What -- If Anything -- to Eat at the Gas Station

My wife, Laurie, and I have been going all Jack Kerouac lately.

(Laurie informs me that this lead sentence won’t work, as no one knows who Jack Kerouac is anymore. If that’s true, it’s inexpressibly sad. Kerouac wrote On the Road, the definitive “Beat Generation” paean to American restlessness. If you already knew that, forgive me. If you didn’t, read the book.)

We’ve been rampaging around the west in our little SUV. We camp, visit family and generally pressure-wash the cobwebs from our mental attics.

Open, endless western spaces and long, straight highways are terrific antidotes to modern sensory overload.

And what little stimulation one finds on the road is worth absorbing.

Billboards out here urge us to embrace Jesus and avoid meth. Both excellent ideas.

The people are extraordinarily friendly. The land is so much bigger than we are, it seems to arouse our latent tribal instincts — people naturally tend to be kind. They offer directions patiently.

It’s all fun, exciting, even exhilarating, right up until… we get hungry.

Restaurants are surprisingly scarce in much of the arid western U.S. Even supermarkets are few and far between.

So too often, we must face the most difficult reality of life on the American road: gas station convenience store food.

Consider these offerings I photographed in rural… ah… I’m not really sure… let’s call it Nevadakotarizonia:

road food

I’ve road-tripped in Europe and Asia, and as much as I love this country, I have to say it — no nation I’ve visited features anything as repellent as the clown-colored collage of corn-based culinary crap that confronts the typical American road warrior.

In Japan, for example, the roadside combination stores — known as konbini — offer lovely little triangular seaweed-wrapped “sandwiches” known as onigiri, stuffed with rice and tasty, nutrient-dense eel.

In Great Britain, a pub offering a shepherd’s pie or “ploughman’s lunch” seems to pop up every 2 or 3 kilometers.

Only here, I’m afraid, are the offerings so uniformly awful.

Deconstructing the “food” in these photos, a good 90 percent of it combines:

  • A grain — typically GMO corn, but sometimes wheat
  • “Vegetable oil,” which is almost certainly soybean oil
  • High fructose corn syrup.

It is no accident.

These three commodity foodstuffs are cheap to grow, ship, process, and store. They can remain on store shelves for months, years… perhaps decades.

They are, in short, perfect foods from a commercial standpoint.

So the fact that they are inflammation-inducing concentrations of hyperprocessed carbohydrate coated in oxidized seed oil with a glaze of fractionated sweetener… well, we have to live with it.

Assuming we can, in fact, stay alive. Consider a cheery study (1) called “Obesity Prevalence and the Local Food Environment”:

“This study measured the association between the presence of food establishments and obesity among 1,295 adults living in the southern region of the United States. The prevalence of obesity was lower in areas that had supermarkets and higher in area with small grocery stores…”

Exactly. Small grocery stores — like the ones on the nation’s highways appended to gas stations — yield large Americans.

So… if you are on the road… what should you eat?

In my experience, the two best convenience store food choices are some form of trail mix — preferably, a candy-free version — or a relatively low-sugar beef jerky.

But I would also offer a more radical possibility.

I am a great fan of intermittent fasting — the practice of skipping an occasional meal, or even two, and allowing yourself to feel significantly hungry once a week or so.

This practice speeds up the internal cellular housecleaning process known as autophagy — literally “self-eating” — and generally makes human beings healthier in every way. Caloric restriction is the only lifestyle practice that has been definitively shown to extend life span in animals, in some cases up to 30 percent.

So should you starve while on the road?

Of course not. Or at least, not all the time. But grasping the occasional opportunity presented by travel through a “food desert” to eat less is a terrific idea.

Still, as you zoom past the convenience stores and grow ever hungrier, you must eat eventually.

Where?

Laurie and I employ our GPS to locate either an interesting local restaurant or… one of the only two nationwide fast-food chains that, in my view, offer acceptable food on the road in America: Starbucks and Chipotle.

At the former, I tend to get the “protein box.” At the latter, I go for a grain-free “bowl” with plenty of barbacoa beef, picante sauce, and guacamole.

Either works.

Bottom line…

Don’t let a relative dearth of healthful offerings dissuade you from hitting the open American road. Take it from a nutrition writer — there’s more to life than spending every waking moment optimizing your macronutrient ratios. You must feed your soul as well as your belly.

Get out there, enjoy the scenery and the citizenry, do the best you can to eat healthfully, and send your best road-food tips to me at healthfeedback@lfb.org.

And please, if you haven’t, read your Kerouac.

Regards,

Brad Lemley
Editor, Natural Health Solutions

Citations:

1. Morland, Kimberly B., Evenson, Kelly R. Obesity prevalence and the local food environment.  Health & Place. Sept. 6, 2009.

Brad Lemley

Written By Brad Lemley

Brad Lemley is a science and health writer and former senior correspondent for The Washington Post and Discover magazine. He is a tireless advocate for safe, natural, self-directed healthy living practices and therapies.

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