Most of the time, Mila Clarke Buckley, who's had type 2 diabetes for more than 2 years, manages her condition by prepping balanced meals and packing snacks. But when she's on the run, keeping her blood sugar in check gets trickier. "I don't have the same access to healthy food," she says.
When you're running around town or traveling, you're out of your normal eating routine. There are more temptations, such as restaurant meals, drive-thru windows, and gas station snacks. But you don't have to let it set the stage for unhealthy choices.
"The key is planning ahead," says Rachele Dependahl, a dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "You don't want to make a rash decision when you're feeling hungry and shaky."
To keep your blood sugar levels steady, eat every 4 to 5 hours. Stash a snack in your bag, and do some prep work to find healthy meal options. Clarke Buckley, a blogger who writes about living with diabetes, says she uses her phone to research local restaurants and scan their menus for nutritious options.
When you're out and about, you can find diabetes-friendly items in some unlikely places:
At a Fast-Food Restaurant
A typical drive-thru meal has 1,000-plus calories, or more than half of all of the calories you need in a day.
"They're also high in sodium, carbs, and unhealthy saturated fat," says Sandra Arevalo, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Diabetes Educators. The good news is that many chains now offer lighter menu options.
Best picks. Get the grilled chicken salad, and ask for the dressing on the side. Or drizzle a packet of lemon juice on top. "Some dressings are loaded with a ton of added sugar," Arevalo says.
If you're in the mood for a sandwich, order the grilled chicken or a small burger.
"When I'm traveling, I look for burger chains where I know the patties are 100% beef," says Phyllisa Deroze of Pompano Beach, FL. "Some places use fillers that raise my blood sugar."
To cut down on carbs, she removes half of the bun and eats it open-faced. Ask for extra lettuce and tomatoes, which add fiber and nutrients. Then pair it with a side of salad or fruit instead of fries.
At a Vending Machine
You're stuck in the office or a hotel, and you're starving. If your only option is the vending machine, proceed with caution.
"Most of the items, like chips and cookies, are high in carbs," says Rahaf Al Bochi, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of Olive Tree Nutrition in Atlanta. But there are a few choices that won't spike your blood sugar.
Best picks. Look for options that deliver protein and fiber, such as a bag of nuts or trail mix. "They also contain vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats," Al Bochi says. Just keep tabs on how much you eat; many packages contain two or more portions. A serving is 1 ounce, which is roughly the size of a golf ball.
At a Deli Counter
At the supermarket deli or sandwich shop, you can customize your meal. This allows you to load up on high-fiber vegetables and choose a lean protein and whole-grain bread.
Best picks. Get half a sandwich or wrap made with chicken, turkey, roast beef, or fish on a whole-grain bread, such as rye or whole wheat. Top it with plenty of vegetables and one type of fat.
"Choose between cheese, avocado, or mayonnaise," Dependahl says. Pair it with a side of soup or a salad.
Instead of potato or macaroni salad, go for one made with lower-carb vegetables. Good options include spinach and leafy green salads, broccoli slaw, and marinated artichokes.
In a Coffee Shop
Need a pick-me-up? Sip wisely. Some flavored coffee drinks serve up more sugar than a candy bar. Also keep in mind that caffeine in the coffee can raise or lower your blood sugar levels. You may need to choose a small cup instead of the larger one.
Best picks. Order a simple drink, such as coffee, tea, cappuccino, or latte, suggests Dependahl. "If you need some sweetness, stick with one packet or teaspoon of sugar."
If you're hungry, have a piece of fruit, egg sandwich, or half a bagel with cream cheese.
Inside a Convenience Store
Whether it's a well-stocked drugstore or small gas station, you'll be able to track down ingredients for a healthy bite.
Best picks. Look for Greek yogurt. With 20 grams of protein per cup, it helps keep your blood sugar steady. Top it with fresh fruit, such as a sliced banana or berries. Other options include string cheese and an apple or whole-grain crackers and hummus with vegetables.
No refrigerated section in the store? Pick up some unsalted nuts or a protein or granola bar. "Ideally, you want to look for a brand with less than 30 carbs, and at least 5 grams of fiber and 8 grams of protein," Dependahl says.
At the Airport and on the Airplane
Pack some shelf-stable food, such as nuts, fruit, and a packet of instant oatmeal.
Also bring a water bottle to fill. "People often don't drink as often when they're traveling," Al Bochi says. "This can cause dehydration, which raises your blood sugar."
You can also scout out diabetes-friendly fare in the airport's food court.
Best picks. If you have time, go to a sit-down restaurant at the airport.
"I usually go to a Tex-Mex place and get the beef fajitas with vegetables and tortillas a la carte," Clarke Buckley says. "Don't be afraid to make requests and order off the menu. Most of the time, the staff is happy to accommodate."
For a quick meal, you can usually find something with vegetables, such as salads, wraps, and sandwiches. "Or look for a broth-based soup, such as a chicken or lentil vegetable," Arevalo says. They're filling, but low in calories and carbs.
On the plane, snack on nuts. "If you're on a long flight, you can request a diabetic meal option," Deroze says. Some airlines also sell salads and high-protein snack boxes with hummus and cheese.