A big challenge for drivers who want to eat healthy meals is just getting past the typical high-calorie fare to find inexpensive but healthy food choices while out on the road. Photos: J.J. Keller & Associates

A big challenge for drivers who want to eat healthy meals is just getting past the typical high-calorie fare to find inexpensive but healthy food choices while out on the road. Photos: J.J. Keller & Associates

The news came as a shock to Emily Plummer. Her blood sugar level had jumped, threatening to end her 18-year career as an interstate truck driver.

“I had picked up a load and was on my way to Washington state when I got the phone call,” the Springfield, Missouri, driver said. “You’re thinking, ‘This can’t be happening.’ I’ve worked too hard to get where I’m at.’”

Plummer is far from the first driver to have health issues jeopardize her career. Seven in 10 drivers are obese, which puts them at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, and heart disease, according to a study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The medical conditions that often accompany obesity, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, can put a driver at risk of not being medically qualified to drive.

Plummer had been diabetic for five years, and maintained acceptable blood sugar levels with the help of medication, before her blood sugar spiked. She knew her diet wasn’t great, but wasn’t sure how to change it.  

“I was still eating the cheeseburgers, French fries, soda, and candy, and chips,” she says. “I was just eating whatever I wanted to eat, and that was horrible.”

Beyond the Doughnut Display

One of the challenges Plummer and other drivers face is lack of easy access to inexpensive healthy food. Truck stops are loaded with deals on supersize candy bars and soda. Restaurant specials often revolve around high-calorie offerings. Healthy food is available, but doesn’t dominate the selection and is rarely on sale.

“The places where you can find easy parking are truck stops, and that’s where they have mostly garbage,” says Paul West of Hillsboro, Ohio, who’s been driving for 20 years. “They’re going to sell what guys want, and they want the garbage.”

“In the car portion of the truck stop, they’ll have fresh fruit containers, but when I go to the fuel desk it’s king-size candy bars,” adds Julie Matulle of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. “Really? Come on. Some days are really bad and you just need a Dove bar, but you don’t need a king-size one.”

Despite the on-the-road obstacles to healthy eating, Matulle managed to lose 35 pounds when she started driving five years ago at age 45. She rarely bothers to stop at a truck stop for anything but fuel, saving time and money by baking chicken breasts, pork chops, or a pre-packed casserole in her truck.

“If I had one tip to give to drivers it would be to get a little oven, it looks like a tackle box,” says Matulle, who prepares meals and freezes them in portion-size containers when she’s home on the weekend. She plugs her little oven into the truck’s cigarette lighter and makes her meal while she’s driving.

“I also use it as a time saver,” she adds. “If I know I’m going to deliver in an hour, I’ll pull up at a rest area, wash my hands and put something in the oven. Then when I’m waiting to be loaded or unloaded I can eat.”

Stocking Up

Like Matulle, West, 48, shies away from truck stop fare. He’s home each night, so before beginning his route he eats a breakfast of bananas and granola and packs a lunch and snacks.

“I bring my meals with me. One reason is that I’m very frugal, and for another reason I get a lot better food,” he says. He wasn’t always so careful, but changed his ways after seeing the toll bad habits took on his friends’ health.

“I want to be healthy enough to enjoy the time I’m here,” says West, whose blood pressure has dropped since he began his healthier diet. “I know too many guys on CPAP machines and who are on 60-day medical cards.

“The biggest challenge is mentally wanting to make a change,” he adds. “A lot of guys give up too easy. You have to really want to do it.”

He started making healthier choices on his own, and now gets support from Tanya Joliffe of Rolling Strong, which provides wellness education and health coaching for the trucking industry. Joliffe encourages drivers to begin with small changes they can stick with, such as trading a large fry for regular, or exchanging soda for water.

“Some drivers choose whatever the fast food option is,” says Joliffe, who is Rolling Strong’s director of recruitment and training and has a bachelor of science degree in nutrition. “We begin to take those steps to cut back the portion size of what they’re eating. Then they can begin to make those healthier choices.”

To avoid the temptation of an oversized fast food meal, she encourages drivers to stock their cab’s refrigerator with snacks so they’re not starving when they stop for a meal break. “Some will stop once a day and eat 1,800 calories at one time,” Joliffe says. “That’s a bad strategy.”

To avoid the temptation of an oversized fast food meal, drivers should stock their cab’s refrigerator with healthy snacks.

To avoid the temptation of an oversized fast food meal, drivers should stock their cab’s refrigerator with healthy snacks.

Starting Right

Another mistake is trying to save time by skipping breakfast, or snacking on candy bars, doughnuts, and other junk food rather than starting the day with eggs or Greek yogurt to get the body’s metabolism going.

For Stephanie Klang, of Joplin, Missouri, breakfast can come at any time of the day, depending on her driving schedule, but it’s always part of her routine. Klang, who has been driving over the road for 37 years, typically has whole grain bread and peanut butter, along with half-caf coffee and cream.

“Then I have lunch about four hours after that, even if it’s only 9 a.m.,” she says. “I never let myself get too hungry. I keep almonds, raisins, and protein bars for healthy snacks.”

An eating strategy that includes breakfast is right on track, according to Joliffe. “The 10 minutes you spend eating breakfast will really save time down the line,” she explains. “You won’t have to stop an extra two or three times because you’re groggy and falling asleep and need a pick-me-up.”

Grogginess can also be caused by improper hydration. A driver who relies on coffee and soda to stay awake may be doing more harm than good.

“You’re more alert when you’re off coffee and only drink water, and live in a hydrated state,” Joliffe says. “So much lethargy is related to eating habits and water intake or lack thereof.

“We try to get them to cut back on energy drinks, soda, and that sugar high,” she adds. “We suggest they have nuts along with soda to minimize the blood sugar spike at first. Then trade one soda for one bottle of water. Then try to make two switches.”

West’s beverage of choice was diet green tea. To get away from artificial sweetener, he’s switched to water with green tea flavor. “I have a refillable water bottle I bring with me every day,” he says. “I put a green tea bag in the water bottle, without sugar, and let it brew. When the water bottle is empty, I can refill it for free.”

A Golden Age

It’s a challenge to bypass the soda, chips, and candy bars that dominate many truck stops, but in reality the selection of food for drivers has never been better. Matulle’s parents were truck drivers, and she recalls that their food options were extremely limited.

“There was no fruit available; everything came with fries,” she says. “They never got to a place that had salads, and they didn’t have a refrigerator in the truck.

“The choices have improved. They have improved greatly,” adds Matulle, who says she can find reasonably priced healthier foods such as apples, oranges, bananas, milk, salads, and hardboiled eggs at truck stops.

And Joliffe notes that even fast food choices have gotten better. “Now you can get a regular hamburger, a side salad with light dressing and unsweetened tea, and at only about 400 calories for your meal that’s pretty good,” she says.

Still, it takes willpower to look beyond the displays of doughnuts and coolers filled with soda. Plummer now plans all her meals, stops at Walmart to restock the in-cab refrigerator and adheres to a strict low-carb diet.

“There are no more chips,” she says. “I do have a hamburger every once in a while, but no more fries. It’s strictly meat, cheese, eggs, and green vegetables.”

She’s exchanged soda for water (she used to drink up to eight 20-ounce sodas daily) and, thanks to the low-carb diet, dropped from 300 to 204 pounds between October and April. Her blood sugar has fallen into the normal range, and she no longer needs a CPAP machine for sleep apnea.

“I can’t go back to my old way of eating,” she says. “This has turned my health completely around.”

She realizes she used to eat out of boredom, not because she was hungry, and wishes there was more information available to drivers about how to lower blood sugar levels and make healthy choices.

“When we’re diagnosed, the only things we’re given are the pills and a machine,” Plummer says. “Drivers will be just like I was. You know what you’re eating is bad for you, but you don’t know how to change.”

For West, the positive changes he’s seen in his health since improving his eating habits make him urge others to do the same.

“Say no to the garbage,” he says. “It’s so easy and so accepted, that everyone thinks you have to eat it. You just have to make a little effort to eat the right foods. It takes a little more effort, but you don’t have to give in.”

Terri Dougherty is the editor of the LivingRight Health and Wellness Awareness Program from J.J. Keller & Associates.