Nutrition on the road

Are you among the many athletes, referees, coaches, athletic trainers, and support crews - including parents and siblings - who spend too much time on the road, traveling from one sporting event to the next? If so, your food budget is likely tight, your encounters with unhealthy foods are relentless, and your hankerings for comfort foods might often overpower your nutrition knowledge.

While you likely know what you should eat, you may struggle to eat well. Regardless, athletes who travel by car and bus need to fuel optimally to be able to perform at their best. When healthful food options are scarce, some travelers wonder if eating a decent sports diet is even possible when grabbing late-night snacks from a gas station or vending machine's meager offerings.

The answer: yes, with a bit of creativity.

To better understand the limitations of eating on the road, spend an afternoon hanging out at a few gas stations. The bigger stations and those closer to a main highway or busy towns have far better offerings than the small town gas station's shelves stocked with just a few bags of pork rinds and some candy bars. Hence, you (or the bus driver) want to take nutrition into mind when planning fuel stops. Gassing up sooner at a bigger station is better than later, if later will be in the middle of nowhere. The following tips can help you eat reasonably well from a gas station or vending machine - or at least, eat better than if you have no plan at all.

For the purposes of this article, you need to understand the definition of "well balanced sports diet". First, "well balanced" applies to your entire day's eating, not just one meal or snack. Hence, a good breakfast, lunch and dinner can help offset sub-optimal midnight junk food. A "well balanced sports diet" includes foods from at least three - ideally four - of these food groupings: fruits and vegetables for vitamins and minerals to boost your immune system and help keep your body healthy; grain-based foods to fuel your muscles and your brain; protein-rich foods to build and repair your muscles; and, calcium-rich foods such as dairy, to enhance bone-health and also offer high-quality protein for muscles. "Balance" also includes calories. Be sure to read the calorie information on food labels and eat only the portion that fits into your calorie budget: 600-800 calories/meal (active women); 800-1000 calories/meal (active men).

The following list of some typical gas station snacks groups the foods according to nutrient profile. Your job is to choose one food from at least three of the four groups. Using this template, you can manage to pick a somewhat balanced, half-way decent sports diet when you are on the road (or at a vending machine).

Fruits and vegetables - Orange, orange juice, any 100%-fruit juice, apples, applesauce, bananas, raisins, canned fruit (such as peaches). Veggies are tougher: salsa, V-8 juice... not much else.

Grain-based foods - Triscuits, Wheat Thins, graham crackers, BelVita breakfast biscuits, pretzels, popcorn, SmartFood, corn chips, peanut butter crackers, Nature Valley Granola Bars, Clif Bars, PowerBars, bran or corn muffins, raisin bran cereal cup.

Protein-rich foods - Peanuts, almonds, mixed nuts, trail mix, sunflower seeds, Kind bars, Clif Builder's bars, jerky (turkey, beef), canned tuna. Milk, yogurt, cheese also offer protein.

Calcium-rich (dairy) foods - (Lowfat) milk, chocolate-, strawberry-, or vanilla-flavored milk, fruit yogurt, Greek yogurt, cheese sticks, pre-sliced cheese. If you are lactose intolerant, cheddar cheese is a lactose-free dairy option - but you likely want to travel with Lactaid pills. Non-dairy calcium-rich foods such as soy milk or calcium-fortified orange juice can be hard to find on the road.

Turning snacks into a balanced sports diet

When you are at home, a "well balanced diet" includes all four food groups and might look like this: Wheaties + milk + banana + hard boiled eggs; whole wheat bread + turkey + cheese + lettuce/tomato + apple; brown rice + chicken + broccoli + yogurt (for dessert).

When you are eating from the gas station/vending machine, your balanced diet might resemble these "tasty" (ha!) meals: orange juice + popcorn + protein bar + yogurt; salsa + corn chips + almonds + milk; banana + peanuts + Wheat Thins + cheese stick.

Fruits and vegetables are the hardest foods to find when you are on the road. Because your body stores vitamins in the liver, you can have a diet low in fruits and veggies for a week or so and you will not suffer from malnutrition. (A healthy person's liver stores enough vitamin C to last at least three weeks.) But you will want to re-stock your liver's diminished supply when you get back home. That means, choose fruit smoothies, colorful salads, and generous portions of fresh fruits and veggies whenever you get the opportunity to do so.

Traveling with a cooler

A wise alternative to "dining" at gas stations is to travel with a mini-cooler (and re-freezable ice packs). Stock the cooler with sandwiches (peanut butter and jelly, ham and cheese), beverages, and wholesome sports foods. A pre-trip food shopping spree at large supermarket can save you (and those with you) a lot of money. Suggestions? Perishable items: oranges, orange juice, baby carrots, peppers (eat them like apples); yogurt, sliced cheese, milk chugs; ham, hard boiled eggs, hummus; tortillas, wraps, mini-bagels. Non-perishable items: tuna in pop-top cans, small jar of peanut butter, almonds; granola bars, Fig Newtons, dried fruit, V8 juice. Note: those traveling with you might come begging for food, so pack extra - or better yet, encourage them to pack their own cooler!

Performance starts with good nutrition. If you make the effort to travel to events, you might as well make the effort to eat well.

Credits - would like to thank Nancy Clark for the permission to reprint the article "Traveling Athletes & Gas Station Nutrition" by Nancy Clark. Text © by Nancy Clark. Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes in the Boston-area (tel. 617-795-1875). The updated 6th edition of her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook (2019) can help you eat wisely and well, and is available at For her popular online workshop, visit

Since September 7, 2007 - © Aerostato, Seattle - All Rights Reserved.

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