Eating healthy while traveling – is it possible?

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Dear readers, recently I was traveling to Kazakhstan and had to take connecting flights totaling in almost 15 hours of travel time (including some 6 hours of waiting in Frankfurt for my connection to Almaty).

During this travel, I was trying to really see what would it take to maintain a healthy diet and if such a thing is at all possible.

Airports may lure you into breaking your healthy diet promise

One thing that happens is that the longer we travel, the more tired and sleep deprived we become and the more tired we are the less likely we are to make a healthy choice when it comes to food and drinks. Parts of our brain in charge of rational decisions and planning (pre-frontal cortex) become fatigued and emotional parts (like amygdala) take over, indulging to cravings for sweets, junk food and sodas. Also, fatigue changes our hormonal balance and potentially disrupts hormonal release sequence and that too can lead to altered decision making towards food and could modify our bodies’ fat-conversion processes. One thing to remember is that tired people who don’t get enough of sleep eat on average 500 extra calories a day.

Also, if you are on a weight loss diet, you have probably been consciously avoiding certain foods and drinks, willing yourself to opt for healthier options. Your will power gets depleted after repeated situations in which you have to say ‘no’ to a tasty sandwich, a salad dressing, an ice cream or a soda.

In airports, you may suffer total will depletion or what Dan Ariely in his latest book “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty” calls Ego Depletion where you finally succumb to temptation and buy a sandwich, breaking your dietary habit “just this once”.

So why do I say that airports are so perilous for a healthy diet?

They are like a separate space/time continuum in which clocks tick at a different rate, your mood changes (you are either bored or under stress or both) and available choices all around you offer almost nothing healthy; in airports you grow hungry faster and may feel that just because you are in transit, you are allowed to stray off your dieting path.

Naturally, the best way to fight Ego Depletion is to avoid temptation all together – in airports, especially if you spend hours there, this is likely to be next to impossible. Hot dogs, pretzels, Chinese fast food, McDonald’s, Starbucks and others are all around you.

Another danger is skipping your regular meals and getting too hungry, because then you tend to eat more and overeat, usually on something totally unhealthy. To add to this, calories are not easy to track in such environments and you may end up taking in more than you think.

Now, to allow yourself a food adventure for ‘one time only’ is not a good idea. We tend to self-signal, effectively sending messages to our own self-image about our actions and their values influencing our future actions and decisions. If we wear knock offs for example, Ariely’s research shows we are more likely to cheat on exams and in other situations and likely to be more suspicious of others – because we self-signal that our behavior is not really ok and that informs our other activities and judgments. Likewise, if we allow ourselves to break the dieting promise, we are likely to repeat it because we self-signal that we are not to be trusted and then, what the heck – might as well enjoy our food!

So if you ever hear yourself say “Just this once, I’m travelling anyways” raise a red flag and try to resist because it will almost certainly not end on “just this once”.

If airports are tough, planes are even worse

On my flight I could not identify a healthy snack and the ingredients on labels just horrified me.  The main meal was a beef or chicken choice so I opted for beef but in it there was a sauce of unknown origin and some mushed potato with baby carrots – not too bad but I don’t know about that sauce and what kind of mushed potato it was. There was a salad too but it came with a dressing full of preservatives, saturated fats and fructose, a piece of cheese, butter, white bread and a cake.
Now you can see what a calorie punch this all had packed, not to mention potential unhealthful ingredients, so navigate around these wisely.
In addition, some, if not most of airlines do not serve a lot of food on board, not even a snack so it could be a reason to become too hungry and overeat later.

So, the question is, what can you do?

My metabolism is like in a bird – I burn everything (anything) I eat so fast that nothing sticks. This is owing to my genetic makeup; both of my parents are like that too.
Now, not all of you are so lucky to inherit such genes and you need strategies and planning to avoid getting unwanted calories and grams during your travel. In addition, having an efficient metabolism still does not mean one shouldn’t watch for cholesterol, sugars, preservatives etc. – these can lead to a heart disease, cancer, diabetes or all three.

Plan ahead

Airport security complicates matters but here are my suggestions, which should be OK to carry both through the airport and into the plane (just put them in a transparent ziplock):

  • A mix of nuts, seeds and dried fruit – I took these with me in a ziplock bag and they were a life savior in moments of temptation both prior and post landing;
  • Fresh fruits – those less likely to bruise like apples and oranges;
  • Your own home made mix of high fiber cereals;
  • Low sugar protein bars;
  • Popcorn – try to pop them traditionally rather than in a microwave.

Stay hydrated

This is a tricky part in airports and on planes – pick up some bottled water after you’ve passed the airport security and sip on it while you wait – airports are air-conditioned and the air is dry, dehydrating you faster, making you tired and shooting you down a slippery slope of temptation.

Avoid sodas, energy drinks and too much coffee. Sugar will dehydrate you and fill you up with empty calories. Caffeine will help to keep you up and in moderation it does not really cause you to urinate more but sweeteners and cream are a sneaky way a coffee can deliver many empty calories.

On planes, you will certainly get water so take it and if there are other options, I suggest a tomato juice – rich in heart-healthy potassium and antioxidants, it is a nice and healthy drink at 33 000 feet – just do not put salt in it.

Check the company’s web site to see if they serve snacks and meals on board – if not, make sure you leave some of your own snack for flight time or you may buy some food just before boarding – look for salads (but without dressings), fruit, sea food and similar healthy options – these however may be quite expensive so it is always best to bring your own.

I still have a return flight from Kazakhstan to go through and I will keep on observing possible options for maintaining a healthy diet while traveling but remember – travel time should not be an excuse for breaking your healthy diet so plan ahead and make it both enjoyable and in the pink.

Yours in health,

Dr. Mo