By Frank Beard
I never used to concern myself with healthy living.
That was a topic for folks who struggled with their weight and went on diets—not me. I was slim and athletic throughout high school, and, like many teenagers, I assumed that the way things were at the time was the way they are. It never occurred to me that I might change.
But I arrived at college with poor diet habits, and I immersed myself in the ever-present pizza, cookies and dining hall choices. I kept my fridge stocked with an endless supply of sugary sodas and energy drinks to fuel my late-night study sessions, and before long, I noticed that something wasn’t right.
Simply put: I had become fat.
I lost the weight eventually—80 pounds. I learned to develop a healthy relationship with food, and I spent a few months tracking everything I ate in order to build better habits. I lost most of those 80 pounds within that first year, and the rest disappeared over the course of the next few years.
Along the way, however, I discovered a passion for fitness and health. These days, I’m an active endurance athlete, meaning I like to run, cycle and swim. I also pride myself on my ability to prepare quick, simple and healthful meals. But the entire experience brought me into the discussion about what it means to live a healthy life, and I began to notice something: “Eating out” is not looked upon kindly. In fact, it’s frequently seen as part of the problem—especially with regard to weight gain.
We hear this all the time. Folks complain that they gained 20 pounds because they’ve joined coworkers at restaurants for lunch, or they blame fast food for their failure to manage their weight. Time and time again, it’s the same basic message: Eating out will negatively affect your health.
But there’s just one problem: It’s not true. A person can shop at the most upscale grocery stores
and still be unhealthy—if they buy the wrong things. Restaurants, convenience stores and even fast-food establishments? They’re no different.
I learned this lesson through experience. Last year, I accepted a job that requires four to five days a week of travel. I’m constantly on-the-go—flying out on Monday and returning either Thursday or Friday. By all accounts, I should’ve gained weight and become less healthy. But that never happened. I feel fantastic, and I’m healthier than I’ve ever been.
The truth is that “eating out” is a rational choice in our modern way of life. We work long hours, have busy schedules, and some of us just don’t want to prepare our own food. It’s perfectly fine to stop at c-stores and restaurants during our lunch breaks, and we shouldn’t feel guilty for doing so.
That’s why I decided to do combat this myth by doing something drastic: For 30 days, I ate exclusively at gas stations. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks—everything. I traveled across nine states during that time, and I visited more than 200 stores. I wanted a challenge, and let’s face it: unhealthy. Roller dogs, big gulps, Slurpees and aisles of candy and chips—you know what I mean. But if I could immerse myself in that environment and remain healthy, then perhaps I’d have something powerful to contribute to the discussion.
I began by tracking everything on MyFitnessPal, an online food journal—with a mobile phone app—that tracks every calorie consumed. It also has a social networking component letting folks view my progress in real-time.
I also shared daily narratives with Reddit.com’s /r/loseit community—one of the largest weight-loss and general health forums on the Internet. And I posted pictures of innovative stores and healthful purchases on Instagram at @30daysofgasstationfood—an account I continue to update as I travel around the country.
To judge the success or failure of the experiment, however, I examined two criteria: First, I monitored my weight. I began the journey at a healthy 163 pounds; my goal was to stay under five pounds of fluctuation. I also used subjective assessments of my physical and mental well-being. In other words: Did I feel healthy? After all, it doesn’t matter what the scale says if we’re sluggish, tired or feeling sick.
For the first week and a half I worried that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I was mostly outside of Dallas and Fort Worth, and I continually encountered the sort of gas stations that reinforce the “nutritional desert” stereotype. I was fully prepared to tough it out, of course—to spend a month eating snack bars, beef jerky and the occasional chicken sandwich at a caloric-maintenance level in order to avoid gaining weight. As I traveled to other parts of the country, however, I began encountering nutritious food.
Rather than the c-store industry being the antagonist to my story as I initially believed it would be, I found fruit, vegetables, healthy made-to-order menus, and significant, serious efforts on the part of stores to put healthful options in front of customers. And as the experiment gained attention and I connected with folks in the industry, I discovered that we share many of the same goals. I learned about NACS, the Partnership for a Healthier America, and I spoke with folks at various stores who offered support and encouragement. The c-store industry as a whole, I discovered, is already invested in the effort to make healthful food widely available.
When it came time for a final weigh-in, I discovered another surprise. Rather than gaining weight, I lost six pounds. I didn’t need to lose any weight, of course, but I did notice increased definition in my midsection, arms and legs.
I was almost sad to see the experiment end, because it added a simplicity to my life that I rather enjoyed: Visit a c-store, open MyFitnessPal and scan the barcodes on whatever I purchased, and use that data to make informed decisions throughout the rest of my day.
Eating exclusively at convenience stores, it turned out, actually made my life more convenient.
This doesn’t mean my journey was without its challenges. Locating vegetables was often difficult, for example. I found them at large chains like Sheetz and Kwik Trip, but rarely inside smaller stores. This is concerning because consumer surveys show that folks are increasingly turning to c-stores not just for snacks, but for actual meals. It doesn’t make sense to exclude an entire food group.
I know there’s concerns with spoilage, of course, but why not consider frozen, steamable veggies? I recently purchased a 12-ounce bag of broccoli from the frozen food section at HyVee, emptied half of it into a Ziploc “Zip n’ Steam” bag, and fired up the microwave at the HyVee Gas across the parking lot. It took two minutes—roughly the same time as those ubiquitous, half-pound burritos. Develop some single-serving packs, offer four or five seasoning choices at the existing condiments station—or better yet, work with local spice companies to offer their products—and voilà: a simple, low-spoilage method for selling veggies.
Whether you do that or something else, you have to spread the word. I frequently chose stores based upon split-second decisions at intersections, and I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of great choices since there’s often no way of knowing what’s inside. Or rather, I know there’s 79-cent big gulps for sale because it says so on the front of the building, but fruit, veggies or high-quality food? Not so much.
That’s why you have to shout it loud and proud. Take Pilot’s PJ Fresh locations, for example: modern logo, use of the word “fresh,” large pictures of healthful food on the sides of the buildings—there’s no question what you’ll find inside. Or just keep it simple. Stick a sign in the grass near the road, attach a few to the gas pumps or hang a banner from the front of the store—tell people what you sell.
After all, there’s real innovation taking place in the c-store industry, and it’s a shame that more folks aren’t aware. Here’re some examples of what I encountered:
- Sheetz sells numerous, high-quality options of whatever you’re looking for. If you want a snack bar, they have the delicious, low-sugar brands I often see at high-end grocery stores. If you’re struggling to kick the sugary-soda habit, they have nearly every flavor of Perrier. Want an actual meal? Their made-to-order menu is fully customizable and goes far beyond the typical pizza and sandwich options. If you reach the register and decide you want something nutritious, you’re in luck since they stock healthful food within an arm’s reach. Not only are there bananas, oranges and apples, but you’ll find Rhythm Superfoods’ Broccoli Bites—one of my favorite snacks.
- If you’re in Indianapolis, visit the new Ricker’s locations. Whereas stores like Sheetz and Wawa sell practically everything, Ricker’s has narrowly tailored their focus to do specific things very, very well. Their made-to-order options are limited to the sort of food you might find at Chipotle, but the quality is unparalleled—the best I’ve ever had at a c-store. And while I’ve yet to acquire the taste of coffee, it didn’t escape my attention that their self-serve machines look almost identical to what I’ve seen in Caribou Coffee and Starbucks—fresh-ground beans and all.
- Every Love’s Travel Stop offers fresh fruit and veggies in 12-ounce plastic containers. They’re usually packed on ice near the register, and I’ve seen everything from carrots, cucumbers and celery, to watermelon, cantaloupe and pineapple.
- Kwik Trip locations are similar to small grocery stores, and I’m such a fan that I made a YouTube video about my visit to one in Marshalltown, Iowa. Stopping by for a quick meal on your lunch break? I bought a turkey sandwich that came on cranberry rice bread, and I’ve also had broccoli and cheddar soup. Or perhaps you’re leaving work and need something quick for dinner. They sell frozen salmon fillets, ground beef, milk, eggs and a large assortment of fresh produce. One store in Cedar Rapids carries almost 20 types of fruit and vegetables—everything from avocados and onions to bananas and nectarines. And my conversations with customers confirmed that they do, in fact, view Kwik Trip as a viable alternative to the grocery store; it’s more convenient.
- Kum & Go sells many of the traditional and—dare I say it—unhealthy options that we all know and love, but alongside those are more healthful choices. I can get a grilled chicken and ciabatta sandwich that comes in at just over 300 calories. And for breakfast, they have a low-calorie English muffin with egg whites, turkey sausage and cheese.
- After my recent presentation to independent c-store owners at the Harbor Wholesale Foods 2016 Summit, I spent an hour with Kent Couch at his Stop N Go store in Bend, Oregon. We all know Kent for his absolutely phenomenal growler-filling operation—which offers more than 35 types of craft beer—but he also has around 15 types of kombucha on tap, and my breakfast burrito was cooked fresh at the store. It looked and tasted similar to the ones I make in my own kitchen.
And that’s the point: Whether it’s a state-of-the-art Sheetz location or a smaller, independent operation, there’s a common thread that unites the best c-stores: quality.
I don’t go out of my way to visit Sheetz and Ricker’s because they’re the biggest, the fanciest and have the most upscale buildings; I go there because they sell high-quality products. It’s the same reason I’d drive an extra 10 or 15 minutes to visit Kent Couch’s store. No matter how big or small a store may be, quality matters.
It’s been a fascinating journey. I began this experiment motivated solely by the desire to prove a point about healthy living, and I’ve since become immersed in an industry that, I believe, is on the forefront of innovation in this area and works hard to serve its customers.
Convenience stores have a real opportunity to help people live healthy lives. If each of us does our part, then I believe we can finally dispel the negative stereotypes and prove, once and for all, that eating out really can be healthy.
Frank Beard is a speaker, fitness and health writer, and advocate for healthful c-store food choices. For more about Frank visit FrankBeard.org.