Eating well is complicated, and confusing, and difficult, even in the best of circumstances. When you’re spending your days in unfamiliar cities and the nutritional wasteland that is an American airport, it gets even harder.
Healthy eating on the road is a complex, challenging topic. Doing it right requires developing not only a strong understanding of what eating well actually means in the first place — based on actual science, not just whatever Instagram influencers are deciding is the hot new superfood this week — but also of the behavioral, social, and emotional sides of food. You need both pieces if you want to actually follow through with a plan for eating well, instead of just making it and letting it sit in a document somewhere.
A comprehensive guide for something that complex could fill a book — it’s the longest chapter in the Road Warrior book, and I still think there’s loads of things to say on the topic — this is not a comprehensive guide, it’s a list of tips and tricks.
A list of tips and tricks is still useful, however. The hardest part of any change isn’t doing the perfect thing (or even finding the perfect thing), it’s doing anything. It’s starting.
These tips help you are meant to give you some quick wins and good places to start on figuring out how to eat your best, so you can start feeling your best, whether you’re at home or thousands of miles away. Implement one, and when you’ve found some success, find another thing you can improve, either in this blog post, in the Eat chapter of the Road Warrior book, or somewhere else entirely.
Here’s the full list of five, just so you have it before we dig into each one:
- Define eating healthy
- Have a plan
- Have a backup plan
- Bring food
1. Define eating healthy
This may seem too simple to even mention, but it’s not. It’s a mission-critical piece of the puzzle.
I’ve explained why defining your terms is a required part of basically any productive conversation on the blog before. It’s also necessary for basically all outcome-driven behaviors, including nutrition. How are you going to “eat healthy” if you don’t have an explicit definition of what “eating healthy” means? What it accomplishes? What it looks like?
Imagine, for a second, that this was a business process improvement project we were talking about, and not an “eating well” improvement project. Imagine we were talking about information analysis, goal-setting and decision-making in that sphere. Would you clearly define the success criteria? The necessary behaviors and inputs? The rules and systems at play? Or would you just wing it based on what you’ve generally heard from people at the office, and online, and on TV?
Most people’s base conception of what “healthy eating” is loose at best. It’s also so often poisoned by weight loss culture, “common wisdom,” bad science reporting, memes, and gossip that if we’re going to truly eat healthy, we need to start by defining what we mean by “eating healthy” in the first place. How else are we going to know if we’re successful?
For my money, and for the rest of this article, I’d define a healthy diet as one that:
- Has adequate amounts of the nutrients necessary for life (protein, fat, micronutrients) and a high ratio of these to total energy
- Encourages insulin sensitivity
- Makes you, subjectively, feel good
- Is possible to consistently follow, forever
Broadly, I think the best way to do that is to mostly eat whole foods (that is, food that still looks like it did when it was picked, harvested, or slaughtered), prioritize eating protein and green things, and not worry too much about the rest. If you’d like more detail than that, you’ll (again) have to read the chapter in the book dedicated to the subject. It’s just too much to get into in a “tips and tricks” article.
You might have different constraints, different goals, or different opinions about what exactly constitutes a healthy diet, and that’s totally fine, as long as you know what you mean by that, in detail.
2. Have a plan
To come back to the “what if this was work?” analogy, when was the last time you did anything of strategic significance without some amount of planning? Without making choices about how you were going to do it?
Going into a food environment that is not set up for healthy eating — like an airport or a client dinner – without a game plan is setting yourself up to fail.
Any plan is better than no plan, but when it comes to planning to eat a certain way, most people fail miserably at making plans that actually stand up to any kind of adversity. I’ve seen so many “perfect” plans that don’t account for what happens when you’re hungry, tired, and/or in an unfamiliar place. And so, they get ditched.
Specifically, these faulty plans rely on lists of things to avoid (or not do) and the eternally-fallible willpower. I have a much more extensive post elsewhere on the blog about why willpower and “avoid” lists are ineffective nutritional strategies, but the long and short of it is:
- They don’t tell you what you should be doing
- They require effortful action
The most effective trick I’ve ever learned in encouraging other people to perform difficult behaviors (and the “you” that’s going to be put in these difficult food situations might as well be a different person, so we’re really both concerned about getting “others” to follow this plan) is to make the desired choice the default choice. To have a default choice, and then manipulate your environment and behavior through any number of psychological tricks like precommitment strategies, alter-egos, and more useful framing to make it so— in other words, by making a plan, and then spending your time and effort doing things that make sticking to the plan easier rather than just white knuckling compliance with the plan itself. Even if that means changing the plan!
3. Have a backup plan
Even the best plans have holes, and even if you did have a “perfect” plan, none of us are perfect enough to follow “perfect” plans perfectly. Which makes them not perfect.
You will inevitably mess up. Things will not go according to the plan, or the plan will be made invalid by some external situation (like a restaurant being out of something, or your flight getting delayed, or your flight getting canceled and you having to drive corner-to-corner through Indiana at 3:30 AM to make it to a meeting)1if that seems like an oddly specific example, it’s because it has happened to both me and Kennedy (my brother and co-author on the blog). Weather hits CVG hard.., or you will simply ignore the plan, because you’re a human, and as much as some of us would like to be, we’re not a rational, robotic species.
While the right eating plan is different for almost everyone, based on a number of factors, the right backup plan is basically the same for everyone.
First, remember that it’s not your fault when you can’t follow the plan. Be easy with yourself, and get back to normal as quickly as possible.
Then, use the moment where you couldn’t follow the plan as an opportunity to make the plan better, by using it to make backup plans and contingency plans. That is, you can’t avoid messing up, but you can avoid messing up in the same way twice. Not only does this exorcise some of the guilt you might feel for messing up by turning the “failure” into a learning experience, it will help you rewire the habit for next time.
All it takes is a few minutes’ thinking to consider what caused the mistake and develop a specific, concise contingency plan to divert that cause into a more productive outcome.
Let’s use donuts in the break room as an example.
Most mindless eating (and mindless everything) comes from habit loops that are patterned deeply within your brain. A trigger initiates the habit loop, an action takes place, and then there’s a reward for doing the action.
Presence of something is often enough of a trigger, especially when it’s not always around. If you’re an occasional smoker, think about resisting a cigarette when you’re offered one, even if you didn’t really want a cigarette a minute before. Triggered by offer, you take the action of smoking the cigarette, and get a nicotine hit as the reward. Every time you successfully execute a habit loop, it gets further reinforced and becomes more automatic, and so next time that smoke will be even harder to resist..
High-sugar and high-carb treats work in the same way. Eating sweet and calorie-dense food triggers an opiate-like dopamine response in your brain, thanks to our evolutionary desire of sweet and salty and calorie-dense food. So when you see donuts in the break room, that triggers the action of picking one up and taking a bit, which gives you the reward of that dopamine hit — and all of that happens at the semi-conscious level. You can try to resist, but your willpower, no matter how strong, is just not going to beat several million years of evolution (at least not forever).
But, you can short-circuit a habit loop by building a contingency plan that diverts or redirects it, as long as the plan is specific enough.
First you identify the habit loop trigger that’s causing issues. Second, you come up with a new action to perform and reward to receive instead of the one you are trying to get rid of. By doing this, you can essentially hotwire the habit loop l plan that uses the same trigger but hotwires it to have a different action and reward.
So, if seeing donuts in the break room is a trigger to eat a donut, what could you do that isn’t eating one and then how else could you give yourself a little dopamine hit? Be specific and positive—a stranger should be able to execute on this contingency plan, and it should have a novel, positive thing at the end to reinforce rewired habit.
It could be sending an email to the team that there are donuts in the break room (which has the secondary benefit of getting rid of them faster), and then playing a round of Candy Crush or checking twitter instead.
You can even replace eating an entire donut with eating half of a donut or a quarter of a donut for starters, just to prove to yourself that you can effectively change the behavior. You might have to try a few times to find one that consistently works for you.
Also, just to note, this doesn’t mean that you mustn’t ever eat donuts and be a healthy eater. It just means you’ve got to do it intentionally and in moderation, not just because they were there.
4. Bring food
It’s not always possible, but if you know you’re going to be in a hostile food environment for a while, one of the best ways to make sure you have access to nutritious food is to bring it from somewhere else.
This is not exactly novel advice — any number of travel blogs and fitness influencers will tell you to pack relatively-resilient snacks like jerky, nuts, food bars that aren’t secretly just candy bars, and so-on. We’ve even discussed the best snacks to bring while traveling here on the blog.
But one thing a lot of folks don’t realize, even veteran travelers, is that you can bring pretty much any prepared meal through the TSA, provided it’s not primarily liquid (sorry, soup fans). Airports are one of the most nutritionally barren places anywhere, and often, the best thing to eat in an airport is something that didn’t come from the airport at all.
As long as it can survive a trip through security (or even a trip through the first leg of a connection, depending), a quick pit stop at Whole Foods, a Seamless delivery to the airport itself, or a bringing meal from home (you can buy disposable/recyclable containers on Amazon for quite cheap) are all effective ways to get more nutritious, better-tasting food for your journey. It requires a little more planning, but like most things that do, the outcome is worth the hassle.
You’ve probably heard the gospel of adequate hydration a million times. Consider this a million and one. Water is critical to almost all of your biological processes, and staying hydrated helps you think better, move better, reduce nagging joint pain, prevent headaches, and generally not die.
Some recent research has even suggested that saying hydrated can help you reduce your risk of colon and bladder cancer.
Even past that, hydration is a great tool for keeping your food intake in check in two important ways: it keeps your ghrelin levels low, and it can serve as a useful habit-diversionary tactic when snack cravings strike.
Ghrelin is a hormone that does a bunch of things, one of which is to make you feel hungry—when your ghrelin levels are high, your tummy rumbles and calorie-dense food seems more attractive.2fun fact: sleep deprivation has a similar effect, and an additional double-whammy effect on how efficiently your body can process sugar Here’s the problem: ghrelin is not just triggered by lack of food. It can also be triggered by dehydration. Staying hydrated means you never experience a dehydration-based ghrelin surge and the sensation of hunger that follows.
Ghrelin also spikes around habitual meal times or snack times, and then goes back down after about an hour.
As a result, not having super-regular feeding schedule and skipping meals occasionally can actually be beneficial for diet and hunger management overall—when you eat, you reinforce the biological feedback loop (technically a habit loop, same as with the donuts) and it becomes stronger over time. By forcing yourself to ride the ghrelin wave without eating, you break the feedback loop. This causes ghrelin release and the amount of ghrelin-induced hunger you experience to diminish over time.
As a diversionary tactic, drinking water can also serve as a habit loop interrupt, like I talked about above, and is why the classic advice “if you feel hungry, have a glass of water and wait 20 minutes before snacking” is not only good for the biological reasons—if it’s a dehydration-caused ghrelin surge, the water and time is enough to fix it—it’s good for behavioral reasons too.
By drinking water and waiting, you’re interrupting the habit loop by replacing the snacking action with another one: drinking water. By the time 20 minutes have passed, the habitual trigger is long forgotten.
I also recommend adding an explicit “reward” action before the wait, like allowing yourself to play a game on your phone or giving yourself a physical pat on the back to reinforce the habit.
If that weren’t enough, ghrelin also plays a role in your dopamine reward system (the one that ingrains habits in your brain), so succumbing to that ghrelin urge (especially if it’s not actually coming from a real need for calories) does a double dose of damage, reinforcing it both behaviorally and chemically. This is why snacking is such a hard habit to break for so many people . But the opposite is also true: fight the ghrelin and you’ll fight the snacking habit in two ways simultaneously.
So, buy a non-disposable water bottle and carry it around with you everywhere. Take a sip whenever your notice the bottle, until regular sipping becomes its own habit. Enjoy better skin and fewer hunger pangs as a result.
Part II (coming soon!)
That’s it for this list of tips. In a couple of weeks, we’ll be releasing a part two to this article, with a full rundown of five more tips, which (just as a teaser) will be:
- Don’t forget the grocery store
- Become a regular
- Don’t eat if you’re not hungry
- Customize every meal
- Be kind to yourself