5 ways to stay healthy while traveling Central America
We all know it’s difficult to stay healthy while traveling. You’re off your routine, eating new foods, skipping time zones, losing precious sleep, eating foods contaminated with microorganisms you’re not used to, not following your exercise routine, and so on. Especially for long-term travelers it can be incredibly hard to maintain a balanced schedule of eating, sleeping, and exercising. You’re probably more likely to be drinking more alcohol as well (You are on vacation right?)
With a few simple steps however, you can maintain a healthy lifestyle. It may be different than when you’re at home, but it’s important to keep your mind and body fit while traveling to avoid getting sick and get the most from your experience. Can you completely prevent yourself from getting sick? No, of course not, but here are 5 ways to stay healthy while traveling in Central America – mind, body and spirit.
1. Avoid White Rice and Sugary Drinks
This is the number one tip because it is so important for staying healthy, especially in Central America because every country LOVES white rice. It comes with nearly every meal! Sometimes it doesn’t look like white rice, such as ‘gallo pinto’, when the rice is fried with beans and sauce, but it is still white rice. White rice offers little nutritional value, the grain has been completely stripped of it’s fiber, vitamin, and minerals. It is basically empty calories. The body digests it quickly and since it has a high glycemic index, the body converts it into sugar very quickly. This causes your blood sugar to rise (especially if the meal contains other simple sugars) and crash later on below normal blood sugar levels. A diet high in simple carbohydrates, such as white rice, is known to be factor in raising people’s risk of Type 2 Diabetes. Bottom line: it’s just a filler food that provides you with little nutritional content and causes potential danger to your health. So why eat it with every meal?
Often times if you ask for no rice at restaurants in Central American (say ‘sin arroz’, or ‘without rice’) they will offer you something else. It can even be a small salad, beans, or a side of vegetables. They may even just give you a little bit more of each thing that you ordered, to make up for not having rice to fill the plate. If you’re ordering a taco or quesadilla and ask for no rice, you might find it’s stuffed a bit more with the other ingredients. If a restaurant offers whole grain brown rice that would be a better alternative, but not many restaurants do, especially not the local mom-n-pop restaurants (where the best local food is at).
Sugary drinks are one of Central America’s favorite beverages. You will find ‘Agua Frescas’ everywhere, from Mexico to Nicaragua, although the name may vary from place to place. Basically these are a combination of different fruits, grains, or flowers blended with sugar and water. That doesn’t sound too bad, and perfect for a hot day. However, they are LOADED with sugar, more often than not a single drink can have your entire daily value of added sugars (24 grams, or 6 teaspoons per day is the recommended amount to stay under for added sugars). If a restaurant or street vendor is making a fresh drink, you can probably ask for it ‘sin azucar’, or ‘without sugar’. They may look at you funny but trust that you’re making a better choice for your health.
Jamaica tea, also known as Hibiscus, is a popular drink throughout Central America and can also be known as one of the Agua Frescas. Hibiscus tea is made from the Roselle flower, and is somewhat tart. Roselle is high in organic acids and anthocyanins, which give it its deep red color. Anthocyanins have a number of health benefits including lowering blood pressure and acting as antioxidants, protecting the body from oxidative stress cause by environmental factors, smoking, stress, diet, and more. Oxidative stress has been shown to be a contributor to a number of different disorders and diseases such as aging, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and depression. Again, the problem is that Jamaica tea will be loaded with sugar. If you drink it every day for it’s health benefits you might be doing more harm than good. Ask for a glass without sugar, it will be slightly tart but very tasty. In it’s pure form without sugar Hibiscus can be a great addition to keeping you healthy while traveling. Look for ‘jugo’ which is usually just pure juice – orange and grapefruit are quite common.
2. Purchase Green Superfood Powder to Mix with Water
Purchasing green superfood powder is a simple step towards keeping you healthy while traveling. If you purchase a quality green powder it will be packed full of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, digestive enzymes, and in many pre-biotics and pro-biotics. Mixing a spoonful of this with a bottle of water is a perfect way to start your day with proper nutrition. Often while traveling you’ll find yourself eating the staple dishes of a country the most, and sometimes that doesn’t include a whole lot of vegetables. Dishes in Central American are typically carbohydrate and meat heavy. You’ll be able to enjoy what you’re eating and feel better about your diet if you’ve already had a large serving of vegetables and other greens that morning. Often green powders have high concentrations of spirulina or wheatgrass. Be honest with yourself; how often would you eat either of those if it weren’t conveniently mixed into a prepared powder?
What brand should you buy? This is a difficult question to answer because there are so many good brands out there, but they can often be quite expensive. You don’t have to be too picky about it. Read the ingredient list and opt for the one that not only fits into your price bracket but has a well rounded variety of ingredients. If you find one with pre- and pro-biotics in it even better for helping to boost your immune system while traveling to foreign countries where you’re likely to get sick as least once from food poisoning.
Amazing Grass offers a nutrient-dense option with digestive enzymes, pre- and pro-biotics for an affordable cost. A small sized jar with 30 servings will cost around $25 USD. That’s less than $1 per day you’re spending on your health. The best flavor is the Lemon-Lime Energy. The lemon-lime flavor is perfect for masking the ‘grassy’ taste of many green superfood powders. It can be mixed with water only and after one or two servings you’ll grow to love the flavor. For additional bonus this flavor has matcha green tea powder which gives you a boost of caffeine for your day in addition to the well known health benefits of matcha tea. Matcha tea is high in epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), a catechin found to have powerful anti-cancer properties.
If you’re already on the road and can’t order a green superfood powder because you no longer have a mailing address, don’t worry. Many cities throughout Central America have Natural Health Food Stores where you’re likely to find some similar options. While traveling through Guatemala you’ll find a popular brand called ‘Yogi-Superfoods’. This brand has around 50 different nutrient blend packets, including a ‘Green Superfood Blend’ which is made from Spirulina, Moringa, Chlorella, and Chlorophyll. There are no added sugars, it is completely gluten-free, and 100% organic. A packet with roughly 15-20 servings costs around $10 USD. Easy to pack too!
3. Early Morning Exercise
Of course everyone knows the health benefits of exercise so it may seem like a silly addition to this list. But how many people actually exercise while traveling? Before leaving for your travels you may have it in your mind that you’re going to work out every day, but then reality sets in while on vacation and you’ll find yourself slacking in the exercise department. You’re too busy waking up for sunrises, going on day trips, adventure packed activities, or watching the sunset. All you need is a few minutes per day, and with the right types of exercise you’ll help keep your body strong and fit without taking up too much time in your day.
Body-weight exercises can easily be done from any resort, guesthouse, or hostel room. They don’t require weights or special equipment. These include push-ups, elevated foot push-ups, squats, lunges, sit-ups, planks and other ab exercises, wall sits, and hand-stands as examples. Choose a few different options for each day and do several rounds of each. It will take you only 15 minutes!
Body-weight exercises help you maintain your lean muscle mass, lower stress, give you more energy for the day, help you sleep at night, reduce joint pain, and increase your resting metabolic rate for the day. When you’re body is working on recovering and building muscle throughout the day it’s burning more calories as well. Remember that extra beer you drank last night?
By exercising in the morning you’re starting your day off strong, setting your metabolism, and getting it out of the way so you can do all the fun stuff. You’re less likely to skip your workout if you do it first thing in the morning. Also if you want to workout outside in Central America, you definitely want to do it in the morning before the heat gets too unbearable.
In many cities throughout Central America you’ll find small local parks that offer some great equipment for assisting your morning workout. They typically do not have weights or treadmills, but they have machines available for body-weight exercises. Local parks may even have a path circling the perimeter to fit in a light jog as well.
Some cities will have actual gyms where you can pay just to use it for the day. The cost will usually be a couple of dollars. They are harder to find, and not necessary to stay in shape, but a nice alternative once in a while to mix up your routine.
In addition to the above information, you might find it helpful to carry a jump-rope or yoga mat on your travels. Some people are more likely to work out if they have a mat to do it on (and not a hard-wood or tile floor). Jump-rope is an excellent full body cardio workout. You’ll be sweating just after 5 rounds of 100 jumps or so!
4. Pro-biotics and Fermented Foods
Pro-biotics were covered briefly in tip #2, but are so important they require their own category. Every traveler should carry a bottle of pro-biotic pills or some type of superfood powder containing pro-biotics throughout their travels. Even more important is to start a pro-biotic regime several months before leaving the country to begin the process of strengthening your digestive and immune system prior to even leaving. Taking supplements daily throughout your travels will support your immune system from potentially devastating bacteria’s that are likely to cause you issues at least at some point throughout your trip. When you visit another country, your body is not used to the bacteria’s and parasite’s found there, and most travelers come down with some sort of food poisoning, infection, or worse.
Your immune system is usually not at its strongest when traveling for a number of reasons including lack of sleep, difficulty adjusting to changes in time zones, foreign diet, stress, and other situations that are different from your normal routine. Food and water can become contaminated with foreign pathogens that you are not used to.
For those who are not aware of pro-biotics, these are the good bacteria’s that naturally live in your digestive system. They help you to digest your food and protect against bacteria invaders who are not welcome. Eighty percent of your immune system is found in your digestive track, so when digestion is off, you can expect the immune system to be off, and vise versus. Nowadays people are destroying the beneficial bacteria that live in the gut through the use of antibiotics, foods with chemicals and pesticides, high sugar diets, sleep issues, stress, and over-sanitization. You can wipe out an entire strain of beneficial gut bacteria living in your body in just one dose of antibiotics. It can take 6 months or more (or never) before you can replenish the bacteria you wiped out through daily doses of pro-biotic supplements (no yogurt is not going to help you all that much).
Support your gut health with a pro-biotic supplement. High-quality supplements will contain a variety of beneficial strains with a high CFU (colony-forming units) which measure the total count of bacteria in the capsule. Aim for a pro-biotic with at least 10 different strains and 50 billion CFU. Take them daily and you’ll have a happy gut and healthier immune system while traveling. If you find yourself sick abroad and must take antibiotics, make sure to start your pro-biotic regime immediately after the antibiotic use is complete to try and repair the damage from lost strains and colonies.
Fermented foods are another way to pump beneficial bacteria into your digestive system and luckily are common in most other countries. Kimchi in Korea, miso in Japan, tempeh in Indonesia, lassi in India, sauerkraut in Germany, and fermented bamboo in Thailand. Look for fermented foods on your travels, and try to incorporate those as much as possible in your diet. When traveling through Central America, you’ll find many opportunities for tempeh, miso, Kombucha, and fermented vegetables. Pop into a health food store from time to time to see what’s available as well.
5. Make Sure to Get Enough Sleep
Everyone knows to get enough sleep of course, but it can sometimes be difficult to do while traveling. You stay up late partying, others around you keep you up late (say if you’re in a hostel), or you need to wake up at insane hours to catch a bus or leave on a day tour. Many buses traveling between countries leave at around 4:00 am and get in late at night, and for most bird-watching activities you need to be out when the sun is just rising. This all means that sometimes you’re going to bed at midnight and if you’re lucky, catching 5 or 6 hours of sleep.
Your body benefits greatly from adequate sleep. This is the time when the body is repairing and healing, especially your heart and blood vessels, and digestive system. You’ll be more focused and alert the following day, as well as ready for that morning exercise. Lack of sleep has been shown to increase your risk of obesity, even by as much as 55% in adults. A meta analysis of people who are sleep deprived found that they have a greater risk of heart disease and stroke. Studies have found that those who suffer from inadequate sleep also have issues with glucose metabolism, thus increasing the risk for Type 2 Diabetes.
Don’t overestimate down time while traveling. Especially if you’re a long-term traveler, spending several months abroad. There is no way your body, or even mind for that matter, can stay healthy if you’re constantly on the move. Take some time for yourself to just lay around your guesthouse, catch up on sleep, read a book, or hang around a comfortable cafe. For every three to four days of intense travel and activities you might find you need one or even two days of doing absolutely nothing. It’s important to listen to your body and know when to take these breaks.
What do you do to stay healthy while traveling through Central America? Let us know in the comments below!