According to diet culture, vacations bring too much fun, indulgences and being “bad,” so it’s necessary to go to extreme measures (like restricting food and excessively exercising) before, during and/or after trips to make sure we are “healthy.” But restriction—including detoxes and cleanses—create physiological stress and can even be dangerous. Food deprivation also cause side effects like lack of focus, irritability, food preoccupation, and slowed metabolism, while excessive exercise can lead to exhaustion, sleep issues, inflammation and injuries.
When you are learning to practice intuitive eating, it can feel daunting to leave your routine and be out in the world, but with it often comes more freedom, ease, presence, and joy, plus better access to that R&R we all need.
Here are 8 tips for practicing intuitive eating while traveling
1. Let go of the notion that you get to be "bad" on vacation, and that you must be “good” before and after
In the diet culture mindset, we are conditioned to believe that we must earn and make up for taking pleasure in eating and having “too much fun.” But this outlook only creates large pendulum swings from restriction before and after trips to “eff it” eating once you’re there, which creates an unstable internal environment and negatively affects metabolism, mood, and emotional regulation. Plus, restrictive practices can lead to missing out on nutritious, cultural, and tasty foods while on the trip.
“On a recent trip to Mexico, the first night we dined there, my plate was full of curry rice, vegetables, chickpeas, pico de gallo and other things that I just don't get at home as often and they were delicious,” says Bethany Ferguson, RD. “I may have missed out on that experience if I’d been craving other [‘bad’] foods from being ‘good’ before my trip.”
Instead, ditch the dangerous detoxes and try allowing yourself to have the foods you love regularly, including the “unhealthy” (or what I call “fun”) ones. Research shows that eating for pleasure in a balanced way is linked to increased contentment, social bonding, and well-being. Before, during, and after your trip, keep your intake adequate, stable, enjoyable, and balanced—chances are high your mind and body will be in a much better place.
2. Be prepared for changes in your hunger and fullness cues
If you are traveling overseas and/or changing time zones, expect your body to be out of whack at first, which may mean your hunger and fullness cues go awry.
Though it may sound counterintuitive, we need to eat even when our bodies are not communicating as usual. “Eating for practicality while traveling can be a useful tab to prevent getting too hungry later,” says Caroline Thomason, RD, CDCES. “Keep snacks with you, try to eat consistently every four hours or so, and avoid skipping meals.”
Since you will be out of your normal routine, changes in schedule, bowel movements, and activity level can also impact your cues. “If you're more active than normal, or even more sedentary, be sure to cue in and honor what your body is telling you that it needs, even if it's not your ‘normal’ amount of hunger,” adds Kelsey Kunik, RDN. “You may have to eat when you're not hungry because the next opportunity you'll have for a meal is several hours away.”
Essentially, staying nourished with regular meals and snacks (even if cues are dormant) and honoring cues even if different than usual, is practicing a foundational part of intuitive eating (honoring hunger and fullness) while traveling.
3. Let movement be joyful, natural, and optional on your trip
Depending on the type of vacation you go on, movement may naturally fit into your trip. Maybe it’s walking around a new city, hiking up a nearby mountain, or kayaking in the ocean. “Instead of holding yourself to your typical exercise routine, find things to do that are enjoyable experiences, and let that count as your movement,” Kunik suggests.
However, not all vacations need to be active ones, and sometimes our bodies and minds need some true R and R lounging poolside all day or hanging out at the spa. “Vacations are meant to be enjoyable and spontaneous, and a few days of less movement than usual won't derail any health benefits of the movement you have been doing or progress you've made on your fitness goals,” Kunik says.
4. Give yourself permission to experience different cultural traditions
One of my favorite parts about traveling is trying new foods and tasting the flavors of other cultures, and it helped me cultivate a healthier relationship to food.
“When you’re healing your relationship with food, traveling could be a source of joy and excitement to experience new cultures and new foods,” Thomason says. “When we tap into the fun reasons to experience new foods, we may be able to let go of some of our previous restrictions around them overtime.”
Seeing food as more than just fuel and being satisfied by eating experiences is foundational to intuitive eating and can especially be practiced while traveling. You can try a walking food tour, research travel blogs for tips, or ask a local what to eat.
5. Set boundaries around diet talk
In my practice, one of the hardest parts about going on trips for my clients learning intuitive eating is dealing with diet-focused conversations. Comments like “I’m being so ‘bad’ eating this bread and dessert,’” or “I’m going to gain so much weight” are unfortunately normalized, yet can make eating experiences unenjoyable and difficult.
I always suggest setting boundaries with I-statements before the trip even starts. For example, if you go on a trip with your mom who is immersed in diet culture, sit her down beforehand and say something like, “When you talk about food being bad, it makes it harder for me to enjoy the experience because I am working on intuitive eating. On this trip, please leave that type of language off the table.”
You can also set boundaries in the moment if necessary. “[You can] excuse yourself from the conversation, change the subject, or if you feel like it, state your needs, [by saying something like,] ‘I actually feel very neutral about my body in regards to weight, my body deserves to be fed in a way that feels good to me and respected,” Ferguson says.
6. Show your body love and respect
When packing your suitcase, ask yourself, “How do I want to feel?” instead of “How do I want to look?” Bring clothes that make you feel comfortable.
Considering activities and climate, fill your suitcase with clothes and accessories that fit your body well, feel comfortable and express your authentic self. By viewing your body as an instrument requiring care, versus an ornament to be judged, you send your body the message that it’s worthy of care, no matter what.
7. Practice gentle nutrition
Since our bodies have a built-in detoxing system (AKA our kidneys, colon, and liver), we do not need trendy (yet unscientific) cleanses to prepare for or to return from trips. With intuitive eating, you may even notice your body asking for produce sometimes, especially if you take a break from eating it (which is totally okay). In fact, intuitive eating is linked to increased fruit and vegetable intake.
Before, during, and after your trip, I suggest practicing gentle nutrition (one of the intuitive eating principles) instead of detoxes, which includes enjoying an eating pattern focusing on health and pleasure and adding nutritious foods when it makes sense for you. For example, try adding fibrous blueberries to your morning cereal, vitamin-dense kale to your sandwich at lunch, or packing some heart-healthy nuts for the car ride.
If you have a metabolic condition like diabetes or high cholesterol, I recommend working with an intuitive eating, non-diet dietitian who can help tailor gentle nutrition to your needs.
8. Try daily embodiment practices
Embodiment, or being in connection with your body’s present-moment experience, is essential for having interoceptive awareness (or the conscious awareness of bodily sensations), which is positively associated with intuitive eating. Traveling, changing time zones and being out of the daily grind can make embodiment challenging, though.
To help enhance embodiment, I suggest taking a mindful moment each day on vacation to “get in to your body.” While it can be a more traditional form of mindfulness like yoga or meditation, mindful moments can also be brief periods of intentionally engaging one of the far senses (touch, sound, taste, smell, see). For example, dig your bare feet into the grass or sand, listen closely to the ocean waves or morning birdsong or truly taste your morning coffee and croissant.
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