For the last five years, I have averaged three business trips a month–and while my eating habits at home are typically healthy, on the road my diet takes a turn for the worse. I overeat, and I make poor food choices.
This was especially true on actual travel days–whether I was driving or flying. My commute back to Birmingham, Ala., from a long week in Atlanta might include a stop at a fast-food restaurant for a nutritionally questionable meal and a visit to a convenience store for a high-calorie snack. Once at home, grazing continued until bedtime.
Then the regrets…
Even in the best of times, I’m not the most mindful eater in the world—throw in travel, and even my decent habits escape me. I recently reached out to diabetes educator Megrette Fletcher, RD, president of the Center for Mindful Eating, to try to understand why this happens—and what I can do about it.
“When we travel, our environment changes,” Fletcher says. “Your habits change. There’s a lot more external stimulus happening. The travel environment is very stimulating. It’s new, it’s shiny.”
Time zone changes and food availability fears replace other cues such as fullness. For example, I wasn’t all that hungry on a recent flight home from Austin, Texas. But I still ate a meal in Atlanta’s airport while making a connection. Fletcher suggested I might have been suffering from irrational feelings of fear and food insecurity. In short, when we travel, knowing where that next meal is coming from sometimes short-circuits our best intentions.
“You’re in a much more distracted environment when you travel,” Fletcher says. “There’s uncertainty around knowing when and if you can obtain food.”
I can’t remember a time in my life when I was desperate for food. I’m sure I’ve had legitimate feelings of food insecurity before, but those feelings seem out of place when traveling along a highway or flying domestically. What’s the worst that can happen, right?
But that doesn’t mean the feelings aren’t powerful. “It’s more psychological,” Fletcher says. “The internal conversation about food availability can trigger irrational choices. And having that conversation doesn’t decrease irrational thought. In fact, it can make irrational thought worse. I’m having irrational thoughts because I’m afraid.”
Fear isn’t the only challenge to mindful eating. We also give ourselves permission to try new things while traveling—like that Italian gelato that you can’t get back home. While it’s one thing to splurge on vacation, that’s the wrong attitude when you’re on a business trip. “You think you’re on vacation, but you’re really just traveling,” Fletcher says.
How do you overcome these fears and impulses to make smart choices? Fletcher offers these tips:
• Check in with hunger and fullness. It seems simple, but I seldom focus on these real eating cues when I’m traveling. In short: If you’re hungry, eat; if you’re full, stop. Eating breaks boredom and provides entertainment, but neither are healthful reasons to eat.
• When eating, take a break. “We can always pause and ask is hunger present?” Fletcher says. “The hunger you had when you began eating changes as you start eating. You don’t have to eat everything if you’re full.”
• Order healthy food first. You don’t have to start with an entrée. Instead, order healthy sides like fruit or veggies first. Then check in with your hunger before you order more. At least if you’ve chosen to eat for some reason other than hunger, what you’re eating is a healthier choice.
• Take food with you. To tackle the sense of food insecurity, pack simple, healthy foods that will fill your needs. “Try to bring fruits or nuts that will get through security, something with nutrition,” Fletcher says. She takes protein bars in her carry-on because they go through security just fine. “If I miss a connection, or if I don’t have a lot of time, I know I have a bar in my bag.”
• Drink a lot of water. In fact, if you're hungry, try drinking water first. Sometimes dehydration masks itself as hunger.
• Take a walk. Feeling the need to eat? Get some exercise. This might be difficult on a plane, but airport terminals are great big walking tracks just waiting for mall walkers. “Plan activities other than eating while you’re traveling,” Fletcher says. Exercise can take your mind off eating, and unlike that ice cream scoop or extra large portion of pub fries, it’s good for you.
“You’re probably going to have downtime when traveling,” Fletcher says. “And you need to fill it. If your habit is to go eat food when you’re traveling, you may need to think about something else to fill the time.”
Just thinking about what you’re doing is the first step toward mindful eating.