If you’ve ever felt hungrier on a plane, train or road trip, you’re not imagining it — research shows travel can alter healthy eating habits. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that, compared to homebodies, frequent travelers had a greater risk of obesity and higher blood pressure. And another recent study found that those who spent more than 14 nights away from home each month had a higher BMI; the odds of being obese were 92% higher among those who traveled more than 21 nights per month.
Here are three reasons travel might leave you reaching for less-healthy food options and what to do about it:
WHY TRAVEL MAKES YOU HUNGRY
1. THE CHANGE IN TIME ZONE
Jet lag disrupts ghrelin, the hormone that increases appetite, and leptin, the hormone that decreases appetite, according to 2017 research. If you’re crossing time zones, you may end up eating more frequently or craving high-calorie foods.
“The impact that moving between time zones has on our sleep-wake patterns can also change the timing of our hunger cues,” says Alissa Rumsey, RD, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and New York City-based nutritionist. “And if you’re not getting enough sleep, your cortisol levels can rise, which can also increase your appetite.”
The fix: Try to eat meals at the proper meal times in your new time zone, which helps reset your internal clock. Rumsey also suggests honoring your internal hunger signals: “Our bodies are smart and will cue us to make sure that we eat when we need fuel.”
2. YOU’RE DEHYDRATED
It’s not surprising you feel parched on the plane. The humidity in the cabin can be as low as 10%, making you feel dehydrated — and that can increase your appetite.
You might be tempted to leave your water bottle at home or let the drink cart pass you by, but “when you’re dehydrated, it can be tougher to feel your hunger cues, as dehydration signals may come across like true hunger,” notes Rumsey.
The fix: Fill your water bottle before boarding the plane and regularly sip while traveling. A study published in the journal Obesity found those who drank two glasses of water before a meal consumed 75–90% fewer calories than those who skipped a drink before dinner.
3. TEMPTATION IS EVERYWHERE
From the scent of fresh-baked cinnamon buns wafting through the airport, to aisles of potato chips at the gas station, you could consume hundreds of excess calories en route to your destination. Research has showed those who were exposed to a variety of foods consumed 22% more calories.
The fix: When choosing meals on-the-go, pass on the ultra-indulgent sweets that will leave you feeling more drained than energized and opt for nutritious snacks such as fruit, nuts and yogurt, says Whitney Linsenmeyer, RD, PhD, instructor in the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at Saint Louis University and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Her favorite: peanut butter and honey on whole-grain bread.
Originally published November 2018, updated November 2022
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