The Digital Nomad's Guide to Staying Healthy
Whether it’s using the mentality of “I’m on vacation,” as an excuse for over-indulging, or putting your work above your health, staying healthy while working on the road can be a huge challenge. If you’re a digital nomad struggling to find balance; an expat, traveller or blogger who’s feeling yucky or burnt out, or if you’re simply looking to make some healthy lifestyle changes, these tips are meant to help you feel your best.
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You are what you eat
Real food doesn’t have ingredients. Real food is ingredients. ~Jamie Oliver
Eat whole foods.
Counting calories is so 2005–it’s not necessary or sustainable. Instead, pay attention to food quality and to glycemic index. Avoid processed foods, foods with added sugar, anything that comes pre-made and packaged. Aim to mainly consume real fruits & vegetables, whole grains & legumes and quality proteins; the closer it looks to the way it was found in nature, the better. Honestly, in most places outside of America this is pretty easy to do.
Cook when you can.
We try to cook at least one meal a day at home (for us this is often breakfast), and most places we live, we try for +4 wholesome dinners a week at home with periodical lunches made up of last night’s healthy dinner. This isn’t always possible (I’m looking at you Vietnam). Staying in airbnbs or short-term rentals makes this easier. Bonus; this saves money!
Eat protein and healthy fat for breakfast.
The SAD (standard American diet) breakfast of toast or cereal and orange juice is one of the worst things you can eat for your first meal of the day. Avoiding processed carbs in the morning will help you balance your blood sugar and help you full satiated longer. For us, breakfast is often eggs (veggie omelette, fried eggs with salad, or boiled eggs with fermented veggies like kimchi, plus olives or avocado). OR a hearty green smoothie, chia pudding & unsweetened yogurt; or nutty granola with local fruit or whatever other interesting healthy foods we find where we happen to be living. Loading up on healthy fats & protein in the morning will keep you feeling full and help you avoid overdoing it on junk food or unnecessary snacking.
Eat your veggies!
Veggies will fill you up with healthy fiber and satiate you. They are full of vitamins, incredibly detoxifying and low in calories. Whether we’re eating out or I’m cooking, plant foods make up the bulk of what I eat. This is harder for Jim, a true carnivore, but he’s gotten a little better with this over the years. Plus, when I do the cooking, he has no choice. Fill over half of every plate with veggies, and try to increase to 3/4 over time. When at restaurants look for options that include multiple servings. Don’t be afraid of fat–coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil and grass fed butter all go well with vegetables and may even help your body absorb the nutrients better. When possible, think of meat as a condiment, never a main course.
Avoid over-consuming alcohol
While we certainly enjoy a good cocktail, a cold beer and love sharing a bottle of fine, local wine, with the exception of a couple times a year, we rarely overindulge anymore. I've found, most of the time when going out, the fun level doesn’t increase THAT MUCH between 2 drinks and 5 drinks–so I may as well stick to two. Quite simply, you can’t be healthy for very long if you drink too much. Period. Booze is high in calories, bad for your liver and gut, messes with your hormones, and hurts your sleep. Plus being hungover almost always leads to poor nutritional decisions and less fun days. Everything in moderation. When you do drink, avoid booze mixed with soft drinks, sugary syrups, and juices and instead opt for lower sugar options like red wine, tequila + fresh lime juice, vodka/gin soda, etc.
Drink your vitamins
Got a blender at your rental? Make wholesome mid-morning superfood smoothies. I always ask our host for a blender after booking. My goal is to make these full of fiber, protein and healthy fat; without too much sugar. If you don’t have a blender, you can look for healthy smoothie shops and follow a similar recipe.
Blend it all up:
Leafy Greens: organic & local
A few chunks of sweet frozen fruit
Fiber & Fat: An avocado or some coconut flesh.
Polyphenols: Like berries!
Protein: Protein powder; hemp or hydrolyzed collagen.
Liquid: 1-2 cups of water, unsweetened juice or tea and ice cubes if needed
Any other fun local super food I can fin; cacao, ground flax, chia, herbs, ginger, local berries.
We both carry reusable water bottles and drink constantly. We also like fresh coconuts, and unsweet tea. Sometimes we go for juice; but the less sweet varieties–unsweetened watermelon, dragon fruit, berry etc. We never drink soft drinks or store bought juices and we both drink our coffee black. For many people cleaning up what you drink can be equally as impactful as what you eat.
Limit your sugar intake.
I doubt anyone will disagree with me when I say, the best thing you can do to improve your health is to limit added sugar. This means less desserts, ice cream and sweets but also be on the lookout for sneaky added sugars. This means learning to love black coffee or tea without sugar and avoiding soft drinks. Of course half the fun of travelling is trying the local foods, but do control your portions. It can be so easy to overdo it. I love a good dessert, so I won’t deprive myself if I come across something extra tasty, but I am selective. Depending on where we are, I will indulge in special treats–pistachio macarons in Paris, alfajores in Chile, mochi in Taiwan, churros in Mexico, coconut ice cream in Vietnam–and I won’t feel an ounce of guilt.
Shop at local fresh markets:
Local produce markets are an experience to explore and can be a big inspiration when planning your meals. Here you can buy all the fruit & veg and often find a local butcher/fishmonger. Most of our food for cooking comes from these types of places. They are uber fresh, local and always inexpensive. My shopping list includes loads of veggies & fresh greens, herbs, low sugar fruits like avocados, dragon fruit or watermelon, local pastured eggs, quality meats and certain fresh seafood when near the coast.
Pack healthy snacks
I’ve learned this one the hard way one too many times (ie, that time in Peru, when we hungrily scarfed down an entire can of pringles after a bus ride). Especially on long travel days, head to the grocery store and grab some healthy snacks–nuts, fresh fruit, olives, protein bars, dark chocolate, hard boiled eggs, etc. This prevents us from getting hangry if we have to wait longer than planned for our next meal.
Be mindful about carbs.
Avoid carbs in the morning; instead eat a protein/healthy fat rich breakfast. Include a small amount of carbs at lunch and a slightly bigger serving at dinner. Good-for-the-gut carbohydrates include rice & beans, plantains, sweet potatoes, quinoa, and lentils. If we are being extra active, we worry a little less about carbs than when we are sedentary. Still, it’s never a bad idea to limit processed carbs to special occasions. The idea is to satisfy, satiate and to stabilize blood sugar to avoid unhealthy cravings and unnecessary snacking or over-indulging on junk foods.
Consider intermittent fasting.
Three to four nights a week, we have a 14-16 hour overnight fast, to help our body “reset” and stay on track. This is called intermittent fasting (IF) and can mean skipping breakfast or eating it later in the morning and not snacking after dinner. Often eating a late brunch instead of breakfast + lunch can be a logical and easy thing to do when traveling. By having a narrower eating window and avoiding evening snacking, you may be able to improve insulin resistance and more easily lose or maintain your weight (source and source). For more information check out Dr Rhonda Patrick’s podcast Found My Fitness (link), and the work of Dr Satchin Panda (link). And: (link). Remember to always listen to your body–if you wake up feeling super hungry, by all means, eat sooner than later.
Regardless, try to allow your body at least 12 hours every night without calories/food.
Have a strategy for eating out:
If you cannot cook, then it’s important to show some willpower and make good ordering choices when eating out. Especially if you live a nomadic lifestyle that has you traveling a lot.
You might think of a 80:20 mentality with these rules–if you can stick to it 80% of the time, 20% of the time you can have fun and eat whatever you want.
Be cautious with raw fruit & vegetables.
Depending on where in the world you are, this can be one of the quickest ways to get food poisoning. Many places do not properly wash and clean vegetables or wash them with unsafe water. So when in doubt, when eating out, choose cooked veggies over raw unless you are eating at a reputable place. And stick to fruits that have a thick peel.
Moderation is key.
Every now and then it’s ok to go ahead and order the pasta dish or split a pizza, but maybe also order the side veggies or salad. If you go for the South American style meat BBQ for dinner, maybe have a vegetarian lunch, etc. Life is for living, so if you want to go all out at the buffet at your fancy hotel, go for it! Just don’t make it a daily thing.
Eat like the locals.
Unless you’re visiting Little Rock Arkansas (see: America’s Fattest Cities), there’s a good chance the local, traditional foods are likely a better (and certainly cheaper) choice than many of the western or international restaurants you might find when traveling. Of course this depends on where you are travelling. When we stayed in Chile for 2 months, we discovered the local food was quite unhealthy; often fried, too meat-heavy, carby or processed, so we ended up making most of our meals at our Airbnb.
Manage stress levels.
Get your 8 hours.
Sleep deprivation has been linked to all sorts of serious health problems, mental and emotional issues and weight gain. We are both the types who need our sleep to feel good, so it’s easy for us to make it a priority. The key is to have a consistent bedtime (for us this means most nights, we’re in bed before 11pm–yup, we’re old) and wake time. We rent nicer, private apartments on quiet streets to help this. We also always ask for a fan in our room for white noise and air flow. If you need motivation, I highly recommend reading Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, a Neuroscience and Psychology Professor and founder of the Center for Human Sleep Science. Seriously compelling stuff.
When changing time zones: we’ve found taking melatonin supplements to be a safe and effective way to avoid jet lag and acclimate to a new time zone/new sleep time faster. This is my favorite brand.
Force yourself away from your computer screen and set boundaries for remote work. I rarely book video calls or work appointments after 7pm and avoid working on other projects after 9. If you find yourself feeling worn out or getting sick a lot, I suggest considering your sleep and trying to create a good bedtime routine and really try to avoid working late (Helpful link). Blue light from a TV/phone or computer screen has been shown to postpone the release of melatonin, an important sleep inducing hormone.
If you must work late or want to watch netflix before bed, you can install an AP on your computer/phone to automatically dim/redden the light on your screens (we use F.lux).
Schedule quality off-days.
Read posts on digital nomad facebook groups or forums and you’ll notice burnout is all too common. When you work remotely while you travel you probably notice it can be hard to completely take time off, unplug and disconnect.
Be sure to schedule a few days a month (like on Sundays) where you do “normal” stuff you might do if you weren’t a nomad or traveller. These activities might include; laundry, organize or tidy up, grocery shop, cook, nap, Netflix & chill. No travelling, just bumming around the home base. You might be surprised how energizing these days can be.
Once every other month, we take 4-5 solid days off of our computers and book a few nights at a low-key guesthouse, nicer-than-usual hotel, or special place in nature and unplug.
Take advantage of the local delicacies. Book weekly massages or spa visits when in Asia. Get away to the jungle or mountains and spend some time in nature or visit a hot spring in South America. Escape to the peaceful coast or countryside in Europe.
Make it a priority to be active.
Walk, run, move!
Whether it’s a daily run or walk, we try to get moving, every single day. No equipment needed. Get a fitness tracker device and track your steps. Every bit counts. Make it a goal to average a minimum of 7,000 steps a day; build your way up from there. Daily walks in nature are best. When your exploring a new city, walk when possible instead of taking a taxi or bus. It’s not uncommon for use to average 15,000-18,000 steps (+5-8 miles) a day when exploring a new place.
Take breaks: Get up and move around a little every hour. Even if it just walking around your apartment, tidying up your things, getting a cup of tea, etc. We are both pretty terrible at this. My back and shoulders will quickly start to strain if I neglect to do this. But, as my mom says–sitting is the new smoking.
Use your computer for yoga, pilates or bodyweight training videos: Youtube has loads of yoga or pilates videos and I’ve downloaded other workout videos from Amazon. Jim got me this lightweight portable yoga mat for Christmas that folds up and fits in my backpack. Just having this on hand has motivated me to use it. Often I will do 20 min in the morning 20 min in the late afternoon.
Join a gym! It’s a great way to meet locals and they are probably cheaper than at home.
Download fitness apps on your phone and DIY it.
Look for airbnbs, hotels or private rentals that have a gym or are near a gym.cec
Make small daily goals; 20 pushups first thing in the morning, or 10 minutes of stretching before bed, always take the stairs to your room/apartment/office, etc.
Find local exercise or yoga classes.
I usually do this by joining expat groups on Facebook and asking around; or search for gyms and check out their websites for schedules.
Hike, explore, wander around…. a lot!
This is our favorite. We are always on the lookout for trails, paths, and hiking spots. Everywhere we go, we hike. When we can’t do this, we find we aren’t as happy, healthy or focused.
Book physical activity tours or take classes
While we aren’t big on tours, we do periodically book active tours–we hire hiking guides, we’ve book caving, river tracing, and walking tours. Look for tours that focus on a physical activity, like snorkeling, surf lessons, mountain biking, Muay Thai, hiking/running/biking clubs, Zumba or dance. Variety is one of the greatest perks of life on the road.
Mind your posture
Working online all day can be terrible for your back. Consider investing in some equipment to make it easier for you on long work days. My first year of working remotely, I developed constant neck and back aches and often got migraines. Changing up my setup for improved ergonomics helped tremendously. When possible, I try to make a standing desk using a counter or bar + my laptop stand. Even though we are often carry-on only, we both manage to travel with these items and have found them to be game changers:
Join a trash cleanup, volunteer to walk dogs or teach free English classes. Search on Facebook and you may be surprised to see that the place you are staying has daily, weekly or bi-monthly volunteer opportunities. Not only is this a good chance to get out and be active, but you’re sure to meet some good people in the process and it’s bound to make for a better local experience. May as well take advantage of the flexible schedule to do something good.
In the age of social media, nobody has to be alone. Join local facebook expat and nomad groups prior to arriving and be on the lookout for events and meetups. Often there are weekly happy hours, lunches, or networking events. By joining a group in our current location, I found out about: yoga classes, trash cleanups, a weekly “painting” happy hour, live music venues and a bi-monthly digital nomad meetup.
Look into coliving spaces. For a few weeks (or more) it can be really nice to join a coliving space. Here you can pay a flat fee to live in a shared apartment or house with a coworking space. Such an easy way to meet motivated, like-minded people, or get inspired. Great if and when the lifestyle feels isolating or tiring.
We schedule our doctor and dental appointments abroad.
As Americans, with an expensive, messed up healthcare system, we take advantage of the cheaper healthcare systems of the countries we visit. I haven’t been to a dentist in America for 6 years. I have however been to dentists in Mexico and Vietnam. For less than $30, I can get a checkup and cleaning. Both Jim and I have visited and had great luck with doctors abroad as well. In my early years of nomadic life, I’d often forget about this. But taking care of your teeth and booking preventative care is crucial.
We weren’t always like this…
We still work at this every day, and it is not always easy. My first year on the road, I developed a serious case of bronchitis, gained 5 lbs, and got eczema on my shins that to this day still flares up if I don’t regulate my blood sugar. Jim’s first year, he developed several vitamin deficiencies while his body weight yoyo’d. Over time, we had to learn to find balance while living a very unbalanced lifestyle. Sometimes you have to over do it a little to appreciate healthy habits.
Ok, what are we missing? How do you stay healthy when travelling or living a nomadic lifestyle?
Great motivating resources:
Genius Foods by Max Lugavere along with his podcast, The Genius Life
Food: What the Heck Should I Eat? By Mark Hyman, plus his podcast, The Doctor’s Farmacy.
The Nature Fix by Florence Williams
Deep Nutrition by Catherine Shanahan
Dr Ronda Patrick’s incredibly scientific health & nutrition podcast, Found My Fitness
Want some power motivation for getting more sleep? Check out this episode of Joe Rogan Podcast, where he interviews sleep expert Matthew Walker.