Many people are on low-carbohydrate diets in order to lose weight, control or stave off diabetes, improve their cholesterol counts and blood pressure and avoid heart attacks, strokes and hemorrhages. It can be more difficult to maintain a low-carb diet while travelling, especially if you need to eat a lot of food in restaurants or as a guest in the private homes of people who may not make allowances for your diet, but it is by no means unworkable. This article is designed to give you some ideas to help you manage your diet while you are on the road, have fun and be successful in meeting your goals.
If you need to be on a low-carb diet, make sure to know what you should, and should not, eat. Major no-go food and drink items on a low-carb diet include almost anything made from grain, potatoes and other starchy root vegetables, many varieties of fruit, almost all juices and sugary sodas, as well as most alcoholic beverages. Some low-carb diets emphasize high-fiber foods, such as spinach and broccoli.
If you are flying, check with the airline about a special meal. A few airlines offer low-carb meals; most offer "diabetic" meals. The diabetic meals tend to be lower in refined carbohydrates and lower in fat. Although it may not be exactly what you would choose, it may be a better fit for your diet than the plate of reheated pasta that everyone else will be offered.
If you've been following a low-carb diet for a while, then you probably know what fits in your food plan at home. Before you leave, look up foods that you might encounter on the trip, and figure out what works for you. For details about particular foods, check any of the reliable websites you can find in a web search for terms like "low-carb diet", "keto diet" and "diabetic diet", and remember that wherever you have Internet access, you can do a search on "[name of item] sugar content". (For example, on ketogenic diets, it's often recommended to have no more than 30 grams of non-fiber carbohydrates per day, so you can keep that goal in mind while considering the sugar content of items you're considering eating.) However, if you will be travelling somewhere with spotty Internet service or worse, it may be important for you to print out lists of sugar quantities for any food you believe you might encounter on the trip.
Challenges and pleasures
One challenge for low-carb dieters who are travelling is the ubiquity and cultural centrality of high-carb foods like bread, rice and noodles. It's a truism to break bread, or in many languages, to eat rice, so it can be socially difficult to abstain. If you explain that it's on doctor's orders for health, more people will understand. Another approach is to have very small quantities of these high-carb foods. Having a scrap of bread to taste is unlikely to hurt a person on a low-carb diet, though be careful how much of it you eat.
But what should you do if you are a guest at someone's house, and they made only high-carb foods for the meal? If your condition is so acute that eating these foods is likely to make you sick, that's one thing, but for people who are merely trying to lose weight, a single high-carb meal may not hurt you much, and if it will help you socially, it may be worth it, especially when there is no alternative at that time.
On the other hand, for many low-carb dieters, while indulging in great desserts and bread may be off-limits, unless you are a vegan, you have license to try all manner of cheeses, and if you are not a vegetarian, you can try all kinds of meat as long as there is no problem with flour, breadcrumbs or corn starch in the sauce or sugar in the cure or marinade. There are also various fruits that you may find unproblematic to eat, though you may have to limit quantities. For example, one medium-sized peach contains about 13 grams of sugar, so if you are otherwise on a relatively strict keto diet, eating a single peach is unlikely to push you out of ketosis. Berries are generally relatively low-carb, even when they're sweet, so adding blueberries or strawberries to your full-fat yogurt can be a healthful indulgence for a low-carb dieter. But surprisingly, even beets are OK in small quantities, as 1 cup of red beets yields only about 9 grams of sugar, so a few pieces of beet in your salad are unlikely to be a problem. In some low-carb diets, small amounts of alcoholic drinks other than beer or mixed cocktails (because those almost always have a sweet component) are also relatively acceptable, though there are different opinions about this.
There are challenges and joys of restaurant dining on a low-carb diet. The pasta and dessert courses are generally not for you, but many restaurants are happy to serve you grilled or broiled fish, steak, lamb, or roast chicken. If the side is a problem (potatoes are common), they are often happy to substitute salad or some vegetable, though be prepared to pay a supplement in some cases.
Also, for breakfast or lunch, you often have the option of ordering eggs. For example, an omelet with cheese, possibly a kind of meat and green vegetables such as spinach is very healthy for a low-carb dieter, as long as you avoid having sides made from high-carb sources like potatoes or bread.
Here are some ideas for strategizing meals in restaurants of different types:
Cal/Mex and Tex/Mex taquerias work very well with low-carb diets. If you avoid eating the tortilla, you are usually fine eating the rest of the taco. Crunchy corn taco shells have fewer carbs than flour tortillas. Avoid ordering items like burritos that have rice in them, or ask them to leave out the rice. Besides, those are huge, and even on a diet that's primarily about avoiding too many carbs, portion control is relevant, so consider sharing your meal with your travel partner if you're traveling with one, rather than ordering your own separate full-sized meals. You'll save money that way, too.
Italian or Greek
Order grilled items, or in Tuscan restaurants, bistecca alla fiorentina. Start your meal with an antipasto plate of olives, marinated vegetables, sausage or other cured meats if you like, or a salad. If you are in Italy during the summer, get the insalata caprese (a salad of tomatoes, cheese, and basil). Order sides such as green vegetables (for example, leafy ones like spinach and broccoli rabe, zucchini or string beans).
If you are able to order berries with unsweetened cream for dessert, consider doing so. If a possible dessert is Greek yogurt with nuts and honey, ask if they could make it without honey.
Get sauteed vegetables and ask for them to be made without corn starch. Have steamed fish with ginger and scallion or unbreaded fried or roasted chicken with garlic. Watch out for sugar in roast or soy sauce meats, as that is traditional in parts of China such as Guangdong province. Chinese food can be difficult for low-carb dieters, as so many sauces have corn starch and/or some sugar in them, and of course rice is traditional, but it is possible to eat Chinese food without rice: At banquets, it's common to abstain from rice or have some in the form of fried rice at the end only. If you find yourself in a restaurant that specializes in dumplings, pickled vegetables may also be on the menu (this combination is not uncommon in Beijing, for example), and many Cantonese-style dim sum restaurants also will serve larger dishes such as roast chicken or sauteed or steamed vegetables if you order them. Chicken feet and garlic fried shrimp are traditional Cantonese dim sum items that are mainly protein, but see if you can find out whether corn starch is used or can be kept out of the preparation, and spare ribs with black beans may have sugar.
Thai food can be quite challenging for low-carb dieters, as sugar is one of the traditional tastes. If you have more control over the balance between the different flavors, you may be able to avoid too much sugar. However, be aware that powdered rice is also used, for example, in larb.
Tandoori dishes are likely to be low-carb. Otherwise, dry curries are probably less likely to have carby thickeners than curries with more liquid, though ask about flour, corn starch or sugar if you can. If you order lassi, request salty, and if you order masala chai, request no sugar. Potatoes are a common food you will want to avoid. Different kinds of dal (pulses/lentils) have different amounts of carbs, so if you'd like to have more than a little bit of dal, check on the nutritional data for kinds that are on offer.
Shawarma is often a good choice, as are kebabs whenever they are made from pieces of meat and not ground meat with flour as a binder. If you order a combination platter, avoid tabouleh, as it's based on bulgur wheat. Also avoid mujadra, which includes wheat. Falafel is relatively high in sugar, so best eaten in modest quantities, but hummus is very low in sugar.
Get kebabs, grilled fish or similar dishes if you are not a vegetarian. There is also excellent sausage, such as sujuk. Excellent salads will serve you well, and there are also mezes you can enjoy. Be careful about stuffed vegetables (grape leaves, peppers, eggplant, etc.), as the filling generally includes rice.
While you sadly will have to avoid indulging your way through loaves of fantastic German bread or Austrian strudels, there is döner kebab available in most every town. Döner stands often offer a salad form, or you can get a wrap and just not eat the flatbread. You can also dine on wurst to your heart's content, as long as you skip the potato side dishes and sauces with sugar. And in these lands of fine beers, there are also excellent wines (look for the drier ones on this diet) and Obstler (hard liquors). Some Obstler are sweet liqueurs, but wonderful eaux de vie such as poire williams are also available.
If you are trying to get through the land of beer and pretzels on a budget, then the grocery stores and some bakeries sell Bunte Eier ("colored eggs"), which are hard-boiled eggs. Vegetables in the supermarkets can be surprisingly inexpensive, and mild-flavored cheeses, such as Butterkäse ("butter cheese"), are easy to find. Also, look for very high-fat plain yogurt in Turkish grocery stores: yogurts with 12% milk fat or more are common, deliciously similar in taste to high-quality creme fraiche, and very good for many low-carb diets.