Changing your diet at home is hard enough. So how do you eat healthy or adhere to a special diet while you’re not at home?

I’ve been asked this question frequently by patients who are trying to switch from a Standard American Diet to a healthier one, or especially by those who are trying to avoid food allergens or triggers that cause them symptoms. 

Basic Healthy Eating Rules

There are a few simple rules I follow, and these will apply whether you’re at home or away. Here they are:

  • Choose food with only one ingredient whenever possible. This eliminates all processed foods by default. It means choosing whole fruits, whole veggies, whole grains (these are the ones you’ll buy in bulk in the grocery, or if you’re eating out it will say “brown rice” or “quinoa” or something like that), eggs, nuts, seeds, and meat. Anything that requires a combination of multiple ingredients has been prepared, and introduces an element of question about what you’re putting in your body.
  • If you must choose something prepared (say at a restaurant, or on the airplane if you’re lucky enough for them to feed you), choose something grain-free if you have the choice. The reason is because almost all grains you’ll have access to commercially are highly processed, and therefore akin to eating straight sugar. (Excess sugar consumption is one of the worst things you can do for your health.)
  • If you’re eating out and there’s a vegetarian option on the menu that sounds good to you, choose that one. While I’m not a vegetarian and don’t generally counsel my patients to become vegetarians if they’re not already either, unfortunately most non-organic, non-free range animal products are low in essential fatty acids, high in saturated fat, and high in toxins. It’s a good idea to eat organic, free range or (if it’s fish) wild caught at home when you can afford it, but if you’re out and they don’t specify on the menu, you can bet they’re trying to cut costs where possible. That means what they’re serving you is bound to be the cheapest option. In that case, vegetarian is healthier.
  • If you find yourself with no choice but fast food, here’s a few reviews of common choices that might surprise you. But in a pinch, almost every restaurant has a salad option. It’s true that they sometimes make up the calories in the dressing, but at least in a salad, you’re unlikely to be getting nearly as many trans-fats as you’d get in a deep fried option, and you’ll greatly minimize the glycemic index compared to the white bread of a bun or french fries. You also might even get a little food value out of the veggies, who knows.
  • Watch your beverages. This is where calories will really get you: sodas, sweetened iced teas, and even blended coffee and espresso drinks really add up in terms of sugar content, and they’re totally empty for the most part. Same goes for alcoholic beverages. It’s best to choose water more often than not! (If you’re drinking from plastic bottles, though, go for the sturdier plastic. It’s lower in phthalates. Better yet, carry your own stainless steel or glass bottle and fill it up!) 

Adhering to Dietary Restrictions

But what if you’re also on the candida diet or you’re insulin resistant and you’re therefore trying to avoid ALL sugar? In that case, it’s best to stay in a place that has a refrigerator, and go grocery shopping whenever possible to buy your own food. That way you can be sure you’re not getting hidden sugar. (Quick tip: to make sure you’re not getting any sugar, avoid anything on the ingredient list that says “juice” or “syrup” or anything ending in “-ose”—sucrose, glucose, dextrose, fructose, etc).

If you’re trying to avoid gluten and dairy, it’s best to go paleo: shoot for salads (without creamy salad dressings, and no croutons or cheese), and/or stir fry dishes, or a non-breaded meat or fish with a side of veggies.

If you’re trying to avoid eggs, skip omelets and scrambled eggs of course, but also skip any grain products (they likely have egg in the recipe) as well.

When Is It Okay to Cheat?

Whether it’s okay for you to cheat or not really depends on how severe your symptoms are when you do.

If you’re just trying to follow a basic healthy diet, follow the “everything in moderation” rule: for about 70-80% of your meals, choose low carb, whole food, and no mystery ingredients. If you intentionally splurge on the other 30-20% while traveling (or even not so intentionally, but because there’s nothing on your diet that’s available at the time), no big deal.

If you’re trying to follow a candida diet while traveling, focus on eliminating sugar and white carbs—and worry less about some of the smaller rules (like avoiding peanuts and pistachios, or only one piece of fruit per day). If you’re in those first six weeks of the protocol, I’d really try not to cheat, but if you do on accident a little here and there, it won’t negate all your hard work. Just try not to have an ice cream sundae or anything. (If you’ve been on the protocol much longer and are just doing it for maintenance, a sundae here or there isn’t going to kill you.)

If you’re trying to avoid IgG food allergens, it again depends on whether you’re in the midst of the first six weeks of the protocol or not. If you are, unfortunately, you will have to be as strict as you can. If you slip up, it’s not the end of the world, though—we can usually clean up the damage by extending the protocol a little longer. If you’ve already completed those six weeks of elimination, then you can have the foods you’re sensitive to either in small amounts daily, or in large amounts one day, but then try not to have that food group for three days after that.

The Upshot:

Like everything, maintaining your diet while traveling is a balance. On one extreme, you shouldn’t stress about it: remember that your body is resilient. It’s unlikely that one “cheat,” or even a string of “cheats,” will have lasting consequences. It’s usually possible to un-do the damage once you get home and get back to your regular routine.

On the other extreme, it’s best not to use vacation or travel as an excuse to throw caution to the wind. If you do that, it probably will catch up with you. Still do your best—but when you just don’t have any good options, don’t sweat it.