Whether you're headed home for the holidays, taking off on a long-planned vacation, or traveling for business, being on the road can wreak havoc with the best-laid eating plans. Is it possible to stick to your diet -- or at least avoid gaining weight -- while you travel?
Yes, experts say, but it does take some planning.
Fern Reis, chief executive officer of the branding company Expertizing.com, has developed her own system for eating healthy when on the road. She travels with plastic Ziploc bags of raw vegetables, dried fruit, nuts, crackers, and a jar of peanut butter.
"Not only does this keep me on my diet, but it also protects me from starvation (or more likely, overeating) when delays occur on airplanes," says Reis. "It's not that difficult to stick to your diet when you're in a restaurant at a time when you're supposed to be eating; it's those, 'Oh, my god, it's 3 p.m. and I'm starving because I'm still on this airplane! that kill you."
Kathy McCabe, editor and publisher of the travel newsletter Dream of Italy, has developed her own tricks for sticking to her diet in what she calls "the land of carbs."
"It's hard to fight off packing on the pounds in Italy," says McCabe. Following the Italian way of living -- no snacking and lots of walking -- helps, but McCabe has also taken to bringing a box or two of bran bars with her.
"They have lots of nutrients and fiber, so I'll have one with my morning coffee instead of having a roll or pastry as the Italians do, or I'll have one as a snack," she says.
Pack Your Snacks
Reis and McCabe have the right idea, say nutrition experts.
"You never know when there will be long delays when you're traveling -- especially around the holidays -- so if you plan ahead, you won't be stuck going to the first fast-food place you find," says Samantha Heller, MS, RD, senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical Center.
Some portable snack options include:
- Raw nuts (but keep the portions to about 1/4 cup) and soy nuts
- Fresh or dried fruit
- Low-sugar granola bars
- Low-fat energy bars
- Mini carrots
- Bottled water
Wellness coach Larina Kase, PsyD, MBA, has a few other tips for "traveling lean":
- Don't leave hungry, or you'll be much more likely to make poor food choices. "Start off your trip on the right foot with a healthy meal before you leave," says Kase.
- When you reach your destination, look for healthy food options in or near your hotel. When you're pressed for time, you'll be less likely to run to the closest fast-food restaurant if you know there's a cafÃ© with healthy salads and sandwiches right around the corner.
- Don't think of traveling as a break from your regular life and healthy eating habits. "Calories count whether they are consumed in the air, on the road, or in a hotel," Kase says.
- Cut calories wherever you can. Avoid sauces, or at least ask for them on the side. Just ordering a sandwich without mayonnaise, for example, can save you 30 grams of fat.
Fitness expert Debbie Mandel, author of Turn on Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul, suggests filling up on fresh fruits and vegetables at local markets when you travel. Not only may you discover foods that you can't find at home, you'll reap the benefits of the fiber found in fresh produce.
"By filling up with fiber, you'll keep your weight under control," says Mandel.
Drinking plenty of bottled water will also help fill you up and keep you from feeling fatigued, says Mandel.
And don't forget to exercise, she adds.
"Speed up your metabolism," she advises. Walk, jump rope, use water bottles as weights, or do push-ups and sit-ups. ... These are all exercises you can do wherever you go."
Airports can be particularly dangerous for weight-conscious travelers, says Jyl Steinback, the author of 10 cookbooks for healthy eating.
"Finding healthy food inside an airport terminal can be quite a challenge," says Steinback. "Healthy choices are available, but often not as readily accessible as the pizzas, hot dogs, and other fast food items."
The best strategy is to travel with your own snacks, she says. But if you get caught in the airport without a stash of snacks on hand, create your own healthy meal. Buy a bagel, but skip the butter or cream cheese, and add a little jelly instead. Look for fresh fruit, low-fat or fat-free yogurt, salads (but watch the fatty dressings), and bottled water, skim milk, or small bottles of juice.
If you're on one of the increasingly rare flights that serves food, order a vegetarian meal, says NYU nutritionist Samantha Heller. You can also call ahead of time and advise the airline of any special dietary needs you have.
Eating out in restaurants presents its own challenges, says Steinback, but they, too, can be managed. Here are a few suggestions:
- Ask for substitutions. Choose salad, fruit, rice, or a baked potato instead of chips, fries, or coleslaw.
- Pay attention to what you choose on the salad bar. A salad soaked in oily or creamy dressing can be more fattening than a Big Mac and fries.
- Order half-portions, or share an entrÃ©e with someone else at your table.
- Eat only what tastes great. Don't waste calories on foods you can live without.
- Order a large side dish and a small entrÃ©e, or several healthy-choice appetizers instead of an entrÃ©e.
- Skip anything called "smothered," "crispy," crusted," or "sautÃ©ed."
- Don't order dessert right after finishing your meal. If you wait a few minutes, you may find you're not as hungry for it as you thought.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
What do you do if you're visiting friends or family? There are ways to negotiate meals -- even holiday meals -- when you're in someone else's home, says Samantha Heller.
It's always a good idea to (gently) remind the hosts of your dietary needs. If possible, offer to prepare a dish yourself so you have control over at least one item on the menu.
If that's not possible, pay close attention to the food choices you make, and watch your portions.
At a holiday dinner, for example, eat veggies or shrimp cocktail for hors d'oeuvres and leave the cheese cubes or mini-quiches alone. Choose white-meat turkey and skip the skin (even if it is the best part!). Sample the stuffing if you want -- the operative word being "sample." And don't necessarily skip the pumpkin pie. Pumpkin is loaded with vitamin A and is good for you; the whipped cream and the crust are not. So eat a sliver of the filling and leave the rest on your plate.
"And if you must self-medicate to deal with all those relatives," Heller says (we all know what she's talking about, don't we?), choose a light beer or a wine spritzer instead of the eggnog or something harder.
Finding Help Along the Way
Fortunately, it's getting easier to eat well on the road, as the restaurant and travel industries respond to consumer concerns.
For example, Marriott Hotels & Resorts' "Fit for You" program includes low-carb, low-cholesterol, and low-fat meals. And more and more restaurants, including fast-food chains, are offering healthy choices. Many have web sites you can check before you leave to see where you're likely to find diet-friendly options.
There's even a new book -- Healthy Highways: The Travelers' Guide to Healthy Eating -- that can help you make healthy choices no matter where you go. The book, written by David and Nikki Goldbeck, features more than 1,900 health-oriented eateries and natural-food stores in all 50 states, complete with directions from the nearest highway or main road.
So before you hit the road, have a plan, pack some snacks, and don't forget: You can "travel light" -- and still enjoy the journey.