If you are in a professional services field, you know that conferences are like our Superbowl. It’s the ultimate opportunity for companies to showcase their talent, swag, and brand power.
It’s also the ultimate opportunity to pack on the pounds. A lack of choice for food options, many of which are not healthy. Wining and dining. Little sleep from compressed schedules for presentations and time zone differences.
Slowly, you make decisions that you would never make if you were at your own home base. Like, maybe that stale mini cheese Danish IS a good idea.
If I know one thing from being a professional in this workforce for many years, pre and post-pandemic, I know how to navigate this minefield. And I am here to tell you all the best tricks and tips so you can come and go like the fit boss that you are.
The 4 B’s – Bird Food, Buffet, Booze and Booty
We are going to tackle this by the problem areas, which I will call the 4 B’s: Bird food, buffet, booze, and booty (i.e. too much sitting on it).
This starts before you even leave for the airport. Read my post if you have not already on how to stay fit during business travel, including what items to pack so that you can be equipped with snacks and workout equipment.
Obstacle #1 Bird food
The problem: Now, we all know that conferences make an effort to keep a steady steam of grub especially when VIPs are attending. The issue is that more often than not this is doled out in “bird food” – food that is pre-portioned in individual containers (especially now, for safety) or brought in platters. So this brings problems, because you end up being forced into a grazing situation. And in case you have not heard, grazing is the WORST thing you can do for your metabolism.
You are also often eating while standing up and engaged in conversation, so you also lose the sense of satiety and being able to track what you are actually ingesting. When you are not satisfied, your body keeps the score and then you end up overeating later when you may have a chance for a sit-down meal and making poor choices if there is a buffet (more on that next).
There is also the psychological vulnerability with a constant presence of bird food and the stress of being at a conference. With intense programs packed into a small amount of time at a corporate hotel, you are susceptible to HALT – becoming hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. And HALT is exactly what will lead to diving face first into the tiramisu in a glass.
The DAO Solution: Take charge of your satiety and your body
Focus on the people and the learning experince, not the food. Remember, you are not there for the food. The food is only for fuel and to cure boredom. Most of it is mass-produced catering so whatever does not serve your health goals is totally unnecessary and counterproductive.
Avoid HALT. Front load your nutrition earlier in the day. If a proper breakfast buffet is included, use that to eat a high-protein, high fiber, and high-fat meal. The best choices are eggs, yogurt, avocado, salmon, and fruit. If the buffet is just pastries and bagels, skip that and get room service. Even if that is not comped, it is 100 percent worth it to spend this money on your health.
BYOF. Bring your own food. I have tips for this in my travel post, but you can definitely help your situation by bringing snacks that travel well, like nuts, turkey jerky, string cheese (you can use your mini fridge to store), protein bars, kale chips, olives (like this brand from Oloves),and pouched tuna (Starkist makes great flavors that do not taste fishy). Before each event where you know there will be food, like evening cocktail hour, have a snack with protein and fat so that you coat your stomach against any alcohol and don’t show up famished.
Another product I have been digging lately are keto krisps. These are bars that have about 300 calories and have a lot of fat in them. My favorite is the butter and himalayan salt. I have about 5 of these in my bag for the conference I am attending next week, so I can be prepared if there are fewer options for meals or if I want to go to the gym during the lunch break (see more on that below).
If you have limited packing space, find a Walgreens or grocery near your hotel and make a quick trip on the first day. You will need to do so likely because the one piddly free water is not going to cut it for the trip and tap options are probably not going to be appealing, so stock up on bottled water, fruits, nuts, and snacks that you can fit into your minifridge like turkey slices, yogurt or string cheese.
Just skip it. Skip the following: 1) Eating standing up; 2) Eating anything someone in a tie brings you on a platter. It will be unhealthy food that will leave you unsatisfied. Plus, it eliminates the awkwardness of trying to figure out how to eat while drinking and talking to VIPs. You never know who is going to approach you so do you really want to be in the middle of chewing a greasy slider when the company lead you are trying to impress is walking by? Didn’t think so.
The Obstacle: Buffets and plated meals
Studies show that people literally bite off more than they can chew at buffets. A lot of food is not only ingested but also wasted. This is not surprising, given the larger place, rushed time to eat, and endless choices of food.
The DAO Solution: Hydrate and Strategize
Hydrate. Getting dehydrated at a conference is a huge risk because you are not in your normal routine, often scrambling to be on time and can neglect drinking water or not desire to to avoid frequent restroom trips. This is not an effective strategy because your body is 70 percent water anyway and you need water to have an effectively functioning brain so you can do your important work.
Interestingly, your bladder is like a sponge, so the more water you drink, the more it will adapt to holding more liquid in. A great test to make sure you are hydrating is to look at your pee and assess the color. If it is very light like a lemonade, you are good on hydration but anything darker and more cloudy is a sign you need more water pronto.
Here is a chart that is an effective way to gauge your hydration:
Photo credit: Happyvector071@Adobestock
Survey before you plate. In fact, this is what leaner people do, according to scientific research. this gives you less time to eat but also more time to make better choices. You know how you see something at a buffet you think you like, plate it, but later see something you like even better nad that pattern continues until your plate is overflowing? This is why it is better to take a step back while the line dies down and just coolly wander the tables to see what you are going to plate.
Sit away. The same research shows that the leaner people tended to sit further away and with their back to the food, leading to the “out of sight, out of mind theory.”
Use a rule of 3. Do not put more than 3 types of food on your plate – a protein, a type of vegetable, and a fat. As I explain in my post on PFC, meals are easier to view as a construction of PFC – protein, fat and carbs than an entirety of a plate of food.
Use the little black dress method to put a plate together. Pick your lean protein “dress” – chicken breast and fish are usually available and the healthiest choices. Then accessorize that dress with healthy fats and carb “accessories”. I will break this down by meal next. As a reminder, here is my post on the Little Black Dress Meal Planning Method:
As soon as you are done eating, pop a very strong mint or piece of minty or better yet cinnamon gum to clean your palate and stave off the urge to eat 10 different types of desserts.
Breakfast is a great way to get a high amount of protein and fiber at the beginning of the day. The best combination for this is fresh fruit and eggs, both of which are available at most breakfast buffets. Other great choices are plain yogurt, oatmeal, and smoked salmon.
Here are some tips on what to absolutely avoid:
- Cereals and dried fruit toppings (all of this usually has added sugar)
- Bagels, pastries and pancakes (all basically trash for your body early in the morning_
- Flavored yogurt (has added sugar)
- Pre-scrambled eggs (these usually come in a premade powder and high in fat and calories)
- Fried foods like bacon and sausage. Though they may qualify as protein they are prepared in vats of lard, so skip it.
I recommend having the cold food first, like your fruit with coffee, and this way you fill up on low-calorie, high fiber food before getting any more hot food. Then go on a second trip for the proteins, but grab a smaller plate to manage portion sizes.
Oof, we need to run on it to stay alive, especially during the marathon sessions we have ahead of us. The coffee break is a perfect time to grab a cup and recharge. But can I urge you to limit your coffee intake to a cup or two in the morning and use the break to recharge with a walk outside or through the hotel.
The main reason why is that the coffee is going to come with condiments that likely will not be up to the usual healthy standards that I recommend in this post on how to avoid drinking calories. There are more options these days like almond and soy milk but because you cannot see the container you do not know how much sugar is in these milks and in fact it could be even worse for you than regular whole milk. If it is 2pm and you are really dragging even after a walk, opt for green tea instead.
Another strategy that I use is to bring my own powdered creamer (TSA friendly), like these options from 5 sparrows
Lunch and dinner buffets
Make your plate 90 percent cold, raw vegetables – for example, salad greens with cucumber, peppers, and tomatoes. These foods are high in fiber and will ensure that you will have to chew for a significant amount of time. Further, colder and raw food take longer to digest so you will be fuller for longer. Cooked vegetables should be eaten sparingly because like other hot foods you do not have much insight as to how they are prepared, which is often in saturated fat-laden cooking oils.
For dressing, opt for balsamic vinegar dressing. Most of the premixed dressings will be high in sugar and fat, and you really have no idea what is in them. Balsamic vinegar has a small amount of sugar but enough for flavor, and you can add your own fats. For fats, I would recommend olives and/or feta cheese because they have a relatively low fat content so if you overshoot on portion size, it will not do too much damage.
If you see soups available, go for the ones that have a broth base rather than a cream base, like a vegetable soup or chicken noodle. Definitely avoid anything that is cream based. If you really want a hot liquid and soups are not a great option, get some green tea to have with your food.
In some cases you will have a proper sit down lunch service. Here your options are super limited, so here is my approach
Just say no to the bread. Before you assume I am anti-bread, I am very much not.However, there is a broad spectrum between white bread with little nutritional value that will spike your blood sugar and wholesome nutritious wheat bread. And the truth is you simply have no idea what type of bread you are eating. Even if the bread looks “dark” or grainy in texture, it is still totally possible for it to contain enriched wheat flour, which gives it that darker color but because of stripping the grain out to make it taste better renders it just as unhealthy as regular white bread. So if you want to follow the 80/20 rule and use that on the bread and butter, just have the piece of bread that looks the most appealing to you because at the end of the day it makes no difference!
Ask for your salad in advance without the dressing. Blame allergies if you have to.
Chew slowly and take small bites. For the main meal, eat the protein first so you get fuller faster, then eat the side dish. The smaller bites you take, the faster you will get full and the less you will eat. There is absolutely no need to be a member of the clean plate club.
For the dessert, use the 2-bite rule. Remember that you are eating a mass-produced piece of cake or whatever, so think of yourself as a food critic that would only wait unitil she was in a posh restaurant with a dedicated pastry chef to indulge in a dessert. This is how I am with cookies. I love cookies, and will occasionally have one, but only if they meet my standards necessary to make the calories worth it. They have to be warm, gooey on the inside, thick, and contain chocolate chips that penetrate from top to bottom. It is very hard for cookies served at conferences to meet this criteria so I bypass them.
You can also use the technique of visualizing pouring salt or something like laundry detergent on the piece of cake can also naturally stop your sugar cravings.
Booze is the biggest saboteur to burning fat and building muscle. If you want more info on why, please read my article here on how regular consumption of even moderate alcohol amounts can sabotage your weight management goals:
At conferences, after a long day of presentations and running from one area to the next, it can definitely be tempting to let your hair down and enjoy the free drinks. As part of following the 80/20 rule, having a glass of wine is definitely ok. But when that glass of wine leads to another, leads to more cocktails and downing a bunch of mini egg rolls, then you have a problem. It is a slippery slope. Which is easily turning into an avalanche when you combine a bunch of your peers doing the same thing and fatigue from all the marathon sessions that day.
The DAOSolution: Just say no and / or later
Of all the things you can do to ruin your career, getting drunk at a public event in front of your bosses and teammates is in the top 3. Unless you are a total baller and have handlers to bury the bodies for you, it is better to err on the side of grabbing some sparkling water when the festivities begin than to immediately start downing drinks and getting tipsy early.
Do your best to delay having alcohol as much as possible. You may find that once you start eating dinner and being in conversation you don’t even want to drink anymore. If there is a post-dinner drink gathering, it is a good time to ask your tipsy boss for a raise. Kidding – seeing if you are paying attention still.
The bottom line is, you are susceptible to making bad food and life decisions once you start drinking. The lack of proper sleep, demanding schedule, and intense interactions will quadruple the chances that the one drink will turn into more, so not starting in the first place will be the best way to keep your reputation pristine and not risk oversleeping for the 8am session.
As in, you are constantly sitting on yours all day during conferences. You sit on a plane, then you sit through sessions, then you may stand up during the cocktail hour, but in between there is not as much activity as you may get on your everyday routine.
The DAOSolution: Embrace NEAT (Non-exercise thermogenesis).
Here is a reminder of what NEAT is and why it’s an effortless way to burn calories:
Do your best to be active throughout the day. Use coffee breaks between sessions to go for walks instead of hanging out by the cookies and snacks. Use the restroom that is the furthest away from the main area. Stand if possible in the back of the room instead of sitting down.All these incremental activities will add up and compensate for the time of the day you are less activities
The NEAT activities should complement a strategy of being active for at least 30 minutes each day, whether that be a hotel room workout or the hotel gym, both of which I have blogged about here:
Hotel gyms- The Best Hotel Gyms and How to Work Out in Them
Fitting in a workout means owning your schedule and mapping out your day. So, if you want to work out before the conference starts, you need to plan on working out early, showering, and getting ready and account for going back and forth from your room. The hotel gym may be challenging if everyone else is using it.
You can also plan to workout during the lunch break or the break between sessions and cocktail hour, if you are smart about it. You can opt to bring some workout clothes with you and pop in quickly during the lunch break or after sessions are over before the cocktail hour. Being a bit late to the cocktail hour is also not a bad idea because this way you are least likely to be tempted to have drinks before dinner because you will feel energized and healthy from the workout.
Another strategy I use for example if the conference is 2-3 days is that I front load a lot of workouts in the days before and in the morning of traveling especially if there is an afternoon flight. This way the days at the conference can be more restorative rest days and you can focus on getting activity from NEAT instead of the gym which is more difficult given the hectic nature of the event.
The Bottom Line
You can learn and execute effective strategies to make conferences a success, both personally and professionally. By focusing on the networking instead of the eating and the drinking, you will make more of a good impression which is important especially if this is the first in-person event you will be attending since you started a new job or since pre-pandemic.
Mind the 4 B’s and equip yourself to come and go in the best of health. Mindfullness is your best weapon, so take a few minutes when you awake in your hotel room to take deep breaths and meditate before the day gets too crazy. I have a post on medittaion for busy people that you can read here: