By Joe Wilkes

Sure, we all try to make the best eating choices, but sometimes events conspire against us and our options are limited. Maybe the supermarket's closed, or you're on a road trip with no civilization or Whole Foods in sight, or you're late for work and breakfast is going to be what you can grab from the mini-mart while your car's gas tank is being filled. While we'd never recommend your local gas station, liquor store, or convenience mart as someplace you could get a square meal, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. At least if you're armed with some information, you can mitigate the damage.

The good news is that a lot of convenience stores have started stocking healthier options. Many offer energy bars, meal replacement shakes, fresh fruit, or even hard-boiled eggs. You might have to dig around the bottom shelf of the beer cooler to find fresh food, but sometimes it's there. It's worth asking about, at any rate. Opt for cottage cheese when you can, along with a plain meat and bread sandwich (condiments on the side).

If eating in your car is becoming a habit, you might consider stocking the glove compartment with some healthy snacks. Unsalted nuts are a good portable snack. Or maybe keep a few P90X® Peak Performance Protein Bars in the car for emergencies. You can even order them with a thermal pack to keep them fresh and melt free. But of course, the best-laid plans often go awry, so let's look at some of the main categories of gas station cuisine and how you can make some smart choices after you make the not-so-smart choice to eat at the gas station.

The "vegetable" course

One of the most tempting options is a bag of chips. They're crunchy, salty, fatty, and delicious! And they're super-easy to eat in the car, with the only drawback being a potentially orange steering wheel—that and the salty, fatty part. But come on, potato chips are basically potatoes, right? And potatoes are vegetables. I'm eating a vegetable! Lay off! But that 1.5-ounce bag of Lay's potato chips (that's a small bag, not a Big Grab) will give you 225 calories and 15 grams of fat. A similar serving of Doritos (corn's a vegetable, too!) will run you 210 calories and 12 grams of fat. Baked Lay's only run 165 calories, have 3 grams of fiber, and contain only a little over 2 grams of fat. The only problem is that they taste like Baked Lay's. A compromise in the fat-vs.-flavor battle might be Sun Chips, which have the same calorie count as the Doritos but with a third less fat. They're also made with whole grains, which deliver 3 grams of fiber per serving, which will help you feel full longer.

In the "dairy" category of crunchables, i.e., Cheetos, the diet news is getting worse. A 1.5-ounce bag contains about 240 calories, 15 grams of fat, and almost no fiber. The baked version has 195 calories, 8 grams of fat, and still virtually no fiber. Nutritionally speaking, eating most of the "cheez" doodles and their ilk is only slightly healthier than eating the bag they come in. If you're desperate for a nacho-cheese-powder delivery system, you might consider Corn Nuts, which contain about 185 calories and 6 grams of fat; however, they also have 4 grams of fiber.

If you're on a low-carb diet, you might take a look at the unappetizingly named pork rinds. A 1.5-ounce serving packs 24 grams of protein; however, that serving also contains 15 grams of fat, 6 of which are saturated. But the good news is that they contain zero carbs. The other problem with pork rinds and almost all of the snacks in the chip category is the high sodium content. A small bag of any of these crunchy delights will give you about a quarter to a third of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) of sodium. Too much salt in your diet can lead to hypertension, among other problems including fluid retention, which makes you look as puffy as the salty "cheez" doodle you just ate.

BEST: Sun Chips, Corn Nuts, baked chips
WORST: Cheese puffs, potato chips

The meat course

Most gas stations or stop-and-go markets offer hot dogs. They're usually pretty cheap—that's because they're made with pretty cheap meat. You can check out my "9 Foods Not to Give Your Kids" article in the Related Articles section below to read more about why not to eat them, including the fact that a lot of dogs may be full of carcinogenic nitrates and nitrites, sodium, and saturated fat. Given the choice between the devil you know and the devil you don't know, gas station hot dogs are definitely the devil you don't know. Unlike the rest of the junk food in the joint, no one knows what's in those fatty little tubes. They don't have labels with their nutrition information, and if you slather on some nacho cheese and chili, also of dubious origin, you're really playing Russian roulette with your stomach. If I don't know what's in it, I won't eat it.

Speaking of playing Russian roulette with your stomach, do you know what's in a Slim Jim? An original Giant Slim (28 grams) contains 150 calories (120 from fat) and 13 grams of fat, 5 of which are saturated. It also will give you well over 400 milligrams of sodium (420 milligrams to be exact)—that's almost a fifth of your RDA. Beef jerky only has 73 calories per ounce, almost no fat, and 12 grams of protein. It is still high in sodium, though, and that's before you factor in flavors like teriyaki, which can ratchet the salt levels up another couple of notches.

BEST: Beef jerky or nothing (do you really think gas station meat is a good idea?)
WORST: Hot dogs, Slim Jims

The dessert course

Chocolate and candy are the most tempting items at the gas station. Who couldn't use a little sugar rush on the way to that 8 AM meeting, or a little boost to help you drive those last 50 miles down the road? With most candy bars, you can tell from the label that you're in trouble. A Snickers bar, which contains a few peanuts, may delude us into considering it a not-unhealthy option. But it still has 273 calories, 14 grams of fat (5 saturated), and only a paltry 4 grams of protein. And some of the "healthy" granola bars you might reach for instead can be just as full of fat and sugar. As always, it pays to read the labels. Your guilty pleasure may be more innocent than the supposed healthy choice. For example, I had always thought a Hostess fruit pie (or "liquor-store pie" as my friends' 4-year-old delightfully calls it) would be a healthier alternative than its corporate shelf mate, the Twinkie. It has fruit, right? A Hostess apple pie, though, has 480 calories and 22 grams of fat, compared to a two-pack of Twinkies, which has 300 calories and 9 grams of fat. You're better off not splurging on any of the items on the gas station equivalent of the pastry cart, though. Instead, save your indulgences for something really good later.

If your sweet tooth won't be denied, look to dark chocolate without any fillings. It's high in antioxidants, so you'll at least get some health benefits. But don't eat the whole bar. Just have a couple of squares and save the rest for later—beware the melt factor, though. Also, you can look for low-fat sweets like Twizzlers or Gummi Bears, which will give you about the same calorie load as a candy bar but about a tenth of the fat. Candy that doesn't come in one big piece can also help you control portions, because you don't want to get all of your calories from sugar. Have a couple of pieces and put the rest in the glove compartment—out of reach—or even in the trunk, if you're really tempted. Aside from being fattening, the high glycemic value of sugary treats will ensure you'll just be hungry sooner, potentially starting a bad pattern of roadside snacking as the day goes on. Foods that are high in protein and fiber will help you feel full longer and give you a steady energy supply instead of sugar spikes.

BEST: Dark chocolate, Twizzlers
WORST: Pretty much everything else

And of course, something to drink!

Here's where you can really get killed, dietwise. Beachbody® nutrition advisor Steve Edwards doesn't call soda "The Worst Food on the Planet" for nothing. A 12-ounce can of soda contains about 180 calories, all of them from high fructose corn syrup, the unhealthiest sweetener around. But of course, most convenience stores offer you more than 12 ounces to slake your unquenchable thirst. You can get the X-treme Gulp Mug at 7-Eleven—its 52-ounce capacity will give you over 800 calories, with absolutely no additional nutritional value. You could try one of those little Starbucks Frappuccino bottles instead. But they're even worse than soda. A teeny 9.5-ounce bottle contains 180 calories and 3 grams of fat. That's more calories than soda, and with extra fat! Who can resist? You can read more about these deadly coffee and juice concoctions in "Jumbo Juices and Crappuccinos" in the Related Articles section below.

Of course, the best thing to drink is a big bottle of water. There are tons of reasons to drink it, and it's a readily available beverage. If you really want a fountain drink or something with a little flavor or caffeine boost, go for some unsweetened iced tea or coffee—you'll quench your thirst and get a few antioxidants without the calories. And the caffeine boost can help keep you alert on the road. But watch how much caffeine you consume. Too much can make you jumpy, and it can have a diuretic effect, which can lead to dehydration, not to mention extra pit stops. Try to avoid sports drinks like Gatorade or so-called energy drinks like Red Bull—most of the energy comes from our old friend high fructose corn syrup.

BEST: Water, tea, coffee
WORST: Soda, sweetened coffee drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks

And to ensure you get the nutrients you need every day to stay fit and healthy, especially when you're on the go, don't forget to take your ActiVit® Multivitamins!