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Traveling with Diabetes – Plan Ahead for a Healthy Holiday

traveling with diabetes

Before DH was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, we didn’t think twice about the way we ate when we were on the road. Breakfast was usually a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit, and lunch was a hamburger combo meal, super-sized. Yes, it was easier, but was also killing us.  We’ve learned a lot since then, and really have given some thought to what we eat when we’re traveling – especially during the holidays.

So now it’s that time of year again. You’re finally about to use those vacation days and are stuffing a suitcase until it’s about to split.  This is your time to relax and de-stress, but don’t go into relaxation mode before you consider the health of you and your family.  Diabetes doesn’t take any time off. The evidence shows that about 10 percent of people with diabetes experience problems with diabetes control when traveling.  A little extra homework will keep diabetes from putting any kinks in your trip and allow you to vacation hassle-free.

It’s true that rest stops mark the miles and fast food joints litter the roads right off the highway, but if you’re looking for something healthy to eat on the road, you may end up frustrated.  While it’s definitely harder to eat well and quickly while you travel, it’s doable.

Pack a cooler. 

The most obvious solution to the healthy-eating dilemma is to bring your own food. When it’s a road trip, you absolutely have control over what to pack and what you can eat. Fill a cooler with snacks and meals containing fruits, nuts, vegetables and seeds, as well as fiber-packed carbs and lean proteins, both of which keep you feeling full longer.  Peanut butter on whole-grain bread, vegetables and hummus or bean dip, low-fat cheese and whole-grain crackers, nonfat Greek yogurt with fruit, and mixed nuts all travel well. We take individual servings of frozen grapes, boiled eggs, premeasured servings of popcorn, protein granola bars, apples with peanut butter and plenty of bottled water with sugar-free drink mixes.

If your snacks need to be kept cool, surround them with ice packs or bags of ice.  Even food that requires refrigeration, such as lunch meat or yogurt, will be safe in a cooler for a few hours.  For longer trips, bring gallon-sized plastic bags and fill them with ice from convenience stores along the way when your ice packs warm.

Search out healthy options.

With a little digging, you can find some healthy options amid the junk food at every highway exit.  You’ll have an easier time of it if you plan ahead. Map your route, then use a site like Google Maps to note all of the restaurants along the way. Can’t find anything but fast food? Visit the restaurant’s website for nutrition information. Most have a few smart alternatives to their not-so-healthy meals.  Convenience stores and gas stations often sell things like fruit, yogurt and nuts.  Even a can of water-packed tuna and a few whole-grain crackers can typically be found at a convenience store.  Still too much thinking for vacation?  Try an application called Fooducate – free on iphone and android. Scan the barcode and learn the facts about the product.  Every item gets a grade that indicates how healthy it is, tells you what’s good or bad about it, and if needed, suggests an alternative.  Finally, if you take pre-meal insulin, use apps like Calorie King to be as accurate as possible with your calculations.

Drink responsibly.

Driving for hours will wear anyone out, but be careful how you refuel. Soda, slushies and sugary coffee drinks may seem like ideal road trip refreshments, but they’re notoriously high in calories and carbs.  Just like when you’re home, a diabetic really should be eating their calories rather than drinking them.  Stay hydrated with water.  Don’t like plain water, add a squeeze of lemon, lime or even orange to your water bottle.

When it comes to coffee, stick to the basics.  Plain coffee with low-fat milk is fine if you need a pick-me-up, but fancy coffee drinks are loaded with sugar. For example, a 12 ounce Cafe Mocha with whipped creme from Starbucks has 270 calories, 13 grams of fat and 24 grams of carbohydrate.

Use national pharmacies.

Your local, neighborhood mom-and-pop pharmacies are great for your at-home needs.  If you travel often, you may want to switch to a national chain such as CVS, Walgreens, or Rite Aid. You’ll be able to refill your medication from where ever you are should you run out or lose your medicine. Of course you shouldn’t rely completely on the pharmacy.  It’s always good to carry paper prescriptions with you, just in case.

Keep meds and supplies cool. 

Don’t forget to take proper care of your insulin. Bring along cool packs for insulin storage.  Remember, cool – not frozen.  Freezing kills insulin.  Keep your diabetic devices out of the sun and in a cool place, too.  Even blood glucose meters don’t like extreme temperatures.

One more thing about meds – be aware of time zone changes, especially when setting your watch. Remember when you travel east your day becomes shorter; if you travel west your day becomes longer. You may need to alter the timings of your medication.

A few more general tips to feel your best while on the road:

1) Have a pre-travel check-up. Make sure your A1C blood sugar levels, your blood pressure and your cholesterol levels are OK.

2) Wear a diabetes medical ID.

3) Keep your medication and glucose snacks in your hand-luggage.

4) Always be prepared to treat low glucose. When you travel, you may disrupt your normal routine for both eating and dosing insulin; you may also be sightseeing or increasing your physical activity in general. Because of these changes, you need to be prepared for low glucose whenever it strikes, so pack plenty of glucose tablets—these are usually the best because they won’t melt, explode in heat, or leak and become sticky.

5) Protect your feet. Wear comfortable shoes, and check your feet daily for blisters, cuts, redness, swelling and scratches. I talked to a man who’d hiked in the Arizona desert for several hours; when he got home, he saw blood on his socks. A cactus needle had pierced through his shoe and wedged a quarter-inch into his foot! Because he had peripheral neuropathy, he hadn’t felt it.

6) Reduce your risk for blood clots by moving around every hour or two.

Thinking ahead just a bit will ensure that diabetes doesn’t put a damper on your vacation and holiday. Feel better, maintain control of your blood sugar, and have the energy you need to enjoy each day!