Traveling with diabetes is always tough. You’ve got a different schedule, different exercise patterns and, above all, different food. I’m in Klaipeda, Lithuania right now, just starting week two of a three-week bicycle trip through the Baltics — and let me tell you: there’s nothing like Lithuanian cuisine to make you appreciate the dietary difficulties of life on the road. I’ve mentioned kibinas before — crescent-shaped doughy dumplings reminiscent of Hot Pockets. But there is so much more.
Take, for example, the cepelin — doughy, greasy potato dumplings roughly the shape of a blimp (hence the name — it’s Lithuanian for “zeppelin”), but with a density that guarantees that they would never remain airborne. Peter and I shared a serving of those the first day we were here, and I was left amazed that a. a potato could be made that gelatinous and b. the normal serving size is two. I ate only part of one, and felt like I could hardly get up from the table.
But the obsession with carbs does not stop there. No, this is the land that worships the potato, and potato pancakes (similarly gelatinous inside, but somehow better-tasting) are available at every restaurant. You’re not safe if you try to stick to, say, a salad — there appears to be a distrust of any dressing that is not sweet. And oh, don’t get me started on the fried bread sticks. These are a national favorite beer snack, as they’re called, also available on nearly every menu — and after seeing them pop up again and again, Peter and I finally could not resist. I mean, it’s fried bread. Thanks to our biking itinerary, I had a few free carbs to spare. What better way to spend them than to eat bread — not just fried, but dipped in cheese?
It turns out that there are many better ways. Stale and greasy, the bread sticks had been dipped in some sort of ranch dressing (again with the sweet!) and then rolled, Sno-ball-like, in tasteless shredded mozzarella.
The upside of the fried bread sticks was that I was not at all tempted to eat more than one. Instead, I stuck to the cold beetroot soup (which I’ve convinced myself is healthy, though I think it may be made with sour cream). It’s bright pink, contains hard boiled eggs, and has delicious dill-spiked shreds of beet and cucumber. Yes, it comes with potatoes, but in what seems like a gift to diabetics, they’re always served on the side.
But it’s hard to get beetroot soup for breakfast on the road — one trick Peter and I have developed is to boil a bunch of eggs at the hostel or guesthouse the night before, and then take them on the road (one way to make new friends on long-distance bus rides: unpeel hardboiled eggs). When that doesn’t work, I try to stick to a banana or an unsweetened yogurt. But sometimes even that doesn’t work — and I’m left with choices like this, the Magic Sticks. Please note the condensed milk.
But as I noted earlier, I’m rediscovering that one of the best ways to deal with a carb-heavy diet — or with traveling in general — is to exercise. Right now is a bit extreme — we biked 60 kilometers today, and have done roughly similar distances for five out of the past seven days. I’ve been dropping my basals to 55% while we’re on the road, drastically lowering my boluses, and still have been able to indulge the occasional ice cream cone without any diabetic repercussions to speak of. It’s making me wonder if I could work long-distance bike rides into my everyday life! (Especially if the rewards involved were greater than Magic Sticks. . . .)
I’ve also started to look at national cuisines with a more critical eye. It’s hard to read the menu of restaurants here, look at the body shapes of most Lithuanians over 40, and not think that Type 2 diabetes must be a problem. Obviously, to criticize the Lithuanian diet (or anyone’s diet, for that matter) as unhealthy — when I’m American — is a bit laughable. We are, after all, the country that invented the Double Down — a nationwide obsession with the potato might actually be an improvement. But still, observing a culture and a cuisine from the outside makes me recognize that Type 2 really is becoming a global problem, and it’s exacerbated by the way we eat, whether it’s cepelins or French Fries.
But I’m too tired to do much pontificating at the moment — tomorrow we’re off to a national park that used to house Soviet nuclear missiles (now you can take guided tours of the empty silos). My current plan is to keep biking through the Baltics, enjoy my occasional ice cream cone, keep to the beetroot soup and, above all else, avoid another favorite local beer snack: smoked pig ears. (Some of them still had hair.)