Strategic Diets: What to Eat When You’re Traveling

Avoid temptations, boost immunity, and keep your diet balanced on the road.

Welcome to Strategic Diets, a deep dive into specific nutritional needs for your desired outcome—from fitness goals to personal aspirations. 

Your Facebook feed is filled with pictures of high school acquaintances who somehow snagged a job that allows them to jet set across the globe (as you sit at your desk staring at a wall all day). Or maybe you’re one of the lucky ones inciting some serious travel-envy.

While it can be exciting, that consistent travel schedule takes a serious toll on your health. Whether it’s a two-day business trip or a weeklong jaunt overseas, being away from home throws your schedule out of whack. Not only does travel disrupt your meal-prepping session and gym routine, but it leaves you at the mercy of restaurant and convenience foods that tend to be highly processed (read: devoid of nutrients) and higher in calories than your homemade meals.

The poor diet, combined with the lack of exercise opportunities while traveling, can have you returning home with some extra baggage.

Frequent travelers have a higher risk of obesity, said Scott Cohen, deputy director of research of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at the University of Surrey. Plus, add the stress on your immune system from enduring a three-hour flight next to a snotting toddler, and your chances of returning home with a snot situation of your own is pretty high.

Luckily what you eat can help: the key is being prepared to avoid the temptation of convenience foods (which start looking oh-so-good after a two-hour delay) and choosing foods that will bolster your immune system, fill you up, and keep your energy levels and mood stable.

Whether you’re knee deep in a particularly busy travel period at work, have a series of bachelor parties filling up the spring calendar, or are finally indulging your mother’s plea for a visit home, here’s how to ensure your diet powers you through your time away from home.

The Most Common Travel Companions: Sugar and Salt

What you don’t eat is just as important as what you do.

The smell of fast food fries wafting over from the dining concourse and the buttery croissants taunting you from behind the glass at the coffee shop are hard to resist, we know. Airports and rest stops are brimming with sugar, salt and fat-laden foods that look tempting, but they also spike blood sugar, causing erratic moods and energy levels, offer little return in terms of nutrition, and increase the likelihood that you reach for another unhealthy snack soon after.

According to a 2010 study conducted by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics, dryness and low pressure in the air reduced the sensitivity of taste buds to sweet and salty foods by around 30 percent. Because of this, airline food is higher in sugar and salt to retain flavor at higher altitude.

“Proper seasoning is key to ensure food tastes good in the air,” confirmed Russ Brown, director of In-flight Dining & Retail at American Airlines. “Often, recipes are modified with additional salt or seasoning to account for the cabin dining atmosphere.”

And you won’t fare much better at a roadside stop where your options are reduced to fast food and processed convenience options.

Watch out for:

  • Sugar – “Filling up on a sugary snack will only leave you with a sugar crash later on,” said Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, Author of Eating In Color: Delicious, Healthy Recipes for You and Your Family. And while candy and soda is a no-brainer, sugar lurks in some seemingly healthy places, like trail mix and flavored yogurts so check labels before you dig in.
  • Airplane Sandwiches – “The sandwiches tend to be high in sodium because not only the filling, but also the bread contains salt,” said Largeman-Roth.
  • Soup or Salad – They don’t always mean healthy, warned Ashley Harris, RD at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Salads can be packed with high-calorie items such as bacon, cheese, nuts, and eggs. Stick with salads made with fresh greens and fruit or veggies, or ask for those items on the side,” she said. “Avoid creamy soups such as chowder or cream of broccoli and soups with high-fat meats like sausage.”

Support Your Immune System

Not only are frequent business travelers exposed to germs more often, but the jet lag and general tiredness from running to and from airports “can even switch off genes that are linked to the immune system,” Cohen noted in a paper that aggregated data from 15 years of major studies. This means frequent travelers are not as well equipped to fight off disease as people who travel less frequently.

So give your immune system a leg up by choosing foods that will help you ward off infection. Vitamin A (found in carrots, spinach, and sweet potatoes) can help to enhance the health of the mucus lining of your GI tract and nasal passages, which can be your first line of defense in avoiding the cold and flu. And vitamin C (found in citrus fruits and dark leafy greens) can help you fight off whatever your seat partner just sneezed out.

Aim for Balance

The best way to ensure you’re getting all the nutrients necessary to support your immune system (while also boosting your energy and combating the negativity-vat that is the security line) is to aim for variety through balanced meals: “Think ‘balance’ when you are buying a meal or snack,” said Harris. “Does this snack/meal contain protein? Does it contain fiber from fruit, vegetables or whole grains? Does it have too much sugar?”

Pick one produce item. Including at least one produce item in every meal or snack you choose won’t only help keep calories at a reasonable level and boost satiety of your meal, but will also help support your immune system.

Eat on a schedule. Often when traveling we’re awake at the crack of dawn to catch our fight, up late making changes to our presentation, and at meetings that extend through lunchtime. But even though your normal schedule is off, it’s still important to eat regularly. “Eat breakfast shortly after waking up, then plan on eating a meal or snack every 3 to 5 hours,” suggested Harris. “When we wait longer than 5 hours to eat, we get really hungry and tend to eat too much, too quick.” 

Divide your plate into quarters. This visual trick will help you ensure you’re getting a variety of nutrients, even if you have limited options or are forced to eat out for every meal. The ChooseMyPlate method divides your plate into four sections: ½ vegetables and fruit, ¼ meat, and ¼ whole grain—mentally divide your plate and fill each area accordingly to keep meals balanced.

Rely on portable snacks. “I always travel with an apple in my purse and a bag of almonds; That way I’m prepared whatever the options are,” said Largeman-Roth. Other smart snacks include crackers and cheese, protein bars (like Larabars and KIND bars, and Sabra Pretzel and Hummus packs. And if you’re having a hard time falling asleep on the hotel mattress or are up late answering emails, have a snack on hand: “If you go to bed more than three to four hours after dinner, have a small snack like half a sandwich (with turkey for tryptophan) on whole-grain bread, or a piece of fruit with nuts (walnuts help with melatonin production) or nut butter to give you consistent complex carbs with a little protein and fat to get you through the night with steady blood sugar,” said Harris.

What Nutritionists Eat on the Road

Traveling is stressful enough, take the guesswork out of what to eat by opting for one of these nutritionist-approved meals:

  • Hummus – “Most airlines sell a Mediterranean-style snack box with hummus, olives, pita chips, dried fruit and other better-for-you items,” said Largeman-Roth. “It may be a bit high in sodium, but it’s one of the best in-flight choices and provides a mix of protein, healthy fats and carbs to keep you fueled until you reach your destination. Rest stops also sell hummus and pita or pretzel combos now, which are a great choice.”
  • Nuts – “My go-to are almonds because they have the perfect mix of protein (6 grams), fiber (4 grams), and good fat to keep you feeling satisfied on your travels,” said Largeman-Roth. “Plus, they won’t go bad or get smushed. Package up 23 almonds (one serving) in individual bags that you can pop in your purse, backpack or briefcase.”

If you’re caught empty handed with a rumbling stomach, these “fast-food” options get a nutritionist’s stamp of approval:

  • Dunkin Donuts – “The Egg White Veggie Flatbread is packed with protein and is one of the lower sodium breakfast sandwiches you’ll find,” said Harris.
  • Starbucks – Hearty Blueberry Whole-grain Oatmeal; Starbucks Protein Bistro Box
  • McDonald’s – Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken
  • Chili’s – “Lighter Choice” Margarita Grilled Chicken
  • On the Airplane – The fruit cheese and nut plate achieves the balance of nutrients you’re going for, and provides a solid dose of fiber and protein.

Don’t Forget to Hydrate

At about 30,000 feet, humidity is less than 12 percent–drier than most deserts—that, plus being on the go will leave your body dehydrated.

It’s easy to gulp down water sitting at our desks, but when you’re on the move between the airport, the office and your rental car, it can be harder to remember. “Flights are very dehydrating—always buy a large water,” said Largeman Roth.

And no, a jumbo juice doesn’t count: “A large soda or juice can contain over 300 calories,” said Harris. “Choose water, unsweetened tea, or low-fat milk instead.”

Here are five easy recipes that you can toss in your carry-on for balanced, nutritious snacks on the go.