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Most of my friends are aware that I am a bit of a health freak. Actually, I’m a health super-freak (Nic Cage-ism #1).
For example, I’m the type of guy who goes on a 12-month Vegan Experiment (Introduction, Results) just for kicks. And, instead of reporting on (1) “how I felt” or (2) “how I looked”— receive quarterly, comprehensive blood tests (about 17 vials worth each time) measuring everything from hormone levels (like testosterone and estrogen) to markers of inflammation (like CRP).
You know, normal shit…
My friends also know that I travel a lot – both personally and as a part of my day job as a law and ad man (I like to think of myself as Don Draper meets Jake Brigance). In the last five years, I’ve averaged over 50,000 miles per year, even hitting the 100k number once or twice.
Because of these two facts – health freak and ramblin’ ad man – I often get asked about how I manage to eat healthy while traveling.
…….OK let’s ride (Nic Cageism #2)
What Definitely Does Not Work
Investor, Jim Paul, says there are countless ways to make a million dollars, but a few reliable ways to lose it all. This is similar to health and diet. There are plenty of behavioral strategies and tactics to get oneself to eat healthy (green-light food) and avoid bad (red-light) foods. And, as we’ll discuss, often a strategy that worked for me, won’t for you.
But, below I’ve listed approaches that seem to dependably submarine everyone (sub pun intended):
The “I’m On Vacation” Strategy
Common Rationale (i.e. BS): “Oh, screw it! I am on vacation. I’ll eat healthy when I get home.”
Ok, before you bite my head off and tell me I need to “let go once in a while,” let me just say —I have no issue with this strategy in theory. We all love to have fun on vacations, sample the local fare, and do away with the restrictions of our daily lives. The problem comes when we (inevitably) allow this “rule” to creep into anything that we rationalize to be “like vacation”
When the power of the “rationalizing brain” is combined with the presence of some succulent stimulus— say a hot and fresh slice of pizza— our “Better Self” tends to fold impressively fast. We cave like Tommy Boy on a brake-pad pitch (No? Okie Dokie. No? Gotcha, thanks!).
Here’s how it usually goes:
Rationalizing Brain: Well, I know we only eat horribly on vacation but, the client invited me to Wednesday night dinner at Nobu in Malibu. Nobu! Come on, mannnnnnn!!!
Better Self: Hmm, Nobu in Malibu? Sounds a lot like vacation to me…Sold! Let’s eat so much tiger shrimp and wagyu beef we need to be rolled out of there like that blueberry-turned, gum-chewing brat from Willy Wonka! (Violet, you’re turning violet, Violet!)
The Point: Unplanned and unclear boundaries teach your mind that there are no real rules, you can decide to stray whenever you want. You do not want to give the “rationalizing brain” the ability to make a case here. It will win.
1(b). The “I deserve it!” Strategy
Common B.S. Excuse: I’ve worked hard this week (or these last few hours). Like Micky D’s always advised— I deserve a “break today.”
This can blend into the “‘I’m On Vacation” Strategy, because often we employ this failing strategy when we are on vacation. But, there remains an issue past wobbly definitions of “vacation.” It is what psychologists have dubbed: “moral licensing.”
Moral licensing works like this: I’ve done (or merely thought) something, however small, and I will now reward myself.
Among my friends, this is the go-to moral licensing: You jogged two miles, or made the 10am yoga or spin class Saturday morning, and now, watch out— Bring on the eggs Benedicts, home-fries, and bottomless whatevers.
I will address how to dam this flood below.
The “You Can’t Eat Healthy At The Airport” Strategy.
Common BS Excuse: “Well, ya, I had the fried chicken sandwich. But, you know, I was at the airport. I mean, there’s nothing you can get there that’s healthy. What did you want me to do?! Starve!!!???”
Ok – starve?! A tad dramatic, don’t ya think?
But, drama aside, is it that there is “nothing healthy at the airport” or is it that we tell ourselves that in order let ourselves off the hook? My experience suggests it is more of the latter.
This is sort of like when your mom or BF / GF asks you to look for that thing in the closet and you say— after a pathetically cursory attempt— it’s not here, let’s just _____. [Insert worse, but more convenient, option].
The point: letting yourself off the hook, bad. Actually looking for the (not too hard to fine) passably healthy food, good.
I’ll point you to the healthy options that exist at every airport in the “Makeshift Strategy” below.
The “I Sure Hope They Have Something I Can Eat There” Strategy
Common B.S. Excuse: “Well, I just got caught in a bind. I didn’t realize there wouldn’t be anything for me to eat…”
You didn’t realize there wouldn’t be a plethora of healthy options?! Have you been to an airport before?! This is where Biff would hit you over the head with his cane (Think, Mcfly, think!).
Now, if you actually have not been to an airport before – first, I would highly recommend planes. They appear to be faster. Second, how in the name of Zeus’s BUTT-HOLE did you get to this age without going to an airport?! (Nic Cage #3)
But, applying this in general, we all go places where we don’t know what the food sitch will be. For those times, some strategies work better than others.
A really bad one is to just show up and depend on your willpower to fight off hunger and the smell of the Auntie Anne’s pretzels. To steal a line from my favorite comedian, Gary Gulman— when it comes to the tantalizing scent of Auntie Anne’s pretzels, just like the Karate-Kid-Crane Kick— “no can defend.”
Ok— those strategies are all awful – they are almost guaranteed to encourage poor eating choices. And again, if you are fine with that, as my friend Ryan likes to say: “have at it, haus!”
But, if you are looking for a way to “defend” – you might want to think about employing some of these quality strategies from me..
What Has Worked For Me (And Is Backed By Research)
Over the past decade or so, I’ve read about and implemented multiple strategies, some easy, some hard. I am going to give you three novice strategies for those starting out and two expert-ish ones. These all “worked” for me to varying degrees. They also work for people I call the “Chronically Healthy.” Or, more fun – “HealthCrons.”
(1) The “Bright-Line-Rule”
In their book, Willpower, Researchers Baumeister and Tierney explain the benefits of a legal concept called “Bright-Line” rules (BLRs). BLRs are clear, simple, and rigid – we either do or do not do this behavior when it meets these circumstances.
For example, no eating after 7PM, no exceptions. That’s a BRL. We cannot rationalize why 7:05 pm would be before 7:00 PM (well, sometimes we can – it depends on how close the chunky peanut butter jar is to me. “Well, it’s still within the 7’o’clock hour…”).
This is one of the reasons that, in the short-term, and for limited and finite circumstances (like a vacation), cutting out whole food groups like “carbs” is not so hard to follow. People know exactly what they want to eat.
Simple (But Effective) Action: Make a BLR and define what fits in and what does not fit in to the definition of vacation. If it’s a vacation, “have at it.” If its not, follow one of the following to protect yourself from… yourself. This will tell your Rationalizing Brain to “cut the chit-chat, A-HOLE!” (Nic Cageism #4).
(2) Preparing and Scheduling (Including Planned “Cheat Days”)
When we head to places like the airport, many times we are hungry, and many times, we are stressed and in a rush. As Standford’s, Kelly McGonigal, tells us in her great book, The Willpower Instinct, when you are stressed, you seek out unhealthy, “reward” food because you think it will cure the stress. It does not.
One way to “defend” against this is by being prepared. A habit of people who make consistently healthy choices— HealthCrons— that is consistent across the research, is that they prepare.
They are the ones who annoyingly carry Tupperware and ziplocks of healthy snacks and meals. But, as socially nuisance-y as this may be, it’s hard to deny its effectiveness.
Simple (But Effective) Action: pack some Green-Light foods the night before and bring them on the plane. It’s as simple as that. Make sure you set a reminder to do so as soon as you book the flight.
- Get Help. If you travel with someone who is a HealthCron, perhaps they will be nice enough to include you. Research indicates having a friend or group who is heathy, influences us to be healthier.
Example: I used to do this with my boss when we traveled together 7-10 times per year. The night before the cross-country flight, I would pick up some Mediterranean salads (no cheese for me), some organic berries and nuts. He loved it and it saved him from plane or airport food.
NOTE ON “CHEAT DAYS”: I am totally fine with what are known as “Cheat Days” (Tah-daahhhh – Nic Cage #5 ) — days when we plan to purposely eat unhealthy— as long as they are (1) planned and (2) limited (no more than one day per week).
There seems to be some biological evidence, and even stronger psychological evidence, that this might be a good thing. I used to make this day Sundays – I would eat croissants in the morning, burgers in the afternoon, and, of course, spaghetti bolognese in the evening, followed by a bowl of my favorite cereal mixes.
(3) The Makeshift
Ok, so you totally disregarded strategy #2, and now you are at the airport, hungry, and you are about to take a five hour flight. Instead of relying on Horrible Strategy #2 (“you can’t eat healthy at the airport”), you are going to want to try to find some, at least, passably healthy foods.
The good news is, this is 100% possible at basically every airport I’ve ever been to — you just need to know what you’re looking for. Here are my go-tos:
- Low Hunger Level: Bag of RAW almonds and large Fiji water. You’d be surprised how often you think you’re “starrrvvvvinnggg” but you are actually just thirsty. First, drink a quarter of that water. Than, eat 10-20 almonds. Then breathe. This should fill you for a long time.
- ***Key*** the problem with bags of nuts at the airport? They are fucking huge. For that reason either:
- (1) share them with friends or
- (2) if you are alone, do what I do —- pour out half of the bag into the trash before eating. But wait – isn’t that wasteful? There are people starving in ___!!!! Yes, it is. But, I don’t know about you, but if I leave a bag of nuts next to me, that thing is going to be empty by the time we touch down. I’d rather them go in the trash – or give them away.
- ***Key*** the problem with bags of nuts at the airport? They are fucking huge. For that reason either:
- Medium Hunger Level: Side’s and Apps. The key to health is sometimes found in appetizers and sides. As one comedian joked — this is what, in other countries, they call “meals.”
- Nearly every airport has at least one sit down restaurant. Go to the bar, order side of beans, side or app salad (no dressing or cheese), get some balsamic vinegar on the side, steamed veggies, side of fruit. Try to get it un-oiled/salted/sweetened.
- Bigger Hunger Level: Starbucks Salad + Others. I can’t believe it given how horrible most things at Starbucks are for you, but, they have recently added a salad that is both filling and good for you. The most Green-Light-y one is the lentils, beets, brown rice, tahini. If that’s not enough, get fruit, nuts, the Fiji, and maybe even a black coffee. Coffee may subdue hunger as well (especially if you think it does).
Two Expert-ish Strategies
(4) Implementation Intention – i.e. Plan and Anticipate
Hall of Fame NFL football coach, Bill Walsh, had a very intricate way of game planning. While most coaches simply write out a plan of their plays and how they want things to go, Walsh took it a step further in something he called “Contingency Planning.”
Walsh anticipated every possible obstacle or situation he could think of (e.g. 3rd and 10 on our own 28 yard line, 4th and 2 on their 10, our starting QB is hurt and we are 3 and 15 at the 50, it starts raining and we are down 10 with 2 minutes to go on their 40) and wrote his response. He did this so he had a plan already thought out, and wasn’t relying on himself to make a “hot-headed” decision in the moment.
Psychologists call this “Implementation Intention”— a preconceived and written out plan of a specific action (including what, where, when) and anticipation of responses to potential obstacles. This has been tested on physical therapy patients to helping 6-year-olds avoid procrastination, and it reliably raises compliance significantly.
Action: If you are going to fly at the end of the week, write out a plan for how you are going to be healthy. Specifically, include what you are going to eat, where, and when. Then, anticipate at least three obstacles that are likely to come up and your ideal, health-forward response.
Example: I am flying to Austin, TX Friday at 3PM. Thursday at 6PM, I am going to prepare a Tupperwared, big salad with Green-Light toppings and pack it in my bag. At the airport I’ll get a black iced-coffee and fruit cup. Now, anticipate obstacles:
- If I get home late from work Thursday and cannot pack the salad, I’ll pick one up Friday before leaving for the airport
- If I don’t have time to pick up the salad, I’ll employ the “Makeshift” and get the Starbucks lentil salad.
- If there is no salad at Starbucks, I’ll do a mixture of the Fiji, almonds, and sides/apps.
(5) The Forgotten Option: Fasting
Many times, if we haven’t eaten and we have a flight, we are convinced that we must eat or we won’t be able to think. But this might not be the case—- and we you certainly will not “starrrvveeee.” Almost every religion has a fasting day – minimal starving. In fact, recent research has shown that skipping the food for this time might provide massive benefits.
In his great book, Presto: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear, Penn Gillette (of Penn and Teller fame) tells the story of how he completely transformed his diet, mind and body. One of the things he realized was that, if he was in a place for a couple hours that did not have healthy options, he had an option other than: “welp, I guess I’m screwed, now hand me that Bloomin’ Onion!”
The other option? Don’t eat. His big realization was that we can actually manage to go a few hours without eating. We don’t always HAVE to eat right away. Genius, genius, genius!!!!
Action: don’t eat anything. To help get you through this mentally, there are the following strategies:
- Black coffee (may blunt hunger)
- Whole lot of water (we might need more at high elevation anyway)
- Keep your mind occupied (but not with food around). Watch a movie, read a book, annoy the person next to you.
And that’s it, boys and girls.