouble is in our daily lives, popping that cookie into our mouths without thinking or having that extra glass of wine too often. When we do that on a regular basis, it can be harmful to our health. Even on a vacation or special occasion, it is not a good idea to absent-mindedly shove food in our mouths. We should always think about what we are eating.
We started each day with breakfast on the boat, traveled a few hours, stopped in a cove to swim, then enjoyed a light lunch on the boat. Both meals usually consisted of bread, cheese, meats, fruit, and sweet treats plus plenty of coffee. There were two times when it was heartier fare, such as pasta or cevapi, which is a Croatian staple of little sausages with an eggplant dip. We also had wine and gin, and Croatian beer periodically. Mainly, though we stuck to lots and lots of water due to the heat of the sun.
We were the ones doing the grocery shopping for all the food we ate on the boat, so we had complete control. With every pastry or bottle of wine, we also included fresh fruit and vegetables and lots of water. Balancing healthy and unhealthy foods is a great way to still enjoy a trip while treating yourself too.
The second week was more challenging because we were almost exclusively eating at restaurants. We didn’t stress over making the best choices, but always tried to incorporate some healthy fruits and veggies.
During our vacation, we may not have always eaten the healthiest foods and we may have had alcohol more often than we normally do. Nevertheless, we were eating mindfully. We never just shoved fast food in our mouths or got drunk. We took the time to enjoy and appreciate every single delectable meal and every glass of perfectly paired wine or amazing cocktail with an unbelievable view.
Indulge (A Little)
If you don’t have any serious health issues and are on vacation, it is OK to indulge a little. DTD firmly believes that too much depravation can be a set up for failure. It is much easier to live a healthy lifestyle on a daily basis, and indulge in some treats rarely than it is to never have anything remotely unhealthy. (Again, there are circumstances where some with serious health conditions must consult their doctor before straying from the recommended diet.)
A perfect example of this is DTD’s birthday. Usually I make him an abundance of appetizers and an out-of-this-world meal with a great bottle of wine. A decadent birthday cake and ice cream cap off the celebration. He eats it all with gusto. The next day, when there are leftovers in the fridge and some cake on the counter, he doesn’t touch it. Birthday is over. (Of course, the kids and I eat it because they are young adults who eat anything and I have no will power. Give me a break – I am trying to listen to DTD but it takes time. We’ve only been married 27 years…)
The main indulgence we had every single day in Croatia was ice cream. Our family motto is “on vacation we have ice cream every day, at least once!” I don’t always live up to this goal, unless there’s a lactose-free version available, but DTD and my kids are extremally persistent in finding the best local ice cream or gelato every single day.
Dinner would be a big meal at a local restaurant. We would often try several menu items and local wine pairings. All the food was fresh seafood and local meats and vegetables, so I ate guilt-free! Later in the evenings, we would often have a cocktail or glass of wine in a restaurant or bar by the sea, while our young adult children ran amok on the island. Again, every indulgence was not mindless eating. We made specific choices and thoroughly enjoyed every treat.
While you may not feel like running or hitting the hotel gym while on vacation, you can still try to be active each day. A long walk on the beach, swimming, walking through a city instead of taking Ubers, using stairs instead of escalators – all of these can add up to some great and seemingly effortless exercise while you’re enjoying your trip.
During our first week, we spent hours swimming, snorkeling, paddle boarding, and kayaking. As we reached each island, we would explore, typically walking, hiking, or riding bikes. To sum up, the first week of vacation was full of active exploration and a few light meals followed by one whopper of a feast each day.
The second week was a whirlwind of excursions which Ana planned masterfully. We disembarked the boat in Split and hopped on a bus to Bosnia and Herzegovina where we visited Medjugorje. This town is very close to the border of Croatia and is a popular place for Catholic pilgrimage since six local children began insisting that Mary, mother of Jesus appeared to them regularly and still does to this day. Although the Catholic church has not authenticated these events, it is still an interesting place to visit and a spiritual location for many people from around the world. There is a lovely church where we attended an outdoor mass. We also climbed Apparition Hill, where there is a beautiful statue of Mary. Lots of walking and the long, arduous climb up the hill meant we had all the exercise we needed.
From there we headed to a picturesque seaside town called Šibenik, then to Plitvice Lakes National Park where we hiked amongst gorgeous walkways with waterfalls for several hours. Next we visited Motovun, which is a village in Istria set high on a hill and known for the abundance of truffles in the local cuisine. Finally, we ended our time in Croatia in Rovinj, which was my personal favorite of all the wonderful locations we visited. Rovinj is a town on the western coast of the Istrian peninsula. It is a ferry ride away from Venice. This gorgeous area was once part of Italy and we overheard people speaking Italian as often as Croatian. Lots of walking up and down hills and taking in the sites on foot kept us very active and helped us sleep well every night.
Try to Get Enough Sleep
Sleeping well while on vacation can be difficult but is so important. Sleep deprivation can severely affect your health. A sleep mask and ear plugs are very helpful when resting in an unfamiliar location. Activity also helps, especially when you need to digest some pretty big meals and foods you don’t normally eat before laying down for the night.
Incorporate Local Fare
With each meal, try to sample the local cuisine. That is part of the fun or traveling, and a terrific way to experience another culture, plus it may often be on the healthy side. Naturally this is not always true and you have to select carefully. After all, in Croatia you could choose to eat cevapi and bread for every meal. But you can also get fresh roasted vegetables and seafood that was captured the same day and cooked in a wood-fired oven (with a small side of cevapi, of course). When you do cap off your meal with a dessert or unhealthy side, you won’t eat as much because you filled up with the good stuff.
The wine in Croatia is spectacular and the food in the Rovinj area included lots of truffles and pasta, so I was in heaven! On more than one occasion, we ate peka, which a cooking technique where meat, and/or seafood, and vegetables are cooked slowly under a bell-shaped lid smothered in embers. For dessert we often enjoyed palanchina, or Croatian crepes stuffed with fruit or Nutella (in addition to daily ice cream!)
Research the Area
Incorporating local fare is great, but there are times when caution is warranted. In some areas of the world, it is simply not safe to drink the tap water or use ice. There are some delicacies that may be dangerous to your health. You also don’t want to miss out on some fantastic street food. Just do your research before you go to find out what is within reason. DTD always recommends that part of this research should definitely include a visit to the CDC website for travel updates. If there is a virus circulating in an area or certain vaccines you should have before your trip, you want plenty of time to take care of this so you can go and enjoy yourself. You can also check which countries have safe tap water for drinking.
Skip a Meal
As long as there is not a medical reason that you need to eat regularly, vacation is a time when you can skip a meal because you’re busy. You may just have a light snack on the go while you’re sightseeing, or you may just nibble on relatively healthy snacks while lounging on the beach, or in our case, on the boat. Just do not buy unhealthy snacks so you have no choice but to enjoy fresh fruit or veggies. Then when you finally hit a restaurant, you can indulge. Not only can this tactic help you eat fewer healthy foods, but it also helps your pocketbook. Traveling with a family of five can be very expensive!
Limit Alcohol Consumption
OK, this can be tough for some people. I mean, you’re on vacation and you’re excited and want to have as much fun as possible, so you may decide an extra beer or cocktail is no big deal. In Croatia, the wine was one of the main things we looked forward to sampling, and we visited some extremely unique spots specifically to sample the wine. We all know how quickly drinking can escalate and get out of hand. You want to remember the vacation you paid for, after all, and you don’t want to feel sick or hungover. If there is no medical reason you cannot drink alcohol, enjoy, but know your limits and stick to them. Spending lots of time on a rocking boat and the thought of feeling hungover on the Adriatic Sea was definitely a natural deterrent for me.
Try Not to Stress
Vacations are meant to help us relax and unwind. DTD especially needed some down time after the last few years of working overtime to care for COVID patients. Traveling can be stressful, though. Delayed flights, missed connections, lost luggage, unfamiliar surroundings, new foods, and more can stress out some people. A trip this big was bound to cause some stress, but on the whole was very relaxing. Thanks to Ana’s careful planning, the entire first week was a lovely mix of activity and lounging. We had plenty of time simply kicking back on the boat, taking in the scenery, playing cards, reading, chatting and napping. This was great for our mental health, which is just as important as physical health.
The second week was very busy. I wouldn’t change a thing because we saw so many wonderful things and had great experiences, but I will say we reached our limit by the end. In one way this was good because we were ready to get home.
Know your own limits and be mindful of what might cause stress on your vacation. Try to mitigate these triggers before they happen. We knew from experience that lost luggage would make us crazy, so we limited ourselves to carry-ons and packed lightly, doing laundry periodically. Our kids definitely got frustrated more than once with the amount of walking and skipping meals. Travel companions need to work together and be flexible, so that everyone is happy and no one is miserable.
Remember, When it’s Over, it’s Over!
All good things must come to an end, and all vacations eventually lead you back home to reality. After our trip, we made a conscious effort to have well-balanced mostly plant-based meals every day, so we could get back on a routine of healthy eating. DTD jumped right back into his extreme fiber consumption, and I upped the fiber a little as well. One thing I’ve learned is that vacations can mess with your natural constitution. I am an extremely regular person when it comes to bowel movements, and I get completely out of sorts when I travel and eat a lot of unhealthy foods. As a side note, I would not travel for even one single night without bringing my portable bidet!
**Another reminder DTD gives patients, is the act of traveling does not always mean you can go on vacation mode when it comes to your health. For example, if you travel for work, you should maintain your normal healthy lifestyle. It is not a good idea to think, “well I’m in a hotel so I can eat burgers at the bar every night.” If you’re retired and travel frequently, the same holds true. Treating yourself and indulging while on vacation is no longer harmless if you’re on vacation every month or several times a year.
Here are some photos from our trip. I hope you get to experience Croatia some day. Honestly, we enjoyed it so much that Ana and I are thinking of starting a travel company with wine tours throughout Croatia (mainly so we could go again and again!) Wherever you travel, remember that it is possible to indulge in treats while remaining healthy. If you’re looking for an excellent travel blog for tips and ideas, I highly recommend A Dangerous Business. We discovered this great resource because we are friends with Amanda’s in-laws. Check it out!