Nothing can put a damper on a vacation quite like dealing with uncomfortable digestive issues. You took some days off of work, at long last. You’ve Googled all the best places to eat and sightsee. There isn’t a new coronavirus variant to derail your plans. It’s finally happening. But for a lot of travelers, you know what isn’t happening? Poop.
What is it about traveling that throws bodily functions completely out of whack? Not being able to go while on vacation is so common that it’s literally called traveler’s constipation. And no one wants to feel bloated while trying to work a swimsuit. Or maybe you’re more prone to experience the opposite problem — and that goes double for anyone with irritable bowel syndrome.
Gut-health registered dietitians are just as familiar with these problems as the rest of us, but the difference is that they know how to use diet and other habits to work for them, not against them. While there are certain foods on their no-fly list, there are others that they’re sure to nosh on before and during their travels. Follow in their footsteps and you’ll be able to focus on your actual trip — and not your trips to the bathroom.
Why does travel throw the gut off?
According to registered dietitian Jo Cunningham, the clinical director of the Gut Health Clinic, there are a whole slew of reasons travel throws off our normal bathroom habits. One, she says, is because we’re likely eating differently and may not be getting enough fiber or water in the process. Registered dietitian Amanda Sauceda echoes this. “A lot of the foods we eat when traveling are heavier in calories, fat and sodium, which can all slow down digestion,” she added.
“Another reason could be that we’re in a different time zone, so our body becomes out of sync to our usual pooping pattern,” Cunningham said. “A third reason is because we’re creatures of habit. Sometimes our bowels can get ‘shy’ in new environments such as new toilets or toilets in close proximity to others.” Shout out to anyone sharing a small hotel room with their pandemic love interest. Sounds stressful, right? Speaking of, Happy Belly Nutrition founder Selva Wohlgemuth, a registered dietitian nutritionist, says stress can also impact our bowels, causing digestive problems. If you’ve ever felt the urge to go right when your plane starts boarding, you know exactly what she means.
Sauceda said that not being able to move the body as much — like being stuck on a plane or in a car for hours on end — can also cause bloating. All together, it starts to become easy to see how travel can throw off bathroom habits. But fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to keep everything on track.
What to eat and drink before you travel
Wohlgemuth says the day she’s about to travel — whether it’s a long car ride or a flight — she likes to keep her morning as routine as possible. “This includes drinking a tall glass of water with lemon when I wake up and eating a hearty, balanced breakfast,” she said, adding that this may look like an egg-and-veggie scramble with fruit and yogurt.
All the experts emphasize that starting a travel day by drinking lots of water is important. “It’s really easy to forget about drinking enough water when on the move, which can impact our digestive system,” Cunningham said. In addition to drinking lots of water before traveling, registered dietitian Sarah Greenfield likes to knock back an immunity shot to help support her immune system. She also takes a few daily supplements, including a multivitamin, probiotic and vitamin D. Both probiotics and vitamin D have been linked to helping reduce bloating and keeping digestion on track.
As for your pre-travel meal, Sauceda sticks to a formula she calls PFFF: protein, fat, fiber and fermented foods. “These are the ideal components of a gut-healthy plate,” she said. You can’t always control what foods you have access to once you hit the road, but you can at least control what you eat at home before you leave. A meal that covers all four of these bases will help support your gut when you might not have access to them later.
In terms of what to avoid eating or drinking before you travel, experts say this partially comes down to what you’re sensitive to. Greenfield, for example, avoids carbonated drinks or foods high in sugar because they can make her feel bloated. She also avoids foods that, while healthy, are a bit more difficult for the gut to break down, like cruciferous veggies.
The best options for when you’re on the road (or in the sky)
If you’re on a road trip, there are a few digestive-supporting gas station snacks that get the experts’ seal of approval. For a snack that has fiber, healthy fats and protein, Greenfield likes to go for a banana and plain nuts. Sauceda is a big fan of nut or seed butter, which hits upon the same nutrients. Wohlgemuth likes to grab a coconut water if it’s available because it’s a good source of potassium. “This electrolyte helps stimulate isokinetic contractions throughout the GI tract, aiding in elimination,” she said.
For an on-the-road meal option, Wohlgemuth’s go-to is the chicken and quinoa protein bowl with black beans from Starbucks. “It contains good portions of protein, fiber-rich carbs, and veggies,” she said. “This combo keeps my energy stable, keeps me full, and helps keep me regular.”
When she’s at the airport, Sauceda likes to hunt down fresh foods, which are lower in sodium than packaged foods, and therefore less likely to cause bloating. “I try to grab a salad or sandwich,” she said. Cunningham does the same, being sure to include easy-to-digest fiber-rich produce like peppers, carrots, a banana, kiwi or an orange. And again, all the experts reiterate the importance of drinking lots of water.
What to do once you’re officially in vacation mode
Wherever you’re traveling to, the experts all say that you’ll do your gut a huge favor if you continue to keep your meals balanced with protein, fiber and healthy fats. Depending on where you’re going, you may need to take some extra precautions to avoid diarrhea. For example, Cunningham said, it’s best to stick with bottled water in some countries, including when you brush your teeth. That means avoiding ice cubes too — including in your cocktails. (Hey, there’s always wine.)
“In some countries, you may also want to avoid uncooked fruits and vegetables without skins that can be peeled — aim to peel these yourself,” Cunningham said. If you’re a meat eater, she said to make sure the meat is completely cooked before digging in — and you will probably want to avoid buying it from street vendors.
If you’re traveling across time zones, Greenfield said it’s a smart idea to transition to your new locale’s mealtimes as quickly as you can. “I aim to eat breakfast an hour after waking up, lunch around noon, and dinner around 6 p.m.,” she said. This, she explains, gets the body into a good rhythm more quickly, which will help the digestive system stay on track.
Wohlgemuth likes to bring digestive bitters with her when she travels to give her gut a boost. “They help support stomach acid production, digestive enzyme release, and bile release, which then helps with digestion and absorption of the food I eat,” she said. “This helps reduce bloating or abdominal discomfort, and helps keep your bowel movements regular and on schedule.”
She also adds that going to bed at the appropriate time in your new time zone will help the body out, too. “Since our circadian rhythm is closely tied to our gut, I try to reset my circadian rhythm as quickly as possible,” she said.