Toothbrush? Check. Dress shoes? Check. Your diet? That's all too easy to forget. For those whose jobs require frequent travel, a balanced diet all too often goes right out the window along with a balanced work-home life. A study published last year in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that frequent travel not only expands the waistlines of businesspeople, it can also lead to weight-related medical conditions such as high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, especially in those who spend at least 21 nights away from home each month. You're hardly to blame: A hectic schedule coupled with limited dining options on the road are enough to derail the most determined dieter.
But even with the odds stacked against you, there are ways to maintain a healthy lifestyle while on the go, says Elisabetta Politi, nutrition director at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center. Planning ahead can go a long way. "If you have a plan, you're likely to do better because you're not letting your environment control you," she says. Here are a few tips to keep your regimen on track while you're on the road.
Pack some snacks
When packing your bags, make sure to throw in some healthy munchies. "We approach the food environment passively, and we don't do that with any other aspect of the environment," says David Katz, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. "If it's cold, we pack warm clothes, and if it's raining, we don't just hope to stay dry. We deal with environmental changes all the time when we travel, and food is no different." Katz recommends that alongside your dress shoes and tie, you throw in some wholesome snacks—like granola or fruit—to help you curb hunger pangs while you're in transit. This will help you stay in control of what you eat. "If I get hungry, the person who's in control of my dietary destiny is me," Katz says. "Not some nincompoop who stocks the vending machine."
Stay on schedule
One of the most challenging feats is sticking to a regular meal schedule while traveling. Flights can get delayed or canceled, stranding you in the airport terminal with nothing but a greasy something to wolf down. Long car trips can provide no option but a rest stop. That's why having healthy snacks with you is so vital. Frequent travelers also face time changes and jet lag, which can quickly derail an otherwise perfectly timed eating schedule. According to Katz—who says this problem also plagues shift workers like nurses and security guards—it doesn't matter when you eat as long as you do so regularly. "Getting used to a new schedule is difficult, and everyone adjusts differently," he says. "If it turns out that 3 a.m. is your time for dinner, then do it. A routine really helps regulate what and how much you eat."
People often mistake thirst for hunger, says Politi. Hydrating often can help prevent overeating. The Mayo Clinic recommends that men drink roughly 13 glasses of liquids each day, while women should aim for around nine glasses. But just like your diet, your drink choices can negatively affect your weight. When the drink cart makes its way down the airplane aisle, opt for flat water instead of soda to avoid empty calories (and the tummy growls often caused by carbonation).
Ditch the menu
When you're relying on restaurants at transportation hubs for frequent meals, you can save yourself the extra calories by simply ignoring the menu. "When we go out to restaurants, we want to eat what we won't eat at home," which often translates into sodium-packed dishes, says Politi. "If you don't look at the menu, you won't be tempted." Salad is the obvious choice, and most restaurants are willing to make modifications, such as putting the dressing on the side or swapping out included toppings (like fatty cheeses and meats) for healthier items, like black beans. Many eateries are becoming increasingly sensitive to your dietary needs. "Any fast-food or chain restaurant will have healthy options," says Politi. "It's up to you to make a good decision."
Politi also recommends checking out airline meal options before your trip, as some of the more specialized options—like meals made specifically for diabetic passengers—are often healthier than the standard choices. You can usually find menus on airline websites and request special meals when booking your ticket.
Wining and dining clients and colleagues is a major part of business travel. In order to make a good impression, you may feel the need to make reservations at lavish restaurants that serve decadent food. To avoid disrupting your diet, Politi recommends taking charge of the situation. "One of the things that I think works very well is being the first to order," she says. If you allow someone else to take the lead, you may feel obligated to order a meal that's similar to theirs, causing you to fill your belly with calories, fat, and salt. "Ordering first sets the tone of the meal," says Politi. "So when you feel like you may be peer-pressured into ordering something that's not good for you, just have the waiter start with you."
Don't forget to exercise
Just because you're on the move doesn't mean you should leave your exercise routine behind. Katz recommends making sure to stay in hotels with in-house fitness centers and do as you would if you were at home. You can also use any down time while you're in transit to burn calories. Simple exercises like neck and shoulder rolls and ab-strengthening tummy suctions (exhaling all the air out of your lungs and then sucking your tummy back toward your rib cage and holding for a few seconds before inhaling) can help pass the time on long plane or train rides. Katz also recommends taking advantage of long layovers. "Rather than hunkering down at the gate, I go for a walk," he says. "Airports are great places for walking," and provide an opportunity for much-needed exercise.