Going on a trip is an ideal time to disregard our inhibitions – we sleep late, drink too much, wake up late, eat too much, and so on. However, if you want this time away to remain pleasurable, it is important to give at least some thought as to the items entering your mouth, lest it exit the other end causing discomfort and nuisance and leave you feeling uncomfortable until it does. Here are some pointers to consider when eating and drinking while traveling; some of these might be obvious, others might be irrelevant to your situation, but keep them all in mind, just in case.
I’m a big proponent of going to markets and trying local street food – there’s not many better ways to really get a taste (no pun intended) of the local culture and vibe than with the common foods that sustain the general population. Nonetheless, you should stay vigilant – perhaps a repurposed, upside-down trash receptacle or an appropriated corner of sun-heated sidewalk aren’t the most sanitary of grilling surfaces, don’t you think? The sickest I’ve ever been is when I purchased an arepa from a street vendor in Bogotá, Colombia, who had transformed a shopping cart into her mobile eatery; I should’ve challenged the cleanliness of this shopping cart when I saw all her belongings on the bottom level touching the raw ingredients, but well, I will next time, certainly. What followed wasn’t merely a bowel movement; it was a fucking bowel revolution.
Stay away from food of dubious constitution
In the same vein as staying away from the aforementioned questionably-prepared street foods, we must remember that the ingredients should be subject to our increased circumspection, as well. Especially for those places that already have a “value-oriented” nature (street carts as opposed to a proper restaurant), it is advisable to ponder all the ingredients that might be going into the item you intend to purchase and consume. Getting something with meat in it? Make sure that the street vendor appears to be storing any perishables in a properly-refrigerated container. Likewise, do the same for dairy products, eggs, seafood, etc. Pick a cart with a long line, usually that translates into a loyal customer base (those who haven’t experienced sickness from the vendor) as well as high turnover in food prep time (food is fresher and doesn’t sit there).
Avoid tripping on acid
Acid reflux might be inherent in your digestive system already, but there are ways in which to avoid the most uncomfortable episodes. Eating before sleeping is the biggest no-no, as your relaxed posture and reclining position allows acid from your stomach to escape with more ease, triggering heartburn and perhaps causing some chest pain. Also, now (right after a meal) might not be a good time to touch your toes or tie your shoes; bending over with a full stomach is another cause of acid reflux. Even taking some medications or pain relievers, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, has been known to increase the chances for an acid reflux attack. Alcohol also increases acid production in the stomach, so imbibe, but responsibly (this tip might be going overboard, at least follow the others).
Avoid foods with a heavy amount of fat, sugars, or dairy ingredients – these are slow to digest, which can lead to your stomach overproducing its digestive acids. Also, foods such as citrus fruits, chocolate, tomatoes, and mint have been known to not play so nicely with the acids in your stomach. Finally, eat a moderate amount, which means don’t overindulge.
Don’t eat spicy foods
Spicy foods are another group of edibles you might want to refrain from over-indulging in. Spicy foods also don’t get along, at times, with your stomach acids, especially if you’re not used to eating hot peppers and such on a regular basis. Also, the capsaicin element that makes hot peppers spicy can irritate the lining of your esophagus, instigating heartburn, as well as potentially irritating on the way out the back door (think fiery burn); as you are traveling and might not have the leisure of standard diarrhea-relief products and lavatory facilities as you might at home, think twice before consuming the spice.
Eat spicy foods
Yeah, I know, I know. However, spicy foods are quite beneficial and helpful in keeping you in top shape. In addition to the long-term benefits of higher capsaicin consumption, such as reduced risk of prostate cancer, the formidable ingredient in hot peppers has been studied and presumed to kill certain strains of bacteria. Even low-heat spices, such as cinnamon and garlic, are effective combatants against terrors like E. coli bacteria.
Wash your hands
You might be so concerned with the levels of sanitation of your foods preparatory surfaces and the freshness of the ingredients that you may forget a simple rule like washing your hands; but this is important, especially in an unfamiliar area where you can’t be sure of things. Also, the most unclean surfaces that I can think of seem to be anything within an airplane cabin – the faucet handles controlling the lavatory sinks, the tray table, the remote control of your seatback in-flight entertainment device – all these surfaces are dirtier than you can imagine. Make sure to wash your hands before eating food (or touching your face and rubbing your eyes, for that matter). Just as important is seeing if your cook washes their hands prior to bare-handed food handling; I’m not saying to go watch them do so, but it’s easy to see in an open kitchen or street cart.
Watch the water
I mentioned how dirty surfaces within an aircraft are, making it prudent to sanitize your hands before touching food, but the water in the restroom on a plane is not as clean as you think. Just because you wash your hands there shouldn’t allow you to assume that this water is sanitary. It is NOT potable. Don’t drink it. Studies have shown that water that comes from the tap aboard planes often contain disease-causing organisms and even fecal matter (yeah, yuck is right). That means there’s shit in the water. Also, with this in mind, might as well stay clear of water-based beverages that are made in the plane’s galley, such as the coffee or tea; opt instead for a canned or bottled beverage, especially if you are requesting plain water. In the same vein, be cautious of water you obtain in other ways while traveling. Maybe stay away from cold beverages brewed up with water of unknown sources at a street cart, and definitely don’t drink water from a pitcher outside of a restaurant. Be even more cautious in developing regions where water systems may not yet be perfect at separating clean water from waste. Oh yeah, and no ice in drinks!!! On a plane, this is made from that same tap water, and you’d be compromising the sterile nature of the sealed beverage if you poured it into a disposable cup with ice.
Fortify and Defend
You can fortify your stomach for an upcoming trip and the potential gastrointestinal havoc that could occur by consuming some enzymes; digestive enzymes can be found in supplemental form in many pharmacies or health food stores, and can play a proactive role in preventing problems later. Yogurts, especially the probiotic ones (like Dannon’s Activia) are great for helping defend your system against potential bacterial invasion in the future, due to the live, active cultures involved. For treatment, many people rely on bismuth, such as the brand Pepto Bismol, the pink liquid (or tablets) that help coat the stomach and relieve diarrhea. Similarly, any over-the-counter product containing the active ingredient loperamide (like the brand Imodium) helps to treat cases of gastric problems and loose stools as they arise. In many places, ciprofloxacin is a prescription medication, but see if your doctor will prescribe it to you prior to the trip; it’s a great tool to have in your arsenal.
This might seem far-fetched, but keeping active plays a proportionally active role in dealing with IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome. A study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology by a group of Swedish scientists showed that people who exercised between three and five times a week for twelve weeks had significant improvement in IBS symptoms. Just stay active; for some people traveling to hike and see all the sites of a city, this may be easy, but beware the relaxed nature of the beachside vacation. Oh, and if you have an irritable bowel or diarrhea, make sure to stay super-hydrated; diarrhea dehydrates faster than most other things.
It all comes down to maintaining vigilance and staying prudent and aware. Though you may like your burgers cooked medium-rare, it may be time to opt for a well-done patty, especially if from a street vendor. Wash your hands, drink bottled water, keep some supplements and relief drugs on your person, etc. One easy-to-remember phrase to travel and eat by is “Boil it, peel it, or forget it.” If you are unsure, the food should either be cooked, a peelable item such as a fruit, or dismissed. When abroad, we don’t have to give up the novelty of eating the regional specialties or trying something a bit adventurous; as long as you keep these suggestions in mind, you should be able to enjoy a healthy stomach and satisfyingly-comfortable solid stools. :)