5 Tips From Nutritionists for Healthier Eating While Traveling

October 28, 2021

Eating on the run is par for the course in business travel. We’ve all been there: Wandering the airport terminal before a flight or sprinting down the corridors in between connections, taking stock of the options for a quick snack or something more substantial to carry us through to home or hotel.

Ignoring the ubiquitous fast-food chains that can make airports feel like culinary wastelands, foodies with time on their hands can sit down and enjoy specialty regional eateries. Menus at One Flew South at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Legal Test Kitchen at Boston Logan International Airport, or Skillet at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, for example, offer balanced, healthy choices. (Food Network has a great comprehensive list.)

Most of us, however, don’t have that luxury. For us, it’s grab and go, perhaps even at the first newsstand or kiosk we encounter. When sit-down salmon isn’t an option, how can travelers fuel up wisely? Here are top tips from nutritionists to help keep you on track during travel.

1.      Bring your own

When in doubt, experts say to skip airport choices altogether. Autumn Ehsaei, MS, a registered dietician nutritionist with Perennial Nutrition, always packs snacks from home, including nuts, seeds, homemade trail mix or fruit. 

“Mandarin oranges like Cuties are so easy to peel and eat, and provide a hydrating and refreshing option when you are traveling and might feel sluggish,” she says. Ehsaei also recommends baby cucumbers for hydration, snap or snow peas for crunch, or a nut butter and banana sandwich on whole-grain bread when long flight times call for a more filling option.

Haley Maturin, MS, LDN, a registered dietitian with Dietitians On Demand, packs Cuties as well. She also never leaves home without EPIC protein bars, which are 99% meat and spices. 

In addition, Maturin recommends Justin’s Classic Almond Butter packets, which offer convenience with no added sugar and only two ingredients. “Packing your own snacks from home will save you time, money and stress,” she notes. 

Bring a refillable water bottle, too. “Hydration is so important when traveling,” Ehsaei emphasizes, “and I find this is often one of the first things to go for many people.”

2.      Pick protein

Amy Fougerouse, MS, health promotion director of Corporate Fitness & Health, also packs snacks from home. Her go-to is nuts. “I always have almonds in my purse,” she says. “They are awesome for when hunger hits, and any nuts are great. Just a few really do the trick.” 

As a good source of protein, nuts can help you control cravings while on the road. “Protein makes you feel full, so foods that have a lot of protein in them keep you satisfied for a long time,” Fougerouse notes. 

Other protein options abound. Ehsaei and Fougerouse both approve of Greek yogurt, as well as simple wraps, turkey sandwiches on whole-wheat bread, or salads with a protein, such as grilled chicken. 

For a protein-filled breakfast, go for “an egg sandwich on an English muffin or wrap,” Ehsaei recommends. “Easy, nourishing, and quick.” Maturin echoes that with breakfast favorites of an egg white sandwich on a wrap or classic oatmeal. 

For plant-based protein, Maturin suggests hummus. “You can usually find hummus paired with veggies or pretzels somewhere in the airport,” she says. Maturin also grabs protein from small portions of packaged nuts and cheese, especially in containers that come with chicken or turkey breast pieces. 

While smoothies are an option for all three experts, they run the gamut between a healthy choice and the equivalent of a milkshake, protein being the key differentiator. “Look for smoothies that are made with real fruit and veggies, as well as protein, either from protein powder, yogurt or almond milk,” Fougerouse notes.

3.      Check ingredients and stay whole

The fewer ingredients in what you eat, the better, and nutrition experts aim for whole ingredients, not processed ones. Maturin counsels travelers to look at each ingredient on a package. 

“If you don’t have time to read each individual ingredient, then put it back,” she says. “A long ingredient list indicates a high level of processing. If most of the ingredients are things you can find in your kitchen — like cinnamon, egg or onion powder — the food item is probably healthy. Butylated hydroxyanisole is not.” 

Fougerouse offers that when a grain is in a food, the word “whole” or “brown” should be in front of it, such as whole wheat, whole rye or brown rice. These are healthy whole-grain options, as long as they aren’t preceded by “enriched white flour” on the ingredient list, which acts just like sugar. 

When buying packaged snacks, Ehsaei looks for items low in salt, added sugars, and saturated or trans fats. “Ideally, if you can find something with some protein, fiber and healthier, unsaturated fats, that option will be more filling and nutritious,” she says.

If all of this sounds like too much work, stick to single-ingredient whole foods. “Anything that’s a fresh fruit or veggie is not only nutritious, but also the ultimate ‘pure’ food,” says Fougerouse. Spinach, chicken, grapes or hard-boiled eggs are good, whole options.

4.      Avoid common pitfalls

Watch out for granola bars, which can be as bad as or worse than a candy bar. “Stick with bars that have a lot of nuts, like Kind bars, and stay away from anything coated in chocolate,” says Fougerouse. Maturin looks for bars that have “less than 20 grams of carbohydrates, 3 or more grams of fiber, no trans fat, less than 3 grams of saturated fat and, ideally, 20 grams of protein.” 

In newsstands, skip the chips, baked goods and candy. Dried fruit, too, can have loads of sugar. At restaurants or food stands, bypass fries, cinnamon rolls (the absolute worst option, according to Maturin), pizza, soft pretzels, donuts and anything fried. “These are all worse than a greasy burger,” explains Fougerouse, “because they are mostly refined carbohydrates with a lot of fat and no protein.” 

Beware, too, of the “salad bomb,” Maturin advises. “Salads can be a great choice, but if you’re not careful with the type and amount of salad dressing and your toppers, you can end up with a 1,000-calorie salad. Limit the candied nuts, dried fruit, bacon bits, croutons, cheese and crunchy noodles. Restrict the salad dressing to about 2 tablespoons, and don’t get fooled by low-fat options as these typically have more added sugar.” 

Liquid calories can also add up quickly, so be mindful of coffee shop specialties, which are “notorious for packing 60 grams of sugar or more into just 16 to 20 ounces,” Maturin notes. 

“Opting for a coffee with skim milk and a bit of sugar is way better than one of the fancier drinks,” Fougerouse agrees. 

Be careful of too much coffee, though. “Caffeine may be one of the most overused things I see people having while traveling,” Ehsaei says. “Powering up on coffee might seem fine in the moment, but it can affect your sleep, which is particularly detrimental if changing time zones and trying to adapt quickly.”

5.      Recover well after a splurge

We all have weak moments, and binges happen. “It’s not about doing something to counteract a bad meal or snack,” says Fougerouse. “It’s about getting right back on track.” Every meal is a new chance to choose well. She suggests a healthy dinner at the hotel after an airport lunch splurge, and “going for a walk or hitting the hotel gym is always an added bonus if there’s time.” 

Ehsaei concurs: “If you want some candy, just try to balance it with more nourishing options and plenty of water.”

When team-building nights out precede a long travel day, water is the answer. “The main reason hangovers feel so bad is because alcohol is so dehydrating,” explains Fougerouse. Day-after food choices should include fresh fruit, which has high water content. “There is some evidence to suggest fresh fruit helps move the alcohol out of your system,” she notes. 

Bananas are especially good because of their potassium. Oats, eggs and avocados are also wise options. Fougerouse cautions against anything greasy and suggests ginger or peppermint tea to combat nausea.

Perhaps one of the best tips for eating smart while in an airport is to pretend you’re not there. “I think one of the biggest things is to make every effort to eat like you would if you weren’t traveling,” Fourgerouse says. “If you normally wouldn’t have the nachos supreme, don’t choose that while in the airport or at your hotel.” 

That said, when inevitable stress hits, a little dark chocolate can come to the rescue. “It will release those ‘happy hormones’ and is high in antioxidants,” Fougerouse notes. “Just be mindful of the portion size.”

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Main image courtesy of Pablo Merchán Montes at Unsplash.com.

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The Deem editorial team brings important, informative commentary and data to travel managers and everyone interested in technology and the corporate travel industry.

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