A dear family member asked me for help the other day on how to travel more healthfully. She has found herself completely outside of her normal routine of early morning gym work-outs and access to healthy foods now that she travels regularly for work. This is a common problem for many people who travel long distance on a regular basis. At different times in my life, I have had jobs where I either traveled out of state or worked long hours with long commutes. Neither situation is conducive to healthy choices but there are some strategies that I have found to be helpful.
Traveling by Plane
In the U.S., airport and plane food is usually limited to certain chains, vending, and candy. These items are typically higher in fat, calories, sugar, and salt and lower in dietary fiber. If you travel a lot, then consider having a plan to handle this problem, otherwise, you might find yourself with a slow yet relentless weight gain over time.
Brown Bag It
Have a “pack routine” for food that is similar to the way you pack your toiletries kit. I typically pack the same non-perishable food items for snacks to help me survive the weird cravings that develop when I travel by plane. It’s sort of like I have a “fat and sugar” magnet attached to my tongue that gets activated with travel. My snacks have purpose – here they are.
Good all-around snack bar:
* Kashi TLC Bar: 6 grams protein, 3 grams fiber, very little sugar, 140 Calories
The faux-Snickers Bar experience
* Zone Perfect Bar: 14 grams protein, 3 grams fiber, 210 Calories (vs. Snicker’s 250 Calories with 2x as much fat and sugar, and only a 1/3 of the protein)
I want fat and salt now, please
* Nuts: High in good fats (“mono” fats) but also high in calories. I measure only ¼ cup into the baggie so that I don’t overeat. I’m less likely to eat French Fries or chips if I eat nuts as a snack.
* Whole Grain Crackers: Gives me crunch without resorting to chips. I love Kashi crackers. And yes, I do count out the number of crackers (about 10 crackers is 100 calories). If I eat 100 Calories worth of potato chips, I’m just getting started, whereas I’m satisfied with the crackers.
Chocolate is my friend
* Dark Chocolate: high fat, high calorie, but very satisfying. For some reason, I don’t overeat on fine dark chocolate, but I could eat myself sick on chocolate donuts. Go figure. I limit myself to 1 ounce of dark chocolate (about 1/3 of a standard 100 gram bar). Dark chocolate has less sugar and more anti-oxidants than milk chocolate.
Just say “No”
* Resist the urge to accept cookies and chips as the freebie plane snack. Pretzels are the better choice for calories, but be aware that they are high in salt.
* If my flight goes through dinner, then I try to bring a hot dish bought from a healthier chain restaurant before I go to the airport. Here in Colorado, we have “Noodles & Co” as well as “Tokyo Joe’s” – both have healthier options that include whole grains, lean protein, and veggies.
* If I’m stuck eating airport food for a meal, then I practice “damage control.” If I can afford it, I look for a better quality sit-down restaurant like Wolfgang Puck’s Express where I’m likely to have a greater variety of healthy food choices.
* If I’m stuck getting bar food, then I try my best to avoid deep-fat fried food. Ask if you can replace the fries or onion rings with something else - baked potato, garden or mixed green salad, or a side of veggies. In my opinion, it is worth paying extra for the substitution.
* If available, I have skim milk with my meal. If not, I’ll choose either 2% milk or water.
* I DO NOT get milkshakes, regular soda pop, sweetened ice tea, or fancy-schmancy coffee drinks – too high in calories.
* I drink plenty of water (about 2 liters or 8 cups) when I have to travel all day.
* I never skip a meal.
* I eat at least 20 grams of protein per meal.
* I eat a healthful snack in between meals.
* I try not to go more than about 4 hours between main meals.
* These basic rules help me avoid overeating no matter where I am.
Fast Food Tips
Most of the chains will have nutrition information posted on their website, but they won’t always have a Nutrition brochure available at each store. Here is a listing of some common chains at airports and their link to Nutrition information. You can almost always find a "healthier option" at these places, believe it or not!
Subway is my favorite fast food shop since the menu clearly identifies the lowfat items and you can pile on extra veggies.
* I usually get the Grilled Chicken sandwich (not crispy), and a salad with dressing on the side (and I don’t use all of it). If I’m craving dessert, I’ll get the yogurt parfait which is not nearly as high in calories as I would have thought (160 Calories with granola).
* For Breakfast, the Egg McMuffin (no sausage) isn’t a bad choice. Adding Canadian bacon or ham will add protein but it also adds a lot of sodium.
Note that the Mandarin Chicken Salad (entrée salad) with all the fixings will run you about 550 Calories – not bad for a main meal. If you are eating the salad in addition to a sandwich (hopefully the grilled chicken), then you can save about 150 Calories by skipping the crispy noodles and using half the dressing.
Their Nutrition information page is “under construction” so I have linked to caloriecount.com instead.
* Travel as light as you can so that you do not experience pain while walking with your carry-on luggage. Wear good walking shoes or sneakers. Walking the airport is great exercise.
* Stay in hotels that have an exercise room, gym, or pool and work-out daily if you can. Try to create a "habit of exercise" in the same way that you perform other routine activities of daily living (e.g. showering and tooth brushing).
* If the hotel has an elevator, then it will also have a staircase that no one uses! Do stair climbing if your joints can handle that. Stair climbing is a great way to burn calories.
* If you are located in a safe walking area, then consider going for a walk before and after your business day. If not, then consider asking your host business where to walk during breaks and lunch.
Traveling by Car
I use a mini-cooler to store perishable foods and drinks. The nice thing about car travel is that you can bring whatever you feel like since the cooler can sit in the back seat, ready when you are. I throw out perishable foods not eaten by the end of the day, and then buy more ice and perishables the next day if I am still traveling. Most towns have a supermarket so you are set for those items. Here are things I typically bring with me.
Yogurt (single-serve containers)
Hard boiled eggs
Cold mixed salads
Soy milk (single-serve containers)
Whole wheat pita bread (easy to pack, won’t squish like bread)
I put these in a bag near the cooler:
Whole wheat crackers
Kashi TLC Bars
Zone Perfect Bars
Non-edibles: napkins, spoons, forks, knives (I travel with plastic), and extra plastic grocery bags for garbage.
If I have no food in the car, then my order of preference for highway food is:
1. Casual sit-down chain (e.g. Applebee’s Weight Watchers Menu)
2. Fast food (e.g. Subway’s lowfat subs).
3. Convenience mart (like 7-11) – only for emergency food
Good luck finding fruit or veggies at the convenience mart. If you have to get your food from a mart, then my recommendation is to get yogurt and skim milk from the cooler section, cereal, and maybe peanut butter and whole grain crackers or whole grain bread and make sandwiches for a meal. If you can find low fat lunch meat, then that would work for sandwiches too, but keep in mind that they are very high in salt. If you can control your portion size of nuts, then buy those too. Sometimes you can get sandwiches pre-made, but I would avoid the lunch meat subs – they are a nutrition nightmare. Jerky provides lean protein, but it is very high in salt. Remember to get plastic spoons and knives – usually free and available near the coffee bar or microwave.
I know that some of you travel quite often. I would love to hear what others do to handle food and exercise while they travel. Please comment below!