All topics

How to manage diabetes while traveling

Published on January 14, 2020 at 13:03 / Updated on June 7, 2022 at 15:18

Being affected by diabetes is a major challenge to manage on a daily basis, but it can be monumental when your routine is thrown off. Therefore, trips and outings involve their share of questions, calculations and can quickly become a huge source of stress. Is it possible for a person with diabetes to travel easily while making wise and adapted food choices for their diabetes? It most certainly is!

What is diabetes?

Type 2 diabetes is a metabolic disease resulting from a disorder in the secretion of insulin or in its use, in the case of insulin resistance. Some individuals may have a deficit at both levels. For diabetics, this metabolic dysfunction can lead to hyperglycemia—an increase in the level of sugar in the blood—because insulin can no longer adequately perform its primary role: to bring carbohydrates into the body's cells to transform them into a source of energy for the brain, muscles, liver, etc. Since the insulin is dysfunctional, sugar therefore remains circulating in the blood, which has the effect of raising blood sugar levels. High blood sugar can cause increased urine output, which could lead to dehydration, excessive thirst, and immense fatigue. A large drop in blood pressure usually follows and could lead to unconsciousness or even a coma in more severe cases. To avoid all these inconveniences, it’s recommended to take an appropriate medication (oral hypoglycemic agents or insulin) and/or to fully understand the simplified carbohydrate calculation method.

Calculating carbohydrates made easy

To go on a trip or eat outside with peace of mind, it’s essential to know how to calculate the carbohydrates found in your diet. First of all, to calculate carbohydrates, it’s advisable to use a system of exchanges that provides a certain freedom in the type of carbohydrate consumed. An exchange’s carbohydrate content may vary according to the food group:

Milk and alternatives
12 à 15
Meats and alternatives
Other foods*

*These are foods that contain added sugars. To find out the exchange equivalent for various foods, please consult the Diabetes Nutrition Guide, available on the Diabète Québec website. Most of the foods frequently consumed in Quebec are listed there.

*Be careful with potatoes/corn/squash, among others, that are considered as starches.

Having a meal schedule is an asset

Another important aspect to consider when planning a trip for a person with diabetes is the meal schedule. To properly control and stabilize your diabetes, it’s very important to eat at regular times and therefore have a schedule for the different meals of the day. When traveling on an all-inclusive package or on a cruise, there are many food choices and meal times are more regular. It’s therefore easier for a person with diabetes to adapt better in this context. Otherwise, the diabetic must organize a stable schedule for themself if, for example, they’re going on a backpacking trip. Meals should be 4 to 6 hours apart and snacks, if any, should be taken 2 to 3 hours after the meal.

How do you handle buffets?

How do you manage to make the right food choices and consume an adequate amount of carbohydrates in a buffet? For an adult male, it’s generally recommended to consume between 60 to 75 grams of carbohydrates per meal, which is equivalent to 4 to 5 exchanges. For adult women, it’s recommended to consume between 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrates, thus the equivalent of 3 to 4 exchanges. These amounts can also vary from individual to individual depending on age and level of physical activity. Don’t hesitate to get information from a nutritionist. For example, a meal consisting of a cup of rice, vegetables and a chicken breast with fruit contains 60 grams of carbohydrates. Vegetables don’t contain large amounts of carbohydrates (with some exceptions like potatoes, corn, squash, etc.) and can therefore be eaten at will. This is a great way to considerably increase the portion served during meals, thereby helping you to feel full. Meat, fish and seafood don’t contain carbohydrates. To be full, you can add more of these foods to your plate. Legumes, on the other hand, contain carbohydrates in addition to protein. It’s therefore important to consider them in the simplified calculation of carbohydrates. A smart trick is to include more whole grains, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds in your diet, because these are richer in fibre and slow the rise in blood sugar.

Insulin vs oral hypoglycemic medications

For insulin-dependent diabetics, counting carbohydrates is optional, but can help determine how much insulin to inject after a meal. This is essential to avoid hypoglycemia. For those who must take oral hypoglycemic agents, a consistent diet is essential. The same amounts of carbohydrates should be consumed with all meals, whether taken at home or away from home, or while traveling.

For travel outdoors

In the event of long walks or hikes, diabetics may become dehydrated. To avoid dehydration, you can make a rehydration formula that consists of 500 mL (2 cups) of water, 500 mL (2 cups) of orange juice and 5 mL (1 teaspoon) of salt.

For snacks, an adult can have between 15 and 30 grams of carbohydrates:

  • 1 apple
  • 125 g (½ cup) vanilla or fruit flavoured yogurt
  • 2 rice cakes
  • 15 large raisins
  • 2 clementines
  • 7 soda crackers
  • 125 mL (½ cup) grilled chickpeas
  • 3 dates
  • 1 granola bar (15 to 30 g of carbohydrates)
  • 125 mL (½ cup) of fruit juice

In case of more marked hunger, adding a source of protein to snacks is suggested:

  • Nuts/seeds
  • 2 ounces of cheese cubes
  • 30 mL (2 tbsp.) roasted soybeans
  • 60 mL (¼ cup) Greek yogurt
  • 30 g smoked turkey breast

You can also turn to quick sources of sugar in case of hypoglycemia. To correct hypoglycemia while traveling, opt for:

  • 200 mL of fruit juice
  • 200 mL of soda
  • 5 Dex4 tablets

In conclusion, it’s suggested to take your blood sugar reading more frequently when travelling, because changes in routine, the effect of sunlight and dehydration could impact your blood sugar levels. Stay alert!

Familiprix in collaboration with Hubert Cormier

The drugs and pharmaceutical services featured on the website are offered by pharmacists who own the affiliated pharmacies at Familiprix. The information contained on the site is for informational purposes only and does not in any way replace the advice and advice of your pharmacist or any other health professional. Always consult a health professional before taking or discontinuing medication or making any other decision. Familiprix inc. and the proprietary pharmacists affiliated with Familiprix do not engage in any way by making this information available on this website.