Eating on the Road: Healthy Strategies for Your Family

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on August 16, 2013
From the WebMD Archives

Road trips to summer vacation destinations can be a fun, economical alternative to flying. But as hours on the open road add up and fast food wrappers stack up, tempers can flare, setting a stressful tone for what should be pleasurable days ahead.

“Long car rides can have several negative effects on passengers,” says Wayne Andersen, MD. Andersen is medical director for Take Shape for Life Wellness program in New York City. Sitting in the same position for an extended period of time can cause swelling in the lower legs, contraction of the muscles, and stiffness in your joints, he says. People prone to motion sickness are affected by winding, smaller highways, especially if they attempt to read.

“And on top of all that, people have a tendency to eat food on the road that’s full of sugar, salt, and fat to relieve boredom. These fast foods can worsen the swelling and lead to weight gain,” he says. Not to mention the general grumpiness that can ensue.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Armed with the right strategies, not only can you and your family survive a long car trip and the travel food that often goes along with it, you can use it as a way to bond and kick off a fun-filled vacation. Here’s how:

Fight mental stress with physical stress
“At least every two hours, do something that stresses your muscles for 30 to 60 seconds,” suggests Dian Griesel, PhD, author of TurboCharged: Accelerate Your Fat Burning Metabolism, Get Lean Fast and Leave Diet and Exercise Rules in the Dust.

Human growth hormone levels rise when you stress muscles for as little as 30 seconds, Griesel says. “Once HGH starts to flow, you automatically feel less hungry, so you’ll be less likely to stop for food on the road,” she says. “HGH also helps promote general muscle strength.” To keep levels high and prevent mindless eating in the car, she suggests doing one of the following exercises for at least 30 seconds every two hours you’re in the car:

  • Take your hands and press them together as hard as you can, palms flat, elbows at shoulder height. Pull in your stomach at the same time.
  • Put your hands together as if you were praying and bend your fingers down so your knuckles are together and your hands form a heart shape. Then press your elbows together as hard as you can.
  • Suck in your stomach and hold it tight for as long as you can. Release and breathe.
  • For passengers, hold onto the seat, brace yourself, and try to lift your legs up off the ground. Keep your knees and ankles together, and try to bring your knees to your chest.

Fill’er up – with fruit.
“Fruit naturally maintains electrolyte flow through your body, which keeps your muscles comfortable,” Griesel says. “Plus, because it is naturally pre-packaged in its skin, you can easily take fruit anywhere, making it the perfect snack for eating on the go.” Want something a little more compact without sacrificing nutrition? Pack some prunes, banana chips, or dried apricots for the road.

Forgo caffeine and soda and drink water.
As tempting as it can be to drink energy-boosting beverages in the car, think twice before you indulge. “It makes for an unpleasant trip when someone is jacked up on caffeine or sugar,” Griesel says. Both can worsen the agitation travelers already feel from being cooped up in the car. “Water is the best thing.”

Stretch your brain.
Families tend to save the game playing for that rainy day on vacation, but why not start playing together on the way to your destination? See who can count the most red cars or flags first, search for the farthest state license plate, or play name that tune. “Mental exercises create distraction and bonding in the car’s close quarters,” Andersen says.

Get out and stretch your body.
Simply getting out of the car and walking around and stretching for a few minutes can do wonders to rejuvenate passengers on a long trip. Plus, it can push you out of the slump that results from eating in the car. To stretch your body and release tension, have the whole family do the following exercises from New Jersey physical therapist Chris Keating:

  • Hamstring stretch seated: Straighten your leg and place the heel on the ground in front of you. Keeping your back straight, lean forward at the hips until you feel the stretch on the back of your thigh and lower leg. Hold the stretch without bouncing for 20 to 30 seconds. Switch sides.
  • Lunge: Take an exaggerated step (lead foot) directly forward and plant the foot on the ground. Keep the knee directly over the lead foot. Lower the trailing knee until it is one to two inches above the floor. Forcefully push off the floor with the lead leg and return to the starting position. Switch sides.
  • Posterior capsule stretch: Take your left hand and pull your right arm across your body. Make sure your right arm is at shoulder height and feel the stretch in the back of your shoulder.

Do your best Darth Vader impression.
When things get tense in the car, it pays to pull over and take a deep breath, especially for the driver, Griesel says. “Close your eyes, take a deep breath in, and when you breathe out, do your best Darth Vader impression. The added vibration has been proven to relax the body better,” she says. “Take 10 of these deep breaths to help you regroup.”

With a little planning and a few creative strategies, you can survive any road trip with your sanity and health intact. Your family can be part of the solution, too. Ask them to suggest road trip activities and other ways to stay active while on the road.

Show Sources


Wayne Andersen, MD, medical director,Take Shape for Life Wellness program, New York City.

Dian Griesel, PhD, author, TurboCharged: Accelerate Your Fat.

Chris Keating, physical therapist, Strive Physical Therapy, Marlton, N.J.

Jo Lichten, PhD, nutritionist, Orlando, Fla.; author, Eat Out Healthy.

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