Crossfitters are fond of saying, “you can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet.” Regardless of what you might think about Crossfit, they’re right. Sure, you can work out enough to justify an absurd number of calories, but this still doesn’t make all those donuts you ate on the way to work healthy. In fact, all that sugar is probably wreaking havoc on your training. Not to mention your pancreas, brain, adrenals, abdominals, genitals, and wallet.
Intrepid travelers already know how tough it can be to eat healthy on the go. Air travel and hotels are like a black hole, junk food supergravity drawing you slowly into a singular abyss. Traveling light and border crossings make carrying food a logistical challenge, sometimes impossibility. Pair that with the lack of cooking options in most hotels, and it’s easy to go completely rogue. Even a cheapo butane camp stove and a styrofoam cooler are big luxuries when all you have is a motel-grade Keurig and a microwave.
About three months ago, I switched to a strict ketogenic diet. It was mostly an experiment–yup, I’m one of those guys–but I saw promising results almost immediately. In addition to having nearly endless energy on my runs, my mind was sharp, and I dropped twenty-five pounds in less than two months. Within a a few short weeks, I was within pounds of my race weight for the first time in years.
But my recent, somewhat abrupt, transition to nomadic life has been slowly chipping away at this progress. Airplane and train travel at odd hours, general poor planning, and exceedingly gracious hosts have had me making some less-than-stellar choices. Craft beer has been flowing. Dinners get pushed later and later into the evening. Margaritas and tacos? Hell yes! You can only eat macadamia nuts, pork rinds, and boiled eggs for so many days in a row, right?
Slip, slip, slip, blammo! Dietary relapse shark attack.
Traveling–even a modest amount–and staying healthy requires a a shift in thinking. Without sustainability, this whole thing falls apart quickly. Trust me.
So, I asked triathlete and registered dietician Beth Shutt–a coach at Boston-based The Core Diet–for some tips on staying healthy when the odds are otherwise stacked against you.
You’re Not on Vacation
Okay, okay. Maybe you actually are on vacation. Maybe it’s your annual runcation or a once-in-a-lifetime destination race. Or maybe you have a career-altering, 8AM presentation to the board. Do you really want to feel like complete shit?
Whether you’re traveling for a race, dirtbagging in your van, or are a corporate road warrior, you have to align your goals with your reality. Shutt suggests, “You just have to change your mindset to, ‘No, this is how I live. I have to make normal, good, healthy food choices, even though I’m eating out or whatever, all the time.’ It’s not kind of, ‘woo-hoo eating out, road trip on vacation.’ You have to be smart about it.'”
If you’re serious about training and staying healthy, you can’t continue to compromise. Think of eating right as part of your real job–that is staying in shape and living a long, healthy life. And maybe a bit of racing, climbing, or kicking ass in the conference room.
Business guru Peter Drucker famously observed, “What gets measured gets managed.”
If you’ve never kept a food log, do it for a week. You’ll be completely astounded at what you’re putting into your body. You don’t need any fancy tools for this–a pen and paper will suffice–though an app on your phone or the Internet will make things much simpler and substantially more accurate.
In addition to a reality check, this process will also help condition you to reading food labels and will teach you the real macronutrient content of the foods you’re normally eating. After a while, you’ll develop an innate sense for these things and you’ll can drop the food log. When you feel yourself slipping, pull it back out and and track things for a few days. That “oops” moment will jolt you right back into your routine.
This is critically important–and slightly more difficult–if you’re consistently eating out. Most restaurants don’t put nutrition information on their menus. You might get a calorie count if you’re lucky, but there’s some ongoing debate about how relevant calories are on their own. You’ll be forced to dig around online or summon a manager for the nutrition facts booklet (prediction: its long since disappeared.) Not exactly practical if you’re, for example, taking a new client out to dinner.
This is where an app like MyFitnessPal really pays dividends–those poor souls before you have already painstakingly entered all that information. Take a quick photo. You can always joke that you’re an Instagram food hipster and log it for real later.
“They’re adding fried food, or let’s say they’re putting candied pecans,” Shutt laments. “I’m from Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is known for adding french fries to all their salads. That’s just their thing.” Say what? Um, that sounds delicious.
But once you realize how many carbs that grilled chicken french fry salad really has in it, you’ll start to think differently. “If you take a look at that stuff, you’ll get a good eyeopening of really what kind of, ‘Wow, I didn’t know it was possible for a salad to have 1,800 calories.'”
“I went to a race in Germany once, and I’ll never forget. It was really one of the first times I had ever traveled overseas,” recalls Shutt. “I’ll never forget. I ordered a Coke. It was this little mini bottle.”
Most Americans have a major disconnect when it comes to serving size. Our parents insisted that we “clean our plates” because there were “starving kids” in some far-off place they’ve never actually visited. Well-meaning but grossly misinformed educators pushed the classic American food pyramid on impressionable grade schoolers, ironically largely responsible for today’s obesity and Type-2 Diabetes epidemics. We scarf down massive portions of exactly the wrong foods at the wrong times. We were set up to fail from the very beginning.
So what is the “right” portion size?
Learn to listen to your body, grasshopper.
Mindfulness is simply the concept of being present in the moment. Free of distraction, gleefully engaged, wholly focused on the task at hand. In the sage words of Vietnamese Buddhist monk and prolific author Thich Nhat Hanh, “Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present.” Many Buddhists equate mindfulness with meditation. Meditative eating? You bet.
When you’re really focused on what you’re eating, how it makes you feel, you’re hearing the real signals of hunger (hint: they’re probably not what you think), and you’re actually enjoying your food, your body will tell you how much to eat. It’s part of evolutionary biology that has been largely overridden by industry food scientists. When you really figure this out, you won’t need scales or food logs. You can just eat.
Turn off the TV. Put the phone away. Sit at a table with your friends or family, slow down, and savor the experience.
Have a Plan
Most serious competitors have experience planning. Endurance athletes have complex, periodized training plans. Fighters spend months or years analyzing their opponent’s tactics. Executives spend millions on competitive research. The list goes on…
“It’s not about willpower all the time,” says Shutt. “You can set yourself up for success, if you plan ahead a little.” At the end of the day, none of this works without a plan. Its conjecture at best.
If you know you’re going to be in-transit for most of the day, pack healthy snacks or meals. This works particularly well if you’re driving. Spend the day before prepping and pack a cooler. You’ll stay on course and save a ton of money.
Air-travel is a bit more challenging, but you can still improve the odds. Pack snacks or plan an intermittent fast. Stay hydrated. Just don’t leave yourself with only bad options. “If I have to eat out at a vending machine…yeah, I’m gonna make [a bad] choice,” Shutt advises. Know what your good options are throughout your journey, and stick to them. Have some go-to restaurant options that you know fit into your nutrition plan. Plan to shop. Stay in an AirBNB with a kitchen. Each will help you resist the deadly “I’m on vacation” trap.
By the way, if you’re using a food tracking app, set it up and learn to use it before you leave. Standing in the McDonalds line at DIA isn’t the right time to be doing this. Most of these apps let you set up a personal menu of foods that you typically eat. This takes time, sometimes weeks or months. Train at home just like you would with anything else.
This seems to be a recurring theme here…
Have a contingency plan. None of us are perfect. You will make mistakes. You will have to eat at places you’d rather not. Life happens, it’s not the end of the world. It might be just what you need.
“That’s a huge piece of it as well. That’s basically what yo-yo dieting is,” cautions Shutt. “I want to make good food choices 80% of the time. Really focus on, ‘I’m not gonna be perfect. It’s never gonna be perfect. There’s always gonna be a birthday party, there’s always gonna be a holiday party, blah blah blah.’ But if 80% of the time you can do really well, over a lifetime, that’s far better than 100% for three months, and then just going off the rails.”
The good old 80/20 rule. Economists call this the Pareto Principle. It’s a hypothesis that’s been well validated over the past 100 years.
Analyze your decisions and decide if they’re acceptable. Had a couple extra beers at your great uncle’s 98th? Cut yourself some slack. Ate a large pizza in the hotel room by yourself after you got hammered on $12 a bottle Michelob Ultra from the mini bar? Learn from your (very many, in this case) mistakes, forgive yourself, and move on. Don’t slip into a downward spiral of self-pity, self-doubt, and self-indulgence.
Try, fail, improve, win. Repeat.
After all, that’s what training is all about, right?