How does business travel affect your wellness?

That’s what we have set out to explore in this three-part series. First, we will be taking a look at nutrition, and how business travelers can maintain their healthy eating habits even when they are on the go.

It’s not easy to do. When you travel for work, you don’t usually have a kitchen to prep your meals. Further, your on-the-road work schedule is at the mercy of other people, making it difficult to find a nutritional rhythm.

With that in mind, here are several nutrition tips, backed by science, to help you maintain your healthy eating habits when work sends you afar.

Business Travel and its Potential Health Traps

Business travel is more than just inconvenient—it can actually speed up the aging process.

A study by a team from the University of Surrey says this can largely be attributed to sleep-wake cycle disruption, which occurs during jet lag.

“Frequent flying can lead to chronic jet lag, which can cause memory impairment and has been linked in studies to disrupting gene expression that influences aging and the immune system, and increased risk of heart attack or stroke,” says Scott Cohen, deputy director of research of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at the University of Surrey.

Then, there is the pervasive stress that can come with business travel.

Cohen's literature review finds that business travel creates new stressors because it comes with extra trip-preparation duties, a workload that probably doesn’t accommodate travel times and the sheer anxiety of knowing your inbox is piling up. On top of that, Cohen adds, there are weather delays and security checks that compound our stress levels.

Considering these potential perils, precautionary steps are necessary to preempt the negative responses our body has to the strain of business travel. Eating well is essential role for maintaining wellness levels and managing stress while traveling for business.

The Role of Gut Health in Our Overall Health

Over the past several years, the health of our gut has gained more and more attention from scientists, nutritionists and the health-conscious among us.

The gut microbiome is a vast ecosystem of organisms—bacteria, yeasts, fungi, viruses and protozoans—living in our digestive system. It’s so complex that researchers draw structural and chemical parallels between the gut and the brain.

According to Jane Foster, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at McMaster University, “The [gut]microbiome is partly driven by our own genetics, partly by environmental factors – stress, diet, age, gender. All these things affect the composition and they probably also affect the function of the bacteria that are there.”

The stress and bad diets we often fall prey to during business trips can harm our gut health.

"Our brain’s health is dependent on many lifestyle choices that mediate gut health; including most notably diet (i.e., reduction of excess sugar and refined carbohydrates) and pre and probiotic intake, ” says Jennifer Wolkin, a licensed psychologist in New York.

Let’s break Wolkin’s model down into its three components: probiotic intake, prebiotic intake and healthy diets in general. We’ll tackle pro- and prebiotics first.

What You Should Know About Probiotics and Prebiotics

Probiotics are beneficial bacteria. Probiotic intake adds friendly bacteria to our digestive system, diversifies our bacterial flora and helps us digest our food and absorb nutrients.

Baylor College of Medicine researchers Peera Hemarajata and James Versalovic find that probiotics introduce several health benefits:

  • They help to restore the composition of the gut microbiome.
  • They introduce beneficial functions to gut microbial communities.
  • They can also affect other important systems, including the neurological system via a pathway known as the “gut-brain axis.”

That gut-brain connect is an important one, and a subject of ongoing fascinating research. For example, Ted Dinan, head of psychiatry at University College Cork in Ireland, has found that “a harmless strain of live bacteria called Bifidobacterium longum 1714” can be beneficial to our brain’s functioning. Dinan’s research suggests that a daily supplement of this probiotic could lower a person’s stress and anxiety levels. In previous experiments, Dinan and his team found Bifidobacterium longum 1714 had memory-boosting and antidepressant effects in mice.

Probiotics are often created via fermentation. You can get your intake via foods like yogurt, buttermilk, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi. Black tea and oolong tea varieties are also fermented. If available on your trip, include some of these foods in your meals.

Prebiotics, on the other hand, are the carbohydrates and fibers that probiotics eat. We don’t digest prebiotics, but they help keep probiotics alive.

Philip WJ Burnet, an associate professor at the University of Oxford, says rather than focusing on probiotic intake, you can ensure that “you grow lots of species of good bacteria” by eating the right fibers. Natural prebiotic sources include lentils, asparagus and Jerusalem artichokes. These might not be available on the road, but you can always add prebiotic powder to the food you eat.

Nutrition Tips to Maintain Healthy Habits on the Road

Avoiding bad diets on the road is perhaps one of the most challenging tasks for a business traveler due to the disruptions to your eating schedule, the dependence on other people’s schedules and the abundance of unhealthy dietary options available.

Here are five nutrition tips for healthy eating while traveling for business.

1. Drink More Water

Drinking water is a simple but important task, especially during air travel.

"Instead of dehydrating alcohol and caffeine, try to stick to water when flying," advises Yale University nutritionist Lisa Kimmel. "Low humidity and recirculating air within the cabin are a set-up for dehydration, which can worsen jet lag and cause fatigue. A good rule of thumb is to drink 8 ounces of water every hour of the flight."

Hunger is often mistaken for thirst, so if you think you are hungry, drink some water before reaching for that bag of chips.

2. Snack Healthily

Compulsive snacking can pile on the calories. However, healthy snacks in moderate amounts are highly recommended when you travel because they prevent you from overeating during meals—which can easily happen with conference lunches and dinners out at restaurant.

"The average restaurant meal packs a whopping 1,205 calories," says nutritionist Karen Ansel, author of Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging: Stay Younger, Live Longer. “That’s roughly 2/3 of the calories many people need in an entire day.”

Here is another reason for healthy snacks: they keep your blood sugar levels stable and your metabolism functioning smoothly. On stressful days, it is better to eat little and often to minimize peaks and drops in energy levels.

Consultant dietitian Sian Porter, a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, advises travelers to bring their own snacks. “In your travel bag or car, you should pack things like almonds," suggests Porter. "Have some fruit—citrus fruits travel well.”

Here are some more ideas for healthy snacks that you can pack in your carry-on:

  • Nuts (almonds, walnuts, peanuts)
  • Whole or cut fruits and veggies (snap peas, cherry tomatoes, baby carrots)
  • Dried fruits
  • Whole grain crackers
  • Firm cheeses

3. Eat Breakfast

Skipping a morning meal can leave you starving for junk food later in the day. That said, some hotel breakfast buffets favor unhealthy fats and carbs—and it’s not always easy to be sensible first thing in the morning.

Here’s a tip to help you at the continental breakfast line: opt for a balance of protein, carbs and fats to keep you full. Hard-boiled eggs, whole wheat toast, fruit and yogurt are all excellent options.

4. Pick Healthy Options in Restaurants

Carol Ann Rinzler, a nutrition columnist for the New York Daily News, advises travelers to watch portion sizes at restaurants. Many restaurant portion sizes “are seriously out of whack with what nutrition experts recommend,” Rinzler says. She recommends ordering a salad, clear soup or shellfish (e.g. a shrimp cocktail) instead of a rich, high-density appetizer.

When choosing dairy products, meat, poultry and beans, go with choices that are lean and low in fat.

The chef’s cooking method is another thing to consider. If possible, only pick a dish prepared in a healthy manner—grilled, steamed, baked, roasted, poached or broiled.

5. Avoid Eating Late

Travelers should avoid the urge to order room service late at night. “Food eaten less than two hours before sleep does not get properly digested and leads to fitful rest, systemic imbalance and weight gain,” says Renee Loux Underkoffler, author of Living Cuisine. If you’re hungry before bedtime, eat a piece of fruit and drink a cup of herbal tea. These can calm and soothe you before sleep.

The Right Nutrients to Combat Stress Responses

Besides adjusting your eating habits to ensure wellness while you travel, you can also double down on certain nutrients for maximum stress resilience.

Here is a quick guide to stress-reducing nutrients.

Vitamin B

According to a study published in the journal Psychopharmacology, high-dose B vitamin complex has been shown to improve participants’ “stress, mental health and vigour and improved cognitive performance during intense mental processing.”

Con Stough at the Centre for Human Psychopharmacology at Swinburne University in Australia and his research team also found evidence of reduced occupational stress with a B-vitamin focused intervention.

You can get find high doses of vitamin B in the following foods:

  • Bananas
  • Leafy greens
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Dairy products

Magnesium

Ashley Koff, a registered dietitian and nutrition expert, recommends that travelers destress with magnesium. “I never ever travel without supplemental magnesium, which I add to an herbal tea,” she says. “...I also make my own trail mix from cacao nibs and organic cereal and hemp seeds.”

Essential Fatty Acids

A pilot study published in Nutrition Journal provides evidence that supports the protective role of omega-3 fatty acids in stress. That study found the omega-3 acids in fish oil help suppress stress responses at the hormone level.

To get EFAs in your diet, eat oily fish such as salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel, as well as flax seeds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds. You can consider ordering salmon at your next business dinner or pack pumpkin seeds for a travel day.

Don’t Let Business Travel Interrupt Smart Lifestyle Choices

Frequent business travel can make you age faster, wreak havoc your body and cause mental health issues. However, the right choice of supplements and a healthy diet can help you maintain your gut health, maintain your mental health, reduce stress and enjoy a fuller, longer life—no matter what stresses you encounter while traveling for work.

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