Stay Healthy While You Travel
Don't let your trip derail your diet and exercise plans
By Shannon James
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
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 and exercise plans. Is it possible to stick to your diet and fitness program -- or at least avoid gaining weight -- while you travel? Experts say the answer is yes, but your chances for maintaining good health while you travel will improve with a little advance planning.
Fern Reis, chief executive officer of the branding company Expertizing.com, has developed a system for eating healthy when on the road. She travels with 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.
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:
Wellness coach Larina Kase, PsyD, MBA, has a few other tips for "traveling lean":
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.
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."
The most important thing to remember about fitness on the road, experts say, is to plan ahead. Normally, a good fitness program requires a routine, and a trip is a break in the routine. That means you need to actively look for ways to exercise, says exercise expert Todd Whitthorne. Your options on the road will probably be different than they are at home, but that can be good. Variety is a big part of enjoying exercise.
So when planning a trip, think about the activities that you like to do or would like to try for the first time. The Internet is a wonderful resource for travel, whether for a business trip or an unusual vacation -- walking tours, bicycle tours, etc. Find out:
Bring any equipment you think you might need -- shoes, workout clothes, exercise bands, etc. Another helpful tool is a pedometer, a device that clips to your belt and measures the total steps you take in a day. Most of us average 4,000-6,000 steps a day, but your goal should be 10,000-12,000, Whitthorne says. Many people on vacation will average 20,000 to 25,000 steps a day. A pedometer will give you a good indication of how much activity you're getting.
Consider your destination, too. Are you going to a large city, or will you be surrounded by large expanses of the great outdoors? Will it be a colder climate, or is it hot and humid? If you're not acclimated, temperature and humidity can get to you quickly. A few things to think about:
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:
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.
Fortunately, it's getting easier to eat well on the road, as the restaurant and travel industries respond to consumer concerns.
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 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.
Published February 2006.
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