I’ve traveled to over 35 countries, from modern cities to remote islands in the developing world. My goal is not to add more countries as a badge of honor of traveling but only go to the places that draw me.
I often considered myself a savvy traveler: knowing how to get the best deal on a trip or communicating in the local language, or avoiding ripoffs and tourist traps.
Yes, there’s one aspect of traveling that I neglected for many years: health!
I don’t mean that I didn’t manage to stay healthy while traveling. But what I did, like many people is thought I was invincible or that I could prevent and heal most health problems that could occur while traveling on my own.
This attitude came from my background as a raw foodist and a natural hygienist. Like most folks in that group, I shared:
- A disdain for modern medicine.
- Complete skepticism regarding the usefulness of any drug.
- Overconfidence in my ability to heal anything on my own.
- A belief that my stronger health and my superior diet would prevent me from getting sick.
But I was not invincible.
I did get sick a few times while on the road, sometimes badly enough to ruin my trip. I got traveler’s diarrhea in Bali in 2005, which knocked me out for a few days. After it got awful, I reluctantly decided to take the antibiotic, which “miraculously” healed me in just a few hours.
In Thailand, I caught a viral infection in a cheap hotel with bad ventilation, and half of my trip was ruined as I tried to heal myself through fasting (not something I recommend while traveling!).
Things could have been worse. I traveled once for nine months around the world without international travel insurance! I cringe a little when I think of the risk I took doing that.
Those were the days of recklessness. Now I’m more careful regarding staying healthy on the road, which led me to reconsider some of my assumptions.
– Modern medicine is not always evil and can very certainly save your life if you use it correctly.
– There is such thing as transmittable disease, some of which is pretty nasty. It’s not a bad idea to evaluate the risks and the prevention treatments available.
– You can’t heal everything via diet and fasting.
– Even though you eat very healthy, you can still get sick.
My Guide for Eating While Traveling
First, I follow a few simple rules for eating outside of Western countries. You’ve probably heard some of them before, but it’s good to have a reminder. And I add my plant-based twist.
1) Don’t eat the meat. It’s amazing how many people I know get sick eating meat at all-inclusive resorts. I’ve stayed a few times in resorts, and I was happy making meals at the buffet from rice, beans, avocados, pasta, fruit, etc. — while my friends piled the meat on their plate. If you’ve ever seen how meat is sold in many countries, you know how unsanitary the conditions. Eating meat in developing countries is asking for trouble.
2) Don’t eat the salads. I’m not a big salad eater, so that’s no big deal for me. I prefer cooked vegetables or green veggies in smoothies. On the road, I focus on fruits and vegetables that are technically fruits: tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. The problem with salads is that they are washed it water that might be contaminated.
3) Don’t drink tap water. And NO ICE!
4) Eat the fruit! In my experience fruit from street vendors is fine. They peel it, and they don’t keep it near other types of food, like animal products. You’ll find street carts filled with fruit in many countries. Fruit that you purchase and peel yourself is also naturally excellent. Filling up on fruit is one of the best ways to stay healthy while traveling.
Three Foods I Travel With
Whenever I can, I bring three items with me.
2) Chia seeds
3) Dried figs
The reason is that those are the foods that are the easiest to carry that contain the most fiber and essential nutrients. They help compensate for a diet that may not be optimal while traveling. I soak the chia seeds in bottled juice or water.
I take every day:
- One ounce of almonds.
- Two tablespoons of chia seeds.
- A few dried figs. I might soak them in advance in water.
In fact, those three foods in those quantities can make up an entire meal while traveling! And one that will satisfy you for hours.
Now, here are my tips for staying as healthy as you can while traveling anywhere in the world! Don’t let health concerns hold you back from traveling.
Here’s a short video I made on the subject:
12 Tips to Stay Healthier While Traveling Abroad
1) Research your destination
Where are you going? Although I will share some health travel tips that apply anywhere, a lot of the specifics are quite destination-specific. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has a fantastic website where you can research each destination and read about the related health concerns. The website is: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/
Keep in mind that country-specific advice varies a lot by region. Going to a Bangkok hotel for one week is not like staying in the jungle in Thailand.
2) Go to a travel clinic
Honestly, I never bothered going to a travel health clinic before trips until recently. I was positively impressed with the experience.
The temptation is to ask your doctor about traveling, but in most cases, they are not familiar with travel medicine and tropical diseases. That’s why going to a travel clinic is a good idea.
In my experience, they don’t push vaccines but rather inform you about the potential risks of any trip and let you make up your mind about what you want to do to prevent it. Doctors who work in those clinics are usually avid travelers themselves and won’t discourage you to make your trip. You’ll just leave with the right information.
In Canada, where health care is partly paid for by the government, it’s much easier to get an appointment at a travel clinic than it is at a regular, non-private hospital! A consultation before a trip costs some money, but post-trip ones are covered by health insurance. Each country is different, so ask around about travel health clinics in your area.
3) Consider Western medicine, sometimes
It’s easy to think that all drugs are bad, or alternative medicine has the answer to everything. The reality is more in the shades of gray. Nutrition, fasting and alternative medicine are very effective at preventing and even reversing some diseases, but totally ineffective for others.
I’d rather listen to a knowledgeable doctor specialized in tropical medicine, than a fear-mongering natural health blogger, when it comes to a topic like this.
Vaccines are controversial, but it’s important to realize that there’s no scientific controversy around most of the proven and time-tested ones. The controversy is by non-scientists.
However, I’m not going to get into this debate. People who have made up their minds on this won’t change it, and people on the fence can consider this information.
For adults traveling, very few vaccines are required. Yellow fever is one that is mandatory in some countries and may be even necessary to enter countries if you just came from an area where this disease is active. I’ve personally never been to any of those countries (like Burkina Faso), but I would not have any problem taking the vaccine if that were the case.
4) Protect yourself against mosquito-borne illnesses
In addition to malaria, many other diseases are transmitted by mosquitoes. Zika may not cause any symptoms in most people, but you can then spread the virus to other individuals by being bit again by a mosquito, which will then carry the virus, or through sexual contact. The direst consequence of Zika is for pregnant women, which are currently advised NOT to travel to any area where Zika is active.
There’s also dengue fever (no vaccine available), chikungunya, and other diseases of concerns in some regions.
Your best protection is to sleep under a bed net in areas where mosquitoes are active at night and transmit diseases. Bringing one along is always a good idea.
Use insect repellant! One of the only “natural” versions that are proven to be effective is the oil of lemon eucalyptus. Check it out here.
If you apply sunscreen, let it dry, and THEN apply the insect repellant.
For some reason, my skin doesn’t attract mosquitoes too much, probably due to my blood type (A and non-secretor), but I nonetheless take preventative measures. I always travel with this shirt.
This shirt has an insect repellant bound in the fabric that will last over 50 washes. But it doesn’t smell or touch the body. On hikes through the jungle and in the evening, when bugs tend to bite, I will wear that along with pants.
5) Prevent Dehydration!
Even with all my experience traveling, I experienced a case of dehydration in Mexico. After a day in the sun, I had dinner and went to bed. I woke up in the middle of the night nauseous, and I slept poorly. The next day I felt terrible: dizzy, fatigued. I saw a doctor who diagnosed dehydration. My blood pressure was low. What? Dehydration! I thought it was food poisoning. The doctor advised me to drink Gatorade (true!), start eating again, and rest. The next day I was completely fine.
I had not been to the real tropics in over a year (Hawaii is sub-tropical), and only forgot how much fluids you must drink to prevent dehydration in those areas. Drinking water doesn’t come naturally, and eating fruit is often not enough.
That’s why I now travel with packs of electrolytes. The best ones I found are not too high in sodium and contain no sugar. But there’s enough sodium to prevent dehydration when mixed with the right amount of water. I like the ones by Vega.
They sell a tub, but I prefer the individual packs, which enables me to bring what I need for the trip.
6) Consider the most common cause of death abroad: motor vehicle accidents
What is the number one cause of death in Americans traveling abroad? Cardiovascular disease. Stay healthy, and you should avoid this fate.
But then we have motor vehicle accidents.
It’s so easy, when you’re traveling, to relax your standards and do like the locals. I’m talking about riding a motorcycle without a helmet or use other forms of transportation “creatively.”
The truth is that many countries we love have some of the highest rates of motor vehicle accidents in the world. Costa Rica is top of the list for that.
a) Resist the temptation to rent a scooter. I know it’s fun! But it’s too risky in most countries. Look at the stats. So many great people on vacation have died on islands due to scooter or motorcycling accidents. The only scooters I will rent are the four-wheeled ones, like those you will find in the Greek islands. I once broke my rule and rented a scooter on Aitutaki. But the island was tiny, had virtually no traffic, and was flat everywhere.
b) Watch out as a pedestrian! A huge number of deadly accidents in places like Costa Rica or Thailand involve pedestrians. When I lived in Costa Rica, it was so common to hear horror stories from locals, and occasionally visitors, getting killed while walking on the side of the road, usually at night.
c) Watch out at night! I try to avoid any form of transportation or walking on the in many parts of the world at night, where sidewalks are nonexistent. In Costa Rica, my personal rule was never to drive at night. I occasionally had to make an exception but only for something important.
7) Get good travel insurance
It’s a good idea to have travel insurance. In fact, it’s critical. Medical evacuation can ruin you for the rest of your life, so make sure you get a good policy before leaving on any trip abroad, even if it’s just to Canada. It won’t cost you much.
When I was in Mexico and felt unwell (due to dehydration, but I thought it was something else), I called my insurance, and they sent me a doctor directly to my room! It was incredibly convenient. With travel insurance, it’s important to call them before you request any medical services. They’ll inform you of the procedure.
8) Get sport-specific travel insurance
Many travel insurance policies don’t cover “risky” activities such as mountain climbing or scuba diving. I’m a scuba diver, so I subscribe to DAN, an essential insurance plan for all divers. For example, if you have a diving accident on Kauai, they have to transport you to the closest hyperbaric chamber in Honolulu by helicopter. The cost of that is enormous (50K+)! DAN covers it, as well as many other things. If you’re going to do any adventure sports abroad, make sure to call your insurance company ahead of time to see what they cover.
9) Watch out for counterfeit medications.
Many “digital nomads” have suggested getting drugs abroad as a money-saving trick. Pharmacies in many countries are safe, but problems can arise in other areas of the world, such as South East Asia. There’s a growing market for counterfeit medications worldwide. Unknowing staff in legitimate pharmacies can sell you these drugs. They may look almost identical to the real thing.
The counterfeit medications can still contain the active ingredient, but not the right quantities of it. There may be other problems with it.
So just be aware of that and bring what you need before your trip.
10) Bring a custom-designed first-aid kit
I mentioned a few things, like electrolytes and insect repellant. If you’re going to go to places where access to a pharmacy might be limited, it’s not a bad idea to bring a custom-made first-aid and medicine kit with you. I travel with a few things “just in case”:
- Ginger chews (ideal for mild motion sickness)
- Melatonin (for jet lag)
- A prescription antibiotic for traveler’s diarrhea. I’ve not had to use it for years, but it’s good to have “just in case.” (This is not for light diarrhea or mild digestive disturbances). Usually, any visit to a travel clinic will include a prescription for a drug like this, depending on where you’re going.
- Polysporin ointment (for nasty cuts)
- Caffeine and aspirin (for migraine headaches, which is something that I sometimes get while traveling, maybe once or twice a year).
You can fill in the blanks for things you think you might need while traveling.
11) Protect yourself from the sun
I found out painfully that the sun in the Southern hemisphere is more unforgiving than in the Northern hemisphere. But anywhere in the world, you can get sunburn and damage your skin.
Sunscreens are a bit overrated, in my opinion. The best protection is physical. When I go swimming or snorkeling, I wear a “rash guard” type of shirt with a physical protection of 50 UPF or more. It’s better for the reefs too, as sunscreen can be damaging to it.
Get Natural Sunscreen!
A hat is a good idea, and also some natural sunscreen for your face. I love the one by Annmarie Gianni Skincare! Check it out here and get a sample.
12) Stay active
Staying active while traveling is essential to maintain your health and avoid gaining weight on vacation, but it can be challenging because we can “not feel like it,” being in a different environment, have to adapt to higher heat and humidity, and still be tired from jet-lag.
That’s why I suggest to keep it simple: aim to do 10 to 20 minutes of cardio workout a day. Wear a heart rate monitor, so you keep your heart rate in the proper zone. The heat will influence your heart rate, so you don’t want to overtrain! My favorite workouts on the road include: using the treadmill at hotel gyms, hiking, swimming, and jogging.
If you usually work out a lot, bring the level down several notches to avoid overtraining. Let your body adjust to the new environment first.
Walking will be your best friend while traveling. Walk a lot, drink fluid and stay healthy!
Wow Fred, You’re So Unnatural!
I can already hear some of the comments to this article:
I can’t believe you would take vaccines, Fred; you should watch this documentary or the harm they cause!
Wow, that’s a lot of drugs for a natural guy like you. Do pharmaceutical companies sponsor this post?
The truth is that I traveled as a “natural” guy for a long time. I would not touch a drug for any reason. I thought I could heal myself of any problems. And I thought that my diet was incredibly protective.
I became more moderate on this after a few personal experiences and hearing the stories of others.
Once, after traveling to a raw food conference where I gave a talk (true!), on the drive back home, I got the most disabling migraine headache I ever got in my life. I had eaten a raw cacao cake, offered by the host. The cake triggered my migraine. If you know anything about migraines, there are some triggers, and for me some are necessary. The long drive, the lack of sleep and the raw cacao cake were the ingredients that triggered my migraine. I thought it would pass, but it eventually got worse. In fact, it got so bad that I had to stop on the side of the road to sleep. I could not drive another mile at that point, even to get aspirin or a hotel room for the night. I slept in incredible pain in my car, and it took a total of three days to heal!
And this was at a time when I was eating a super-pure diet! Now I know that although my healthy lifestyle prevents me from getting chronic migraines, there will be a few times a year where I might get one. It’s always because I’m traveling, getting up too early and have another trigger (like the raw cacao cake!). I now know that I have to NAIL it before it gets worse. The only thing that I have found really works in the combination of aspirin and caffeine (I carry caffeine tablets because coffee is not available instantly anywhere, in spite of what we think!).
So call me unnatural, but I choose the drugs – with very few if any side-effects – over a disabling migraine.
When it comes to chronic diseases, drugs are overused and doctors don’t recommend enough lifestyle changes, like plant-based diets.
But there are times when medicines are useful. If you can find a more natural medicine that can do the same job, then go for it! I’m sure you’ll agree that there are times when antibiotics, however “unnatural” can save your life.
The “appeal to nature” argument (because it’s natural it’s healthy) is fallacious and very limited. Many natural products, like tobacco, are extremely unhealthy. The real question is: will it improve your quality of life, or save your health, and at what cost?
Traveling Can Be Fun and Safe
Finally, I’d like to end by reminding you that traveling is fun, empowering and safe. People don’t die or get sick while traveling in significantly larger number as they do at home, so there’s absolutely no reason to put off your dream of traveling because of health concerns. The difference is that sometimes the health problems are different while traveling than they are at home. Information is power, and once you know what to expect, you can prepare for any situation!
I’ve listed in this articles the only times I got sick while traveling, and they were all minor problems. In most cases, with a little more preparation, I would have avoided these problems. But in spite of this, most of my trips have been great, and I managed to stay in great health throughout.
Taking care of your health will benefit you while traveling, compared to others who don’t. Consider bringing along the three foods I bring on trips (almonds, figs and chia seeds), and don’t worry too much if your diet isn’t “perfect” during your journey. Do the best you can to stay healthy and above all, have fun!