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Eating on Vacation

By: Ashleigh G. Whittington | Jul 1, 2024

I recently returned home from a week-long trip to Vero beach where my husband's family goes once a year to enjoy some sand, surf, and sun. It was a perfect mix between family time, couple time with my husband, working out in the hotel gym, swimming, and relaxing by the pool with a good book. The weather was gorgeous and I couldn't have asked for a better week to recharge and kick off the summer feeling refreshed and excited for the season ahead!

In conversation with my clients, I have learned that many of them have an all-or-nothing approach to eating while traveling: they either say "who cares? I'm on vacation" and eat and drink things they don't normally consume and/or eat to excess, or they say "nothing is safe, I can only eat these few foods and/or I will bring all my own". The first approach can cause digestive upset, feeling tired, feeling physically uncomfortable, and can be a difficult habit to break once you're back home. The second often leads to fear, stress, and anxiety around every meal, not to mention missing out on trying the local food and sharing meals with loved ones. 

I can completely relate to scenario #2: in the past, I have been very fearful around food due to my history of an eating disorder, getting salmonella on a trip to San Diego, and my continuous battle with SIBO/H.pylori infection/IBS. I am grateful to have done a fair bit of work on this issue for myself and now feel like I have a much more balanced attitude towards vacation eating, although the fear and anxiety does sometimes rear its ugly head, so having some tools to draw from is incredibly helpful.

Each of these extremes have shades of gray between them, and plenty of people fall smack dab in the middle of them, but for those of us who often struggle to determine how best to feed ourselves on a vacation, here are some tips I have gathered both from my experience and those of my clients:

Look for the vegetables

This is a tip I've taken from my supervising mentor, Abra Pappa, CNS, LDN: when you're looking for a place to eat, or looking at a menu once you sit down, look for something with vegetables. This can be more difficult in some countries than in others. When I traveled to Bogota, Colombia, meat and starches like yucca and potatoes were standard at every meal, but there were a few places I could find a small side salad or a few sauteed veggies, so I always jumped at the chance to order whatever I could to up my daily veggie count (even if that count came to a grand total of 1!). Think fish tacos with shredded cabbage, cilantro, Working to incorporate vegetables where you can will help keep your digestion functioning regularly by introducing fiber (and that can be VERY important when traveling, as some of you may know...), and it will increase your overall nutrient intake. 

Be open to new foods

Eating while traveling can be fantastic way to broaden your palate and experience foods you may never encounter at home. My father always said that one of his favorite trips he ever took was to Singapore because he met a local woman on the airplane and she took him to her favorite Hawker Center where he sampled the most delicious cuisine he could recall. He had never visited the country before and trusted that someone local would know the best places to eat, and he was very grateful he did! When visiting a new place, chat with the locals there, or read blogs created by locals before you go, to learn where their favorite foods are and to avoid the tourist traps. It will give you a better grasp on the culture and help you learn more about the place you're visiting.

But keep your eating routine

Something I learned from another mentor of mine, Dr. Jaime Schehr, ND, RD is when you're traveling "change what you eat, but not how you eat". What she means by that is to be flexible with the kinds of foods your eating and embrace what the place you're visiting has to offer, but stick to the way your normally eat. For example, I try to get plenty of protein and fiber into my breakfast so wherever I am, I'll look for the foods that meet those needs, like Greek yogurt with nuts and fruit, or a breakfast sandwich on some whole grain bread, or an omelet with some veggies and cheese. This is where it can be helpful to bring a few things with you, like packets of nut butter, a fiber supplement if you're someone who suffers from digestive problems while traveling, some dried fruit and nuts, seaweed snacks, or protein bars. 

Try to also stick to your usual pattern of eating, whether it's 3 meals/day or 5-6 small meals/day, continue to do what makes you feel your best and helps keep your energy and digestion running smoothly. There are specific methods that have been studied to help stave off jet lag, and to help your circadian clock regulate appropriately if you're a shift worker, so if that interests you, I encourage you to seek that out. I won't cover that here because I personally find it to be too challenging to time meals and sleep well enough to have the intended affect, and having a bunch of rules for what should be a fun trip is not my idea of a vacation!

Keeping a cool head

Regardless of your approach to eating on vacation, or any kind of trip, remember that this is a temporary state of being that is likely outside of your normal routine. Try to enjoy eating differently, and perhaps different foods entirely, if they fit within the foods that work best for you. Travel is meant to broaden our horizons and teach us new things about different cultures, and food is a huge part of that. If you're constantly hung up on eating perfectly, you'll miss out on so many delicious foods and ways to connect with the people around you. Once you return home, you'll go back to your typical way of eating, and maybe even include some of the tasty things you tried on your trip! When you remember that, you might be able to relax and enjoy yourself more fully.

If you are someone who is dealing with an eating disorder, or any kind of difficulty around changing your regular dietary patterns, this likely sounds like an impossible goal, but as someone who has been in recovery for anorexia for many years, I can attest that is IS possible for change to happen. If you'd like some guidance around finding more freedom with food, consider booking a 15 minute call to see if a supportive nutrition approach might be helpful for you.

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