Why I Don’t Gain Weight on Vacation
This weekend, I arrived home from a two-week trip to Italy. We stayed mostly on the Ligurian coast in the idyllic beach town of Imperia, but we also visited Rome, Naples, Genoa, and more. As always, Italy is my beloved dream land of espresso and Vespas, and it was with a pang of sadness that I finally closed the “Google Translate” Safari window that I kept perpetually open on my phone for two weeks.
I have healthy travel tips for you. Tips galore.
Just before I left, I heard variations of the following idea several times, from several different clients:
- “Are you worried about gaining weight?”
- “You’ll be OK if you gain five pounds, right?”
- “You’ll have to take a break from healthy eating so that you can try everything!”
The truth is that I don’t worry about gaining weight, and you’ll see why. But these statements reveal a deeper level of the dysfunctional relationship that we Americans have cultivated with food and body image, and before my trip, I couldn’t even get into it on my blog or social media.
But now it’s time!
Food, and Artificial Moral Dichotomies
The questions that I fielded reveal an important – but negative – aspect of our current wellness zeitgeist, born of the “clean eating” movement. On some deep level, we culturally believe that there are “good” foods, and there are “bad” foods.
The problem with this is that when you have “good” foods and “bad” foods, you begin to overlay morality onto eating. Unfortunately, for many people, this begins to translate into identity.
- “I have been really good with my eating.”
- “I have been so bad this weekend.”
- “I was so good until Friday.”
I often hear these phrases from clients, and you’ll notice that “good” and “bad” foods shift into “I” statements: I was so good, or, I was so bad.
Before we talk about any healthy travel strategies, we must have this conversation first.
It is imperative that we shed artificial moral dichotomies that separate good foods from bad, because until we do that, we stay trapped in a binge-restrict cycle where the “good” is dry chicken breasts with soggy, unsalted broccoli, while the “bad” is actually enjoyable food. We are “good” Monday through Friday, and we are “bad” on weekends and on vacations.
When this is the framework of healthful eating, even on an unconscious level, healthful eating and exercise begin living on the opposite end of the continuum from pizza, pasta, bread, and chocolate.
The result of this internalized thinking is a constant pendulum swing between extreme behaviors, stalled progress, and a weakened relationship with your body.
Have you ever wondered why diets burn out? Why weight is so hard to lose? Why you need “cheat days”?
This is why.
Our cultural beliefs about food, weight, and pleasure are so incredibly negative.
You don’t have to go on vacation for your negative beliefs about your weight to manifest. Whatever your beliefs are at home, you will carry with you wherever you go. If you believe that you need to “let loose” in order to have fun, you will struggle with weight gain as a result of vacation. On the other hand, if you consistently practice a sensible and enjoyable way of eating all the time, and maintain an actively caring relationship with your body all the time, it doesn’t matter where you are.
My Top Four Tools for Healthy Travel
Healing cultural beliefs about food, body weight, pleasure, and health is not an overnight process. However, there are strategies that you can incorporate into your habit arsenal right away! These tools work whether you are in your own kitchen, or in a restaurant thousands of miles from home.
These tools obviously work the best when used in tandem, but the reality is that sometimes (during travel, for example), life requires that some of the tools are scaled back and only a few are used at a time. What you do has to be appropriate to the setting, but I truly believe that you can always use at least one of these tools every time you eat.
But the most important thing to remember is that these are tools, not moral rules. If you needed a screwdriver to fix a chest of drawers, you wouldn’t feel like a crushing failure just because you didn’t use a hammer, too. Some projects require one tool, while others require ten. You will learn through practice which reliably work the best for you, and you can learn to trust your intuition.
Tool #1: Listening to Your Body
For me, this is the most important tool I use to help myself manage my weight and health. I try to listen to my body for hunger cues before I eat, but also for fullness cues while I eat. When I was overweight, I did not have a sensitivity for the feeling of cruising past fullness. Now, I know to slow down my eating, take breaks, and check in with my body.
Fullness is not a physical feeling that announces itself loudly. It tends to creep in quietly, and sometimes you only notice it once you’re already quite stuffed. Being “stuffed” every time you eat is not a habit that tends to lead to healthy weight management. Instead, practice habits like:
- Putting down your fork more frequently
- Chewing food and completely swallowing before taking your next bite
- Stopping once you are “not hungry,” instead of “full”
This leads naturally to the next tool:
Tool #2: Portion Control
Compared to listening to your body, portion control is a more active strategy to help you avoid mindless overeating. Proactive portion control techniques take pressure off of your willpower. Examples while traveling include:
- Splitting food with a dining partner
- Having half of your restaurant meal boxed in the kitchen
- Saying “no thank you” to foods that you don’t really want
- Ordering fewer courses at restaurants
- Splitting appetizers and desserts with the whole table
- Buying snacks that are pre-bagged into portions, instead of in one large package
Tool #3: Preparation
Being proactive about your food is something that you can do on the road almost as well as you can at home. The key is to own your self-responsibility, and to exorcise any feelings of false helplessness. Here are some things that you can do to make healthy eating while traveling easier:
- Pack snacks at home to last for the whole trip – a protein bar at the right time can be a life (and mood) saver!
- Go grocery shopping in your new location, so that you don’t have to eat every single meal in a restaurant.
Our hotel mini-fridge was stuffed almost to bursting with salad greens, cold meats, and cheese, and the table in our room was covered with fresh fruits and vegetables.
Plus, when you visit the grocery stores, you have an opportunity to experience life somewhat as a local. You’ll get to see their food in a new way, and have a deeper, more immersive travel adventure.
Speaking of vegetables…
Tool #4: Prioritizing Fiber and Protein
Whether you are eating from your hotel room grocery stash or ordering at a five-star restaurant, you can prioritize fiber and protein without skimping on enjoyment. At least once a day, try to have:
- A piece of fruit
- A colorful vegetable
- A salad
- A serving of legumes
- Whole grains
- A solid serving of protein, whether it’s meat, dairy, or plant-based
In our hotel room, we had tuna, lentils, tomatoes, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, bananas, apples, prosciutto, mozzarella, yogurt, and rice cakes, as well as a veritable cornucopia of salad greens. These types of foods not only provide essential nutrients to your body, but they also keep you fuller, longer – reducing the likelihood that you will overeat at a subsequent meal.
Getting Beyond the Details
There were also some things that, on a practical level, make healthy eating easy in Italy. They do not snack as much, and despite their reputation for cheese, they don’t smother their food in it the way we do with Italian-American dishes here. They also walk everywhere, parking ludicrously far from buildings, and the terrain is quite hilly in many places.
Bottom line: I ate pizza, pasta, chocolate, bread, and cured meats in Italy. I also eat pizza, pasta, chocolate, bread, and cured meats at home. I eat beans, greens, fruit, and vegetables at home. I also eat beans, greens, fruit, and vegetables on the trip. I try to take 10,000 steps a day at home, and I had no problem exceeding this in Italy.
For lifelong happy and healthy weight maintenance, it is essential that we heal this dichotomy between “good” and “bad” eating. Kale doesn’t make you a good person, any more than chocolate makes you a bad person. True enjoyment of food comes when we can break the connection between binging and pleasure and guilt, and learn instead to relish foods the way they are best enjoyed – in moderation, all the time.
Most importantly – as the title of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book says, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
Need help working on some of your beliefs around food and body image? Get in touch!