By Leo Babauta
On our trip to Europe the last couple of weeks, Eva and I tried a new experiment: we ate nothing like we normally do when we travel.
We ended up feeling healthier than ever, and I lost 5 lbs. on the trip. This is highly unusual for us, because usually we eat pretty much whatever we feel like when we travel, and end up heavier and feeling fatter at the end of the trip.
So what did we do differently? We ate no breads, sweets, potatoes, or white rice (in addition to not drinking beer or cocktails, only red wine). This is in addition, of course, to not eating meat, seafood, poultry, dairy or eggs (we’re vegan).
And the results? In short, it was less convenient, but healthier. More below.
This was an experiment, to see what it would be like, and in truth I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. If you don’t like changing the way you do things, and want to eat anything you want, don’t do this. If you are tired of traveling and feeling crappy afterward because you ate crap, you might consider this.
Eva and I were both actually doing eating challenges before the trip, for fun, but part of our idea for the challenges was to eat the same way on the Europe trip, with a few exceptions.
Here’s what we could and could not eat during the challenge:
- Could not eat: Sweets (or sugar in general), white flour and breads in general, potatoes, white rice, beer or any alcohol except wine. Meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, eggs of course. Fake meats (I’m not against vegan meat substitutes in general though, depending on the ingredients).
- Could eat: Unsweetened coffee, some whole grains not ground into flour (oats, barley, quinoa, brown rice, etc.), beans, nuts, seeds, veggies, fruits, olive and canola oils.
However, we could have 4 exceptions during our two-week trip. That means if we had a meal with white rice and bread in it, that would be an exception. If we were walking down the street and decided to eat some dark chocolate (that had sugar), that would be an exception.
We were traveling to London, which we knew to be a good place for vegans, along with Frankfurt, Athens, Santorini, Rome, Venice and Vienna, some of which are not vegan-friendly places. So we knew we’d need those exceptions just to not starve on some days.
For exercise, we knew we’d be walking for hours each day, and we’d also be tired from taking 10 separate flights to 7 different cities (London and Athens twice) … so we kept our workouts minimal. The plan was to do short intense workouts for 2 days straight, then take 1 rest day, and repeat the entire trip.
Why Do This?
Why make travel more difficult than it already is? Why not just enjoy the pleasures of eating the local food?
These are good questions, because my usual travel philosophy is that eating the local food is one of the best reasons for traveling. And there’s no need to make life harder than it already is, right?
But I often feel crappy after travel, because I haven’t been sticking to healthy eating. I like eating indulgences, but they don’t feel balanced.
And so this experiment is a way to see if it’s possible to travel without all the indulgences, and still enjoy the trip. It’s about mindfully finding a balance. We haven’t pinpointed the balance yet, but I can say for sure that there are a million other things you can enjoy in a foreign city without eating all the food they have to offer. Walking around, people watching, watching a sunset, enjoying smells, noticing details, learning the language and history and culture, meeting new people, soaking in the different atmosphere … you don’t need to eat like a crazy person to do these things.
And eating simple, healthy food is a pleasure in and of itself, perhaps even better than eating junk.
I have to admit that this was one of the more difficult challenges, simply because some days there weren’t too many options for us. Some cities aren’t great for vegans, and the few things they do have for vegans tend to violate our challenge rules (breads and sweets, for example).
Being a vegan is already a limiting choice, but we were making it even more limited. It’s actually easy to do our challenge in San Francisco or New York or Portland, not so easy in Santorini.
But each city was different. London is easy — we went to Nama, Mildred’s and Tibits, but have also enjoyed Saf, Inspiral Lounge, Vanilla Black and others (and we haven’t tried many other great-sounding places).
Frankfurt actually has some decent options, but we arrived too late at night and the ones we went to were closed. Help! We ended up using our first exception on a desperate meal of french fries, fried potato chunks, and German beer. Not the greatest, but I liked the beer.
Athens isn’t horrible, as you can get beans and a Greek salad (minus the feta) and roasted vegetables at most Greek restaurants, but that gets tiring after a few meals (btw, the fava bean dip they serve usually has butter). Luckily, there’s Avocado restaurant, which is run by a lovely couple and saved us. We ate here three times.
Santorini is great if you eat seafood, but not great for vegans doing a challenge like ours. We ate lots of Greek salads, and drank red wine. We had some vegan bars we packed that had only fruit and nuts (no agave or brown rice syrup), so we supplemented with these.
Rome has some good options. We ended up eating at Beehive Cafe for both breakfast and dinner.
Venice is harder. There are almost no vegetarian restaurants in Venice, so we ate Indian one day (only dal, no naan or rice or roti) and a kosher restaurant another day (Gam Gam, lots of veg options), and a Middle Eastern restaurant (Frary’s, decent veg options), and took another cheat meal here with cheese-less pizza and pasta (not good).
Vienna was a dream. Surprisingly, lots of great vegan options. We ate at Harvest (awesome) and Yamm (great veg buffet) and for breakfast at at Corns n’ Pops (a do-it-yourself muesli place with soymilk options, recommended).
So yes, it was more difficult in some places, but others were awesome. And we didn’t feel unhealthy once on this trip.
For workouts, we often did pushups, squats, and lunges in our hotel room, but also did weight workouts when a gym was available. Or all-day pushups (sets of 10-20 pushups frequently throughout the day).
Overall, I’ve never been healthier on a trip, never felt better. It was more inconvenient, but I’m glad I did it.