How One Dude Lost Weight Eating Only at Gas Stations for a Month
It's hard to eat healthy when your only options for dinner live under heat lamps or beside the register at service stations. Thus was the dilemma for Frank Beard. He found himself in a gas station two hours north of Ft. Worth where the only food offering other than chips was a cheeseburger with, by any reasonable reckoning, an entire rugby team's daily caloric intake. But as this was his first day of 30 in a row eating at gas stations, Beard knew he had to look a little closer. He trusted that somewhere in this palace of processed food, he could find some proper nutrition.
Beard was not your average commuter. His job -- inspecting cellphone towers across the country -- required him to be perpetually on the road, which meant he ate at gas stations four or five days a week. Kum & Gos and Kangaroos were his regular lunch haunts, a meal plan ideal only for an actor trying to pack on weight for a role as a truck driver. But Beard ain't in bad shape -- because he basically hacked the junk-food matrix.
Yes, at one time, Beard was tipping the scales at 240lb. Like many of us, he went through college on a less-than-stellar diet; after going to work at Teach for America in Kansas City, it got worse. His daily breakfast stop was Casey's General Store, where he'd down two slices of breakfast sausage pizza, a Red Bull, and a cake donut or two. After toying unsuccessfully with diets, he realized he just had to make wiser choices, and shed about 80lb.
Later, when he was in road warrior mode, he decided to apply the same principles. Over one month, he stopped at 200 convenience stores in nine states, from urban areas to the middle of nowhere, and put together a diet of real food that helped him stay in shape. Beard tracked the journey on his blog and Instagram, and while he's now Gas Buddy's evangelist for healthy eating at gas stations, he took some time to explain to us how he does it. And proves that "I'm on the road" is never an excuse to subsist on Doritos for dinner.
What should people eat to stay healthy on the road?
Frank Beard: There's an open-air cooler in almost every convenience store. Those coolers are a go-to for sandwiches, veggie trays, and snack packs with fruit and other fresh stuff. People don't even know that. They have it beaten into their heads so much that eating at a convenience store is unhealthy, they'll literally walk right past it and on to unhealthy stuff. I tell people (gas stations) have fruits and veggies. They'll see one the next time they go and tell me, "Wow, you know, I never knew they had that." Like somehow it's invisible until you know to look for it.
Beyond that, look for anything -- ANYTHING -- that's not fried. Grilled chicken, breakfast sandwiches that don't have sausage. QuikTrip has one of the most impressive selections of salads I've seen anywhere, convenience stores or otherwise.
What if you find yourself at a tiny store in the middle of nowhere that has nothing?
Beard: My first day of the experiment, I was out north of Ft. Worth and going down this rural highway for three hours. I probably stopped at every convenience store along the way and found nothing. One had this absurdly large hamburger called "The Chief." Another was this German bakery that had bratwurst and sausage and pastries. But nowhere had anything fresh.
If you find yourself in a position like that, just stick to the basics. Low-sugar snack bars like Quest or KIND bars. Get a flavored sparkling water -- it has the same mouthfeel as soda but no sugar. And you can almost always find fruit by the checkout register. Also, mixed nuts are great because you can snack on them while you're on the road and they keep you full. You won't end up stopping over and over for unhealthy stuff.
What are the best stores to look at for healthy food?
Beard: Nationally? QuikTrip has that fantastic selection of salads. I think Kum & Go has a nicer decor than Starbucks, Wi-Fi, lots of USB ports, and the best selection of healthy snacks I've seen. They're so nice, people don't even realize they're gas stations.
Locally, there's a place in Minneapolis on 36th and Lyndale, and the owner, Lonnie, stocks the place with healthy, local stuff from around Minnesota. Everything from hot sauce to snack bars to locally sourced kombucha.
In Bend, Oregon, a guy named Kent Couch owns the Stop and Go. He has this whole mad-scientist aura about him. He came up with a way to put wooden skewers on chicken strips, line them up in a heater so you can just grab them, and eat them in your car so the steering wheel doesn't get messy.
The best ever, though, is Papu's Cafe in Kansas City. The guy who owns it is from Pakistan and took out a loan to buy the gas station he worked at when he was studying art history. He grinds his own spices, makes his own blends, and cooks out of a kitchen in this tiny Shell station. It's the best Mediterranean food I've ever had.
What have you learned from eating in so many gas stations?
Beard: That if I have to, I can tough it out (on the road) eating Clif Bars and beef jerky at a caloric deficit. But in terms of things people can take away, what's really surprised me is that there was a lot of healthier food in convenience stores, and stuff I would eat at home. I learned how much the (convenience store) industry is behind putting healthier food out there. Nobody's shamed them into doing it; there's no Super Size Me about eating at convenience stores. It's a voluntary effort.
Maybe they haven't quite figured out how to do it, but they know having higher-quality food is the future. And when you think about it, this is an $800 billion-a-year industry with 154,000 stores on prime real estate on the best roads and the best corners. And if they start selling healthier food that allows people to make better decisions, that's setting everyone up for success.