Written by: Rebekah B.
Reviewed by: Emily J., MSc RD
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It’s harder to manage glucose when you travel due to disruptions in your typical schedule and routine. So as you make travel plans for the upcoming holiday season and beyond, it’s important to figure out how to improve your glucose control and minimize negative impact.
As much as traveling can expand your world, it also means you’re not following your normal day-to-day habits — and that can make it harder to properly maintain your glucose levels. From time zone changes to poor sleep and lack of glucose-friendly meal options, being away from home often presents a whole new host of challenges. Here’s how to anticipate and respond to these issues so you can enjoy stress-free travel, while still enjoying the foods that make travel fun.
Not surprisingly, the quality of “fuel” that you put into your body makes a big difference. When traveling, sometimes the last thing on your mind is eating healthy, and it can be hard to find good options.
However, simple strategies like keeping some high-fiber snacks on hand can help you sustain healthy glucose levels throughout the trip, which will reduce your cravings for those highly desirable, but unhealthy foods. Research has shown that eating more fiber can help control your blood sugar and lower your triglyceride and cholesterol levels (which helps reduce the risk of heart disease) [1, 2].
Consider keeping some high-fiber finger foods (like nuts, apples, and baby carrots) on hand to snack on throughout your trip. When eating at a restaurant, look for high-fiber options like cauliflower, brown rice or quinoa, and beans.
It’s great to enjoy yourself while traveling, but whenever you start feeling dips in energy, adjust your behavior around food. This includes looking for foods that are low on the glycemic index (these are carbohydrate-containing foods that are less likely to cause blood sugar spikes). Foods that have a low GI include green vegetables, most fruits, chickpeas, and lentils.
While it’s okay to eat foods with a higher GI in moderation, offsetting that cuisine with low GI options can help you maintain your glucose levels whenever hunger strikes. You can also eat a salad first to blunt spikes (the fiber in the leafy greens and vegetables can help slow the absorption of any carb-heavy foods you eat after), or make glucose-friendly swaps, such as opting for zucchini noodles instead of pasta or choosing bread made from unrefined flours and grains. (And don’t forget to “eat the rainbow” as much as possible by eating fruits and vegetables of various colors each day.)
If your sleep schedule is going to be thrown off as you move time zones, you can start preparing before your trip to ensure an easier transition.
One study of 11 men and 15 women between the ages of 22 and 36 found that gradually moving up their sleep schedule with intermittent morning bright light over a three-day period helped advance circadian rhythms . Researchers think that following a similar pattern before an eastward flight may reduce jet lag.
Before going on a trip, you can try moving your mealtimes and bedtimes closer to those in the time zone you’ll be traveling to so your body can begin adjusting naturally.
Your body’s circadian clock responds to light (as a signal that it’s time to be awake) and darkness (as a sign that it’s time to sleep). As a result, changing your sleep schedule can make it easier to adjust to a new time zone.
Researchers from the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago studied how to reduce the effects of jet lag by looking at how study participants responded to melatonin, bright light, and sleep schedules . They found that taking melatonin before bed and getting bright light in the morning (ideally by going outside) helped shift the circadian clock to the new time zone more quickly, which in turn reduced jet lag.
When you’re traveling to a new place, consider taking melatonin before bed and getting plenty of sunlight in the morning to help your body adjust. You can even add an early morning outdoor workout to soak up the sunshine, which will help your body adjust faster.
In a study published in Science Translational Medicine, scientists gave five participants a double-espresso caffeine dose, a placebo, or exposure to bright or dim light for 49 days . After finding that the caffeine delayed the participants’ internal clock by 40 minutes, they hypothesized that caffeine could help reset the circadian clock and reduce jet lag.
For best results, try to align your coffee intake with your new time zone. (For example, if you normally drink coffee around 9 am, adhere to that schedule in your current time zone — even if that means it’s 1 am in your old time zone.)
Another study conducted with 12 healthy normal sleepers found that taking caffeine up to 6 hours before bedtime had a disruptive effect on sleep . So take your caffeine intake (and timing) into account to help you transition more seamlessly into your new environment.
Finding ways to get movement in (especially first thing in the morning to help your body wake up) can help you feel better while you’re on the road. While there’s no one “right” time to exercise, regularly exercising while on the road can help you stabilize glucose levels, especially after eating.
A systemic review from February 2022 found that light-intensity walking was extremely effective at balancing postprandial (post-meal) glucose levels — but that even frequent bouts of standing had a positive impact on glucose levels (as opposed to prolonged sitting) .
Make it a priority to keep up your exercise regimen by working out in the hotel gym or doing some jumping jacks or lunges while you’re at a rest stop. You can also explore the city on foot or rent some bikes so you can see as much of the area as possible. Don’t feel like you have to get a “real” workout; even 10 minutes of getting your heart rate up can be a big win.
A Canadian study of over 800 lawyers found that participating in active and social leisure activities or taking a vacation helped reduce depression and job stress . Vacations can be a great way to lower stress levels and help us feel more refreshed, but to soak up the full benefits we have to be able to fully decompress.
Try to be as present as possible on your trip and soak up all the special moments, like exploring new neighborhoods or finding hidden gems in your hometown. One week won’t derail your progress, so focus on small wins, like limiting your caffeine intake or getting your steps in.
To further reduce stress while on the road, make sure to schedule ample time to rest or take a nap. You can also practice breathwork or meditation while on the way from one location to the next.
When traveling, it’s important to set proper expectations (after all, your routine on the road will never be as good as it is at home). Here are some tips to keep in mind:
Remember: it’s all about balance. If you’re in Paris, you should definitely sample some pastries, and don’t sweat it if you stay up late exploring the city. A week or two won’t set your health journey back, and enjoying your vacation is the best way to return from your trip more relaxed, motivated, and happy.