Don't Unravel When You Travel (Even In New Orleans)

I just returned from Obesity Week, an annual combined meeting of The Obesity Society and the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery. The meeting attracts international researchers and clinicians and I always leave feeling inspired. The presentations improve my clinical skills and often spark research ideas. Although the meeting was great again this year, my reflections of the conference are more practical and personal than scientific. First of all, Obesity Week was in the great city of New Orleans. Seems a bit ironic, huh?

For out-of-towners, a visit to the cuisine-centered city is often a Bourbon Street bash full of booze, beignets, and boudin balls--not exactly a paragon of healthy living. Each day I attended sessions focused on how best to help individuals persist with their weight management efforts and maximize satiety on fewer calories. In between sessions the conversations of many quickly shifted to what great restaurant they were heading to later that night. But it was hard for me to separate what I was learning during the day with what I was doing later that night. Just as many of my patients work on overcoming challenges when traveling, I thought it was important for me to stay focused as well. What does that mean? How can we prevent unraveling when when we travel? Here are a few ideas:

1. Plan ahead 

Look for lodging that has a fitness center and arrange your schedule to use it. You’ll be in a better mood, think more clearly, have more energy, and avoid a sluggish gastrointestinal tract if you do. Know where you’ll be in relation to the nearest grocery store, restaurants and safe outdoor walking. If you feel finding healthy food might be tough, take a few things of your own. A bag of apples, some protein drinks/bars or pre-portioned nuts may make it easier to stay on track when meal times get altered or when you’re tempted by Cinnabon at the airport or cookies at your hotel.

2. Prioritize when dining out 

The healthiest way for a weight conscious person to dine out is to order meals that contain lean protein and lots of vegetables, while avoiding excess added fat. But it doesn't always work out that way. Sometimes the choices are limited or you want to try some of the local cuisine, even if it isn't so healthy. If you choose a not so healthy sandwich (I had a soft-crab BLT in New Orleans), don’t get the run-of-the-mill french fries with it (I substituted the grilled asparagus). Unless you’re going to have something like shrimp cocktail or oysters on the half shell, you probably want to avoid appetizers entirely. Many of them have more calories than an entire meal. Each tortilla chip is 15-20 calories without the nacho toppings and a Bloomin’ onion has about 27 million calories.

3. Drink moderately or not at all

Alcohol directly and indirectly leads to consuming more calories. Not only does alcohol contain quite a few calories (7 calories per gram of alcohol plus additional calories from carbohydrates found in wine, beer and mixed drinks), it lowers your inhibitions related to food. After a couple of drinks, you are more likely to order the brownie ala mode for dessert; and, no, you don’t want to split it with your dinner companion! If you want a special drink ask for lime or lemon for your water or diet soft drink, or order a tea you've never tried before.

4. Recover quickly and plan for next time

Sometimes our trips away from home are not as healthy as we had planned. Maybe the fitness center's equipment was broken or you lost focus on your nutrition goals in the midst of your new surroundings. Take a moment to evaluate what happened and ask yourself what you could do differently next time. Maybe you could develop an alternative plan to workout in your hotel room. Perhaps you need a better plan for breakfast to avoid overeating at dinner. No matter how bad it goes, you can't change what has happened but you can choose to get back on track and avoid the same pitfalls next time. Jot down your ideas and let it go, knowing that you've learned something that will help you in the future. Set some reasonable goals to get back in your routine now that you are back home. Remember, nobody is a perfect and a week of poor habits need not derail you.