"I’ll have the canned ham to go."

May 8, 2018 - 3:45 PM

Our columnist recalls an ill-advised meal choice in San Francisco and discusses the importance of combining business travel with a healthy diet and lifestyle.

I hate eating in restaurants by myself, even when my employer is willing to pick up the check.

This peculiarity became known some years ago, roughly in the middle of my 16-year tenure as the New York Times’ business travel columnist. I was attending a convention in San Francisco, obviously a great restaurant town; but, as I noted in my column, I didn’t dine out. Instead, I stopped at a Walgreens, bought a small package of rolls and a 12-ounce canned ham (the Celebrity brand, which the chain still sells for about $3.25). Then I retreated for dinner to my hotel room, where I’d already stashed some beer in the fridge.

I had always been regarded as fiscally admirable, if amusingly naïve, for keeping my travel expenses low, but the Walgreens charges tripped a wire. An appalled senior editor at the Times, a man who had long cherished the pleasures of expense-account dining while reporting from some of the world’s great cities, called me. In the future, he pleaded, “have a proper dinner, especially if you’re going to mention it in your column.” The New York Times, he added, does not expect its traveling correspondents to eat like a derelict who has just found a $5 bill.

Since then, I have heard from many friends and colleagues who don’t like to dine alone in restaurants. They give various reasons, including the fact that it means prolonged periods of staring at the décor or poking at your phone. “My phone is my armor when I eat alone,” one woman who travels almost incessantly tells me.

Of course, I have never met anyone else who copped to the canned-ham option, which elicits a look of horror whenever I’m careless enough to mention it. Smart travelers these days appreciate the importance of eating in a healthy manner, whether at the hotel breakfast buffet or even at night in the room.

That’s not to say that everyone maintains a healthy diet and lifestyle during business trips. OnCall International, a travel risk-management company, recently released results of a national survey of 1,000 frequent business travelers in which a majority (54 percent) say they are less likely to exercise when traveling, while 44 percent concede they are more likely to “eat unhealthy foods.” Sixteen percent say they drink more booze when traveling—though anyone who has been to a party at a business convention might have reason to think there’s a bit of self-under-reporting going on in that response.

Meanwhile, a recent study by researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and City University of New York produced even more alarming results. Extensive business travel is linked to risk of chronic diseases associated with lifestyle factors, the researchers say in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The study was based on medical records of more than 18,000 anonymous business travelers who underwent health assessments through a corporate-wellness program. Earlier research by Andrew Rundle, an epidemiology professor at Mailman, found that frequent business travel was associated with higher body-mass index, obesity, and higher blood pressure.

Business travelers need to take responsibility, but companies also need to ensure that their on-the-road employees have better education about the importance of healthy food options, says Rundle.

That leads me to recall the years-old admonition from the Times and admit something I’ve never said before to any editor: “You know what, pal? You were 100 percent right.”