Weight Management Challenges As Travelers
A Different Tourist Trap: Weight Gain
Many people assume that because we are cycling thousands of miles a year that we can eat all we want without gaining weight. Surprisingly, we have had more trouble with weight control as cyclotourists abroad than as just cyclists at home. It's because controlling one's weight while traveling is a nightmare with everything changing all the time, including the quantity of energy consumed in the form of food and size of the energy output in the form of exercise. We didn't do well at our weight management in our first 5 years of traveling despite the regular exercise due to traveling by bike. Fortunately, we reversed the trend in 2006.
My weight and cholesterol level both jumped up our first year of traveling even though we tried our best to maintain our low fat diet. Eating the restaurant dinners that Bill loved made evading breaded, fried and buttered foods difficult. My cholesterol level that had been as low as 125mg/dl on our very low fat diet at home jumped to 208. The next year we rarely set foot inside a restaurant and prepared all of our meals. My weight didn't drop back down to where it was before we started traveling, but my cholesterol level settled into an acceptable range of 145-180.
Despite being well informed about nutrition and only eating the healthiest foods we could find, it was still difficult to control our weight because of the huge loss of control over our food choices. At home, our weight management relied on a low fat, nearly vegetarian diet that included lots of healthy snacks. But we no longer had the same healthy foods, especially snack foods, to choose from as at home.
At home, smaller meals were supplemented with snacks as we needed more calories to support our exercise. We were accustomed to favorite energy bars, low fat cheeses, almonds, dried fruit, and even flour tortillas to give us a boost from easily carried food when our energy flagged. These items weren't consistently available or were outrageously priced abroad.
The shortage of a reliable supply of suitable 'energy' snacks caused us to eat larger meals and higher fat meals to see us to the next feeding and through the riding day. Eating more food less often made it difficult to match our intake with our output as we were having to guess how much we would need. And running out of steam on a climb or in the rain was uninviting, so we tended to eat a little extra to make sure we had enough. Of course, the consequence was wearing a little extra fat. And we also had the problem of our appetites not diminishing in response to decreased exercise from bad weather slowing us down or several days of sightseeing on foot.
The "Eat before you are hungry, drink before you are thirsty" axiom of cycling also had us erring on the long side of calorie intake. We both had experienced the inability to quickly recover from getting too calorie short when riding and considered it a safety issue to not let that happen. So again, we erred on the side of eating a little extra.
A New Resolve
When at home early in 2006, Bill's doctor gave him the ultimatum to "lose weight or else." After a life time of being overweight, the extra pounds were finally having a negative effect on his blood chemistry. Like many well-fed Americans, he was now at risk of developing "metabolic syndrome" which often develops into diabetes. For most, the remedy is quite simple on paper, which is to lose weight, as the syndrome is often exquisitely sensitive to changes in excess body fat.
Luckily for Bill, in the last year he had noticed that his body was responding uncomfortably to sweet treats, which had made him wonder if something was amiss, perhaps something on the diabetes continuum. His doctor's observation was all it took to give him a new resolve to take control of his weight like he'd never done before. He came up with some new nuances on the usual remedies of exercising more and eating less.
"Exercising more" was a subtle but powerful shift. Bill is from a family of strollers, not fitness walkers, and that leisurely style had carried over into his cycling. So, the new exercise regime in 2006 was not to exercise more, but to increase the intensity. "Vigor" became the watchword and Bill walked, hiked, and biked with a vigor he had never known before. Of course, it didn't affect every moment of movement, but his overall exertion intensity shot way up. The hope was that not only would the calorie expenditure go up, but that it would also be a little shock therapy for his system that would perhaps help him shed a little more weight than the reduced calories alone would dictate.
The "eating less" part of the plan was implemented very slowly to avoid literal or figurative crashing on the road from hypoglycemia. I began collecting calorie information on all of our foods and we slowly whittled the calories away from each meal. It was the cumulative effect of many small changes, like draining more oil off of the olive oil packed tuna at lunch and draining more oil off the pesto sauce at dinner. Over the months we slowly chiseled away where we could but being clueless as to an appropriate daily calorie intake target.
Our cyclotouring life made it impossible to use standard guidelines for our daily intake. Instead of using someone else's recommendation, we opted for being hungry almost all the time and hoping that would result in measurable weight loss. If we lost weight, that would be good enough.
One of the vexing problems for weight control among travelers is monitoring your weight. It is easy to spot it once you've gained too many pounds, but the small shifts up and down are difficult to track. For years we'd used the "BMI" or "Body Mass Index" as our guide for the acceptability of our weight, but it is an index that is based on body weight. And weighing yourself only makes sense if you are using the same scale each time as there is some calibration variation between scales. And of course, only travelers with steamer trunks can consider hauling their own bathroom scale around with them.
But luckily while at home this year we read that the "Waist to Hip Ratio" was the new gold standard for predicting the effect of body fat on cardiac health and that BMI was out. This measurement was a treasure for us as it used something traveler's luggage limits could tolerate--all that is needed is a tape measure.
We cut the excess length off of a soft dressmaker's tape and started measuring our waist and hips. The measurements aren't as sensitive to weight changes as a scale and it requires some practice to make your measuring technique consistent, but it works. Like when using a scales to monitor your weight, it works best to "weight in" at the same time of day each time and we found that before breakfast was best. At last we had a reliable way to monitor our "weight" in a way that was more sensitive than looking in the occasionally available mirror.
The "Waist to Hip Ratio" method comes with numbers to beat: a ratio of 0.95 or less for men and 0.80 for women puts you at low risk for excess cardiac vascular burden. And even more important for us, the measurements for calculating the ratio provided a credible way to judge the effectiveness of our weight loss efforts from week to week--something very important for keeping the dieting motivation level high.
At Last: Success in 2006
The combination of a compelling new source of motivation, rapidly increased vigor, gradually (but consistently) decreased caloric intake, and a new weight loss monitoring method yielded dramatic results. We are still traveling, so have no idea what we each weigh, but the tape measure tells enough of the story. Bill has dropped over 4" from his waist, almost an 1" a month. I've dropped about half that and we are both at or below the target ratios for our gender. I look more like I did at my pre-cyclotouring weight and Bill looks trim like he's never known himself to be. Bill has slimmed so much that he is having to redefine his mental image of his physical self and is finding a new sense of energy in all of his activities.
Of course, as always, the challenge will be maintaining the weight loss when our exercise level crashes while at home, but we are already planning for that. Relatives are on notice not to ply us with food; getting 2 hours of exercise most days will be a new priority; and our calorie counting now will be a starting point for establishing our maximum caloric intakes at home.
We are however all the more envious of the very-European pastime of eating ice cream at any time of day and look longingly at those who walk along snacking on pizza slices, giant pretzels, and pastries. And we have to keep reminding ourselves that we no longer eat until we are full or satiated but must recalibrate our sense of "when we've had enough" to a level that leaves us hungry most of the time.
How Much Do They Eat, Anyway?
Whenever we were asked how many calories we ate in a day, I was always at a loss to say. Tracking calories abroad is a challenge. Like in the US, food labeling is constantly improving, but in some countries, like Austria, the packaged foods we bought were rarely labeled. And the variability between seemingly similar products was amazing.
Two different brands of something simple like canned garbanzo beans or lentils could vary as much as 20% for the same 100 gram portion. And the calories in our tuna packed in oil varied between 100 and 200 calories per 50 gram serving, apparently depending on how much or little the manufacturer thinks you drain the product. And in some countries bread is sold by the weight and in others if you ask the bakery how much the loaf or rolls weigh, they look at you like you are nuts. Bread or cracker products can account for as much as 150 to 500 calories each at lunch, so we would like to know what we are getting.
But despite the headaches, I can now say with confidence that we each eat up to about 2700 calories a day during our cycling season when we are dieting. I know few will consider that a painful diet but amazingly, at that number of calories we were both hungry most all of the time and were rarely satiated after eating our meals.
While riding in the morning Bill would report several times on how many hours or minutes it was until we were "authorized"--which referred to being authorized for lunch anytime after 11:30. And as early as 3:45 in the afternoon he would chirp "It's almost time for dinner" when dinner wouldn't be until 5:30 or 6. And as the lights were going out at night he'd often comment "We get breakfast as soon as we wake up." We were both always thinking about food, but at least we were still losing weight.
And for those of you who crave details, here's more. Our current weight loss diet of up to 2700 calories includes 20-25% of the calories from fat, much higher than it was at home on our low fat diet. But without good quality snack foods being available, we need the more slowly burned fat calories to make it to the next meal.
For breakfast we usually eat 600 to 800 calories, depending on what's available and on how hard we expect the morning ride to be. Breakfast always includes a half liter of orange juice at about 200 calories (that sometimes is a mid-morning snack), about 1T olive oil for about 100 calories, and a carrot, which hardly counts in the calorie category. Then the brunt of breakfast is either bulgur with the oil on it; beans with oil and tomatoes; beans, bulgur, oil and tomatoes; or muesli cereal.
Lunch has become pretty standard with 55 grams each of tuna with the oil its packed in drained off or a half tablespoon of olive oil added to brine-packed tuna; 150-200g of bread or sometimes a smaller quantity of low fat Wasa crackers; 50 grams of 50% bittersweet chocolate; and an apple for a total as high as 1080 calories, our biggest meal of the day.
Dinner is 125 g of pasta; about a 45 g serving of jarred pesto sauce (if we can get it); and about a pound of broccoli, cabbage or cauliflower each. Dinner comes in around 770 calories each, depending on brand variations.
Snacks are now pretty much limited to 1-2 pieces of seasonal fruit. The extra fruit gets eaten in the morning if it doesn't look like it will survive a day of traveling and in the evening if it needs to ripen. Bill keeps a small stash of peanuts and raisins on hand for emergency, rather than planned, snacks.
We don't know how much we'll have to further cut the calories when we are less active at home, but at least then we'll be able to track our weight more closely with a scale and will have more food choices to draw upon. And equally unknown is the number of calories we can add back for a maintenance vs a weight-loss regime when riding, though Bill is guessing that we'll be able to boost it by 300 or 400 calories.
What follows are our worksheets where we track the nutritional information for the foods in our current diet--a diet that is forced to change a bit each time we change countries.
Food Composition Details
|produce fr nutritiondata.com|
|Food Item||Kcal / serv||Pkg Size||Kcal / 100g||g Protein/ser||g Fat/ser||g Sat Fat/ser||g CHO|
|OJ||175 - 230 kc/||1 l||35 - 46|
|Bulgur||500 kc /140g||500 g||18g/ser|
|Beans (lent, ceci, pinto)||240-265||240 g||79-128||17-30||3||35|
|Carrot||20 kc /54g||35 kc /100|
|tuna w oil, drained||105||160>104/120g||204/284||12||6/11|
|Tuna w oil, undrained||about 300||160>104||375||12||30|
|Tuna wo oil||93||195>150||124/100g||29g/100g||1g/100g||0|
|Apples||130||250g = lrg||52|
|Red Pepper||65||250g = sml||26|
|Tomato||33||160g = med||21|
|Cherries sour wo pits||77/155g/1c|
|Cherries sweet wo pits||74/117/1c|
|Rye "brick" bread||488kc/250 g||500 g||195kc/100g||12.5 g/ser||10g/ser||00.75 g||85 g|
|Chocolate, 50-60% Cocao||272 kc/50g||100 g||543||3.8 g||19 g||11 g||22 g|
|Peanuts, w oil||595kc/100g||25g/100g||50g/100g||?15g/100g|
|Chicken, dark meat||200||19||7|
|Cheese, grated (1165mg Ca||86/22g||90||384||33||28|
|1Olive Kalamata 118mg salt||21kc/7.7g oliv||13 olives/100g||all|
|Pasta||444 kc / 125g||500||355 / 100||16.3g/serv||1.9/ser||91g/serv|
|Pesto, green||217||190 g/ 4 ser||3.1||21.9||1.9|
|Pesto, red||163 kc/ 48 g||190g/4 ser||343 g||2.2||15.7||3.2|
|Broccoli||140 kc /500 g||1 kg||28||13.5||2.||17|
|Carrot, Broc, Caulif mix||140/500g||1 kg||28||1|
|Break '04 bulgur||(1040)|
|Lunch average||1080||= 2600kc/day||=66g fat||= 22-24%fat|