Healthier Living (and Eating) for the Long-Haul

Tips from a leading nutritionist on how to lead a healthier life while on the road. Overall change is usually less difficult if small changes are made.
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Every truck driver understands the daily struggle with trying to eat healthy while on the road. You know that your carefully planned chicken salad is waiting for you in the mini-fridge and it’s the right thing to eat, but that lil’ devil on your shoulder says, as you pull into the Flying J’s or the Love’s to fill up, “You’ve worked hard today, you deserve a nice hot meal of deep fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy.”

The truth is, for every ten truck drivers, seven would be considered obese (technically speaking, that’s when your body weighs 20 percent more than it should based on your height and age). When a person reaches that point, they are at a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, heart disease, cancer, joint and back pain, and stroke.

Many Transport America drivers know that carrying all that extra weight is not a good thing. The problem is, when you’re sitting behind a wheel all day long and you don’t have time (or the energy) to shop for healthy foods, it’s pretty hard to keep those pounds from adding up over the years.

But here’s the good news! According to a leading nutritionist, you don’t have to embrace the latest diet fad, and you don’t have to apply to be a contestant on the The Biggest Loser. David Orozco, a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of TD Wellness, an Atlanta-based nutrition consulting firm, works with truck drivers all over the country to help them lead healthier lives. He believes that with small and consistent changes, you can reclaim your body.

“I believe in creating new habits that will last a lifetime,” says Orozco. “To achieve big change, I take the approach of making small incremental changes that allow a person to build their confidence and form new habits.”.

For example, notes Orozco, he recently met with an overweight driver who felt sluggish throughout the day. In talking with him, Orozco learned that he started his day drinking a couple Mountain Dew sodas, followed by drinking tea, and later in the day, drinking a Gatorade. The driver did not drink coffee and didn’t drink water.

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Orozco counseled the driver to replace one of those high calorie sugary drinks with a large glass of water.

Two weeks later, when they met again, the driver said he started to replace one of the Mountain Dews with water and later on, decided to go entirely to water throughout the day. As a result, the driver said he started to feel less sluggish and more energetic, and reported losing three pounds.

“I consider that a huge win,” Orozco says, “because the driver decided to make that habit change himself — I only guided him to see how much sugar he was drinking in the day that actually made him hit those lows.”

Besides replacing sugary drinks, Orozco helps drivers make other gradual changes in what they eat, the amount of physical activity they obtain, and obtaining more sleep.

Part of the problem lies in the lifestyle of being a driver, he notes.

“When you’ve spent a long time alone in your truck, many drivers will resort to eating unhealthy foods at a truck stop simply because it gives them an opportunity to interact with other people,” Orozco says.

“Even if a driver has good, healthy food waiting for them in their truck’s refrigerator, they’ll skip what they made to eat so they can interact with others,” says Orozco. “While it saves money to eat alone, it can be lonely.”

So what can you do to lead a healthier lifestyle on the road? Here are some additional tips that Orozco offers specifically for truck drivers:

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Start small, and stay consistent. Try substituting one glass of water for a sugary drink, or taking a short walk around the parking lot of a truck stop when you fuel up, or while on the phone taking a call. Instead of snacking on a candy bar, reach for a piece of fruit. Start with the small goals and keep it going. Little wins add up to bigger wins down the road.

Smaller portions. Instead of eating another bowl of cereal for breakfast, try a side of fruit. If you want a steak, order the 6 oz., not the 12 oz. Start cutting back on the amount of food you eat each day. Most people (not just truck drivers) take in more calories than they expend each day through physical activity. “I like a burger just like the next guy, and if you want the burger, have the burger. But try just having the regular burger with a side of fruit. Don’t do the double cheese Angus burger with bacon and fries,” says Orozco.

Healthier foods. Do a side salad, boiled broccoli, or a few carrots with lunch. Do baked chicken, not fried chicken. “Start to cut back on the processed foods and gradually add fresh foods,” says Orozco. “I realize you’re not always going to find fresh foods at truck stops. If you can create a meal that fits within your schedule, the important thing is just be mindful. Pay attention to portions and how often you’re eating the same thing all the time.”

Physical activity. “Sweating is a mixture of water and salt, and that’s not how to lose weight properly,” says Orozco. While being physically active, you do lose water, but done correctly you’ll loose fat. It’s difficult for drivers to find the right time and place for a dedicated workout each day. That’s why every little bit adds up. Try doing some exercise at the loading dock. Take a couple laps around the lot before you take off for the day, or take advantage of the exercise equipment at Transport America’s support centers. The key is to replace time you could be sitting with increments of moving your body.

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Get your sleep. “If you’re not getting a full 7 hours of sleep, you start to store fat due to a hormone called leptin,” says Orozco. The lack of sleep causes you to gain weight, eat more, and just feel crummy. Sleeping helps the body burn calories efficiently throughout the day by helping to regulate your night and day time hormones, but it’s not enough. “Taking naps are good, just don’t let it interrupt your main sleep cycle,” adds Orozco.

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Reduce Stress. “Being stressed involves emotional and physical reactions,” says Orozco. “For example, traffic is extremely stressful, with people cutting drivers off all the time it’s just that drivers are use to chronic stress, which seems like it has to be that way.” Or, a driver may feel stress because he feels behind schedule, or a storm is starting to make driving hazardous. When drivers experience constant stress, they start to skip meals; reach for “comfort” foods, and drink more caffeine than is recommended.

So, what can drivers do to reduce their stress? Orozco mentions, “I like to tell clients to start each morning or day by planning or thinking of just one relaxing activity for themselves. For instance, take a 5-10 minute walk and recharge; or eat a side of veggies to help your digestion; or park in front of a lake or water for 5-10 minutes and just take it in. Whatever you decide to break, pause, or self-care action you take, it needs to be relaxing.”

Slowly lose weight. “Rapid weight loss is water, not fat,” says Orozco. “With someone who is over weight, I recommend becoming healthy first, instead of focusing on being thin.” Rapid weight loss can mess with your metabolism. Allowing yourself to lose weight over a longer period of time helps your body sense the change, and will help your body right size itself to the weight you should be at.

Support is key. “I’ve heard many drivers say, ‘I’m going to do this all by myself,’ but I’d encourage them to seek support. It helps to have someone who has your back,” says Orozco. “Hearing encouragement is more empowering than being alone. Focus on how you feel versus seeing the numbers on the scale.” Having someone cheer you on, or working with you, makes the change easier. Gauge your success on how your actions and changes make you feel, not weight.

“Driving a truck is not a job; it’s a lifestyle,” Orozco adds. “Instead of telling a driver to lose the weight, we encourage them to learn on their own, with some guidance.”

The overall change is usually less difficult if small changes are made, and it will become easier with time. From becoming healthier overall, to loosing a few pounds, each step is an accomplishment.

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The CDC visited 16 truck stops across the United States and evaluated them based on a checklist to gauge how well truck stops support a healthy lifestyle for long-haul truckers. The results won’t surprise you.

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