How to Eat Well While Traveling for the Holidays

By Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza
Photo by Toa Heftiba

It’s already tough enough to eat well while traveling, and it’s famously tough to eat well during the holidays. Five experts weigh in on how you can eat well and manage stress while traveling during the holidays—and still enjoy yourself.

The holidays are likely to make you hungrier than normal—and not just because there’s so much rich food around

Aside from the obvious fact that there’s simply more indulgent food available, there are some biological reasons you may find yourself veering toward less healthful foods during holiday travel. One of them is that you simply may be hungrier than normal, and lack of sleep can be to blame.

“Perhaps your schedule is off of its usual routine and perhaps you’re spending more hours awake and so your body is asking for more fuel,” says Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, nutritionist and coach at Arivale. “Sleep deprivation has a link to hormonal shifts including hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin. Our stomachs are on a circadian rhythm like our sleep cycle is, so you may notice that you’re hungry at different times if you’re traveling far.”

Hultin advises holiday travelers to stay well hydrated with water and aim for a diet that balances those holiday indulgences. “Make sure that you balance meals and snacks with protein, fiber-rich carbohydrates and healthy fats so that your body has proper fuel. Avoid foods that are going to cause a spike in blood sugar followed by low blood sugar, which can lead to strong cravings for more.” Prevent blood sugar spikes by avoiding foods like candy, sweet coffee or tea, soda, and fruit juice, which can make you feel hungrier.

In order to keep our circadian rhythms in check, good sleep is key, so we’ve got your back: we created an easy guide for how to get great sleep during the holidays.

Holiday travel snacking

Lindsey Toth, MS, RD, of Swanson Health recommends holidays travelers pack their own snacks while traveling to make healthful eating easy.

“Stock up on healthy, protein-rich snacks that are easy to grab and go, like nuts, seeds, energy bars, and cheese sticks so you’ll have healthy options on hand if you’re delayed or missing meals. Having healthy options at your fingertips can help you stay on track with your goals instead of making a beeline for the closest airport fast food.”

Jane Pelcher, RDN, recommends snacking to curb hunger between meals. “Tasty snacks will be your best friend while traveling since it will curb your hunger between meals,” says Pelcher. “Pack apples or bananas with your favorite nut butter, cheese and grapes, sugar snap peas and hummus, trail mixes, protein bars, and popcorn. Be sure to pack water as well to stay hydrated.”  

Prevent overeating by mitigating stress as early as possible

Holiday stress can often be to blame for overeating, so stress management is important.

According to a recent study by Remedy Review, 14.4% of people say that travel is the number-one cause of stress during the holiday season. Dr. Carson, MD, PhD, and assistant professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University and advisor to Remedy Review advises holiday travelers to manage stress with these tips:

  • Prepare: Using one’s nervous energy to prepare can decrease the amount of worry as an event approaches.  
  • Plan ahead: It doesn’t matter if it is a race, a presentation at work, or a test in school. If you’ve put in the time, then you can tell yourself, “Look, I’ve worked hard, there is nothing more I can do, just relax and have fun.”
  • Find a healthy distraction: If you find yourself in a rut, worrying about something, take a break, find a distraction. Take your mind somewhere else for a bit, then refocus your energies.
  • Don’t forget to breathe: If you start to feel yourself getting overwhelmed, take a minute to practice focused breathing—in one nostril and out the other without using your fingers. Mastery of this technique exactly the focused effort needed to help you not worry about what you were worrying about.

But this is the holiday season—so please don’t forget to enjoy yourself

Hayden James, registered dietician nutritionist at Satiate Nutrition reminds her clients to always enjoy themselves at the holidays—total abstinence seldom works and can deprive the health-conscious of the fun of the holidays.

“The holidays bring a plethora of rich meals and seasonal treats, bringing anxiety to many weight- and health-conscious folks this time of year,” says James. “I never recommend complete abstinence from favorite unhealthy foods, as this can often make that very food become ‘the forbidden fruit,’ leading to more anxiety, possible binges, and an overall unhealthy relationship with food and body image. If the mantra is, ‘don’t eat junk food,’ then junk food will likely become top of mind.”

“Give yourself permission to eat the foods that you love, and pass on the foods that you don’t! However, if general holiday anxiety has you coping frequently with food, lean toward other stress-relieving activities such as physical activity, reading, or meditation.

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