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Manuel's Top Five: Nutrition Tips for the Business Traveler

By L.K. Regan

It's the season of travel, to be sure—but not everyone that's on the road is on vacation. Many people are traveling for work, year round. And anyone in that situation knows that eating healthy can be a real challenge. Recently, we spoke to our nutrition expert Manuel Villacorta of MV Nutrition, MS, RD, CSSD, one of the leading nutritionists in the San Francisco Bay Area, creator of the RealJock Healthy Weight-Loss Programs, and founder of the interactive weight-management web site Nutrition for You, about his top five tips for eating out. This week, we asked him to help out our business travelers. For those that travel for work a few days of the week, most weeks of the month, how can you eat healthy on the road?

Manuel explains the situation. "When we talk about the business traveler, we are thinking of someone with very different needs than, say, the weekend vacationer," he says. "These people find it very difficult to eat healthy because they are constantly outside their environment. For most of us, we know where and what to eat—but out of our environment, we don't know where to go and can be left without options. This is a pretty much constant situation for business travelers, and it makes their nutrition challenges that much greater." Ok, so what is a nutrition-conscious traveling man to do? Here are Manuel's top five tips:

  1. Carry food with you. Planning is key. "I have a client who has lost 80 pounds traveling with his business," Manuel says, "eating out of his suitcase and in restaurants. It can be done, but you need to be proactive about it." One way Villacorta suggests is to pack healthy snacks. "Nuts, fresh fruit (apples are especially good), dry fruit, some of the less-processed nutrition bars." Wait, did he just say "nutrition bars"? Manuel clarifies: "In town, I'm not into nutrition bars, because they are fake food; but given the lack of available refrigeration, bars are an ok solution on the road." When picking a bar, look for ones with whole ingredients. "Pure nuts, pure fruits, whole oats and grains—bars where sugars come from fruits and fats come from heart healthy sources like nuts," Villacorta says. He recommends a few particular options: 18 Rabbits; Lara Bars; Kashi Bars. Remember also that these are snacks, not lunch or dinner—they are there to keep you from getting to hungry and losing your cool when faced with a restaurant menu.

  2. Eat often. Get too hungry and you will end up overeating, Villacorta says. It's as simple as that. "When all that's around you is unhealthy options, you will end up eating unhealthy if you are very hungry," he says. "If you're trapped with no option and you're hungry, you should eat—not eating is not an option." So of course you should try to pick the least unhealthy option, but this will be much easier to actually do if you are not starving when you make the choice.

  3. Begin with breakfast. Manuel advises taking a close look at the breakfast menu at your hotel. "All hotels, even the cheap ones," he says, "offer oatmeal. You can usually make a breakfast of scrambled eggs, or an egg white omelet with vegetables, a cup and a half of cooked oatmeal, some yogurt, and a cup of fruit. You can put together a healthy breakfast even at a budget hotel." It's worth taking the time and spending the money, Villacorta says. "That breakfast sets the tone for the entire day; if you skip breakfast, you will overeat later in the day. So eat breakfast and make judicious use of your snacks."

  4. Take care at the airport. "Airports are changing these days," Villacorta says, "but even so there can be few choices. If you are there and you don't have food with you, look for bakeries, which may offer a fruit/yogurt/cereal option. There may be a coffee place—Starbucks or Peet's—that offers oatmeal, and will also have sandwiches or a fruit plate with bits of cheese." The idea, he explains, is to eat whole food—where you know what you're eating—rather than processed food. If all you have is fast food, Subway is probably your best option, as long as you order one of their lean sandwiches. If you only have burger places, go for their salads, but beware of the dressings, and use them minimally. If you are at PandaExpress or other Asian takeout, Villacorta says the best choice is a chicken and vegetable option, like stringbean chicken.

  5. Order in advance. "If you're going to a conference with food options," Villacorta reminds us, "you may be able to pre-order a menu option, in which case you can request a vegetarian dish, or the grilled fish or chicken option if you're not a vegetarian."

  6. Learn your locations. Many business travelers end up in the same spots over and over. "If you travel repeatedly to the same place, find out where the local supermarket is," Villacorta says. "You can buy whole foods and stock them in your room, even potentially in the mini-bar fridge." We've all heard horror stories about the results of touching anything in those fridges, but Manuel advises calling the hotel in advance and asking them for an empty fridge. This, by the way, will also remove the temptation to make an impulse purchase from it. Calling ahead can be especially effective if you are a repeat visitor to that hotel. And, when traveling to a conference, Manuel reminds us, "you may be able to pre-order a menu option, in which case you can request a vegetarian dish, or the grilled fish or chicken option if you're not a vegetarian." Knowing where you're going can be a big help.

There is no way to eliminate uncertainty on the road. But with these tips, we hope you can limit your exposure to unhealthy foods and surprise calorie contents. Wishing you happy, safe, and delicious travels!