To eat or not to eat? That is the question Carla Swansburg faces in different time zones when she finds herself starving in her hotel room at three in the morning or snacking mid-afternoon when she'd normally be eating dinner at home in Toronto.
As director of practice innovation, pricing and knowledge for law firm Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP, Swansburg travels frequently on business to Europe and across North America. Being inappropriately hungry can be a problem.
"The worst thing for me is that I'll just eat junk at the wrong time," says Swansburg. "There are always structured meals when you're travelling for business. You have lunches, dinners and sometimes breakfasts because I often jam in meetings at meals. The risk is that I'll be eating all day and end up with six meals. Chances are those meals, or the stuff in between, isn't food that makes you feel better."
Despite lapses, Swansburg tries to be thoughtful and deliberate about food choices and plan in advance. Her food rules include eating before travelling to avoid purchasing food on airlines (typically high in salt, fat or sugar), packing snacks such as protein bars that she can bring aboard and drinking lots of water (most airlines will refill your water bottle if you ask). Whenever possible, she rebooks at favourite hotels that offer healthy meals or are near a market with fresh fruit.
One strategy she uses to combat her appetite's time zone confusion is trying to keep to her home time zone schedule for eating on short trips, even if that cuts into sleep time. But if she's staying more than a couple of nights, she does the opposite and forces herself to eat meals aligned with the time zone she's visiting.
"On longer trips, I find myself mentally transitioning and changing my watch the moment I get on the plane," says Swansburg. "It's a bit of a mind trick, but it helps me adjust to the time change more quickly. I try to switch over as soon as I can and eat accordingly. Often that means eating later than I normally would so I still might get hungry at weird times. My rules are great in theory but sometimes it's a challenge."
According to a 2008 Harvard University study, when you eat – and when you don't eat – can help you better manage jet lag, at least on long-haul flights. Researchers found that fasting on flights of 16 hours or more, and then eating as soon as you land, can actually reset your brain's "feeding clock." Basically, your brain has two clocks, a master circadian clock, which is sensitive to light, and a feeding clock, which tracks meal times and regulates when you're naturally hungry. If you don't eat for an extended time, this second feeding clock takes over and your body starts being active again.
While most business travel isn't that long, the technique may at least help people manage uncomfortable time changes better. Try eating a light healthy meal that's easily digestible before you get on the plane, limit snacking on-board and then plan to eat as soon as you land, co-ordinating with local meal times. Make sure you stay hydrated with plenty of water and avoid starches that would boost your energy when you're trying to sleep. Even on short flights, it's better to eat lightly than to have a heavy fat-laden meal that may make you uncomfortable.
Cassandra Reid, a registered dietitian in private practice in Toronto, says that after you board, it's smart to align your day and meal schedule with wherever you're going.
"Once you get to your destination, and you're done with sleep, that's when your day starts, even if it's four in the morning and you're 10 or 15 hours off your time zone," says Reid. "You might miss a snack or a meal, but it's better to just get in the groove; otherwise you'll have a little snack thinking, I'm hungry, but I don't know what it is. Just start with the clock of wherever you are. If it's lunchtime, have lunch, if it's breakfast, have breakfast. Those lost hours don't matter. Consider them gone."
Giving yourself a treat when you travel is okay with Reid, as long as you make it a mindful decision. She believes it's important to consciously plan and decide what your day looks like – three meals and one snack – to avoid it becoming a day of snacks.
"If your travel day plan includes a Starbucks frappuccino, get it half sweet and then darn well enjoy it," says Reid. "But don't just buy it without thinking. Have it as a planned conscious thing and not a last-minute give-in because that can open the door to spiralling into eating too much."
If you're bored waiting around for a flight, Reid has some suggestions to keep you from nibbling: Get a nice latte or a cup of tea, go walk around the airport, call a friend, save all the articles that you've been dying to read, put them in your inbox and give yourself some reading material.
"It helps to think about why are you eating," says Reid. "Are you truly hungry or just bored? With boredom, you need to positively give yourself a safe way to manage that. I find brushing your teeth or rinsing with mouthwash is a huge help. Getting that minty taste in your mouth can really make you stop wanting to eat."
If you're truly hungry and can't stop eating, have something substantial to avoid it becoming a day of snacks. You can do that in the airport if you know what to pick, says Reid, even at McDonald's.
"Number one, think where's my protein?" says Reid. "Second, are there any fruits or veggies here with lots of colour? Third, watch the starch. If you choose a hamburger to get yourself nice and full, make it open face. These rules apply whether you're travelling by plane, train, boat or car. Travelling by car can be really hard because the boredom factor is there as well."
Lastly, Reid strongly recommends making daily exercise part of your food strategy when you travel. If you can, stay in hotels that offer a gym but, alternatively, you can still do an effective workout in your hotel room using a high intensity interval training or core strength program.
"Metabolically, exercise makes you absorb your food more efficiently," says Reid. "Take that time for yourself to clear your head. It'll make you feel fresh."
Additional tips and tricks from Reid:
If you had dinner at home, don't eat the meal on the plane at night just because they're serving it. Turn it down, brush your teeth and be done for the night. There are a lot of tempting things out there but it doesn't mean you need to eat them.
If it's business travel, alcohol isn't recommended because alcohol is going to make you not sleep as well, get you up going to the bathroom and make you feel groggy. Sleep deprivation and altitude rarely go hand in hand. Save that for when you're on holiday.
It depends on if it affects your sleep. A night coffee can fill you up and make you feel like you're having a treat, but if it in any way affects your sleep, no coffee.