How to eat on vacation without coming back as a beached whale!

Summer has finally arrived!  The kids are out of school, the weather is hot, and the family vacation that has been planned for months is finally approaching.  So what are you most looking forward to on your vacation?  Is it the quality time you will finally be able to spend with your family, the time away from the office, or a combination of different reasons why this vacation has been at the forefront of your thoughts for the past several months.  One thing that most of us do when we are planning to travel to a new destination is to research restaurants in the area.  Why do we do this?  Of course, because we all have to eat and we want to take this opportunity to eat new foods and experience new environments.  So what happens when we are enticed by new foods in an exciting environment while on vacation?  Well most of us are significantly more likely to over eat in these novice situations.  Why does this phenomenon occur?  Typically because our brain tries to “trick” us into believing certain thoughts it generates.  For instance, you may hear things like, “You can splurge on this meal, you’re on vacation!”.  Other people may hear things like, “calories don’t count when you are on vacation”, or “you will only be able to have this food once”.  Do any of these thoughts sound familiar?

Most of us can resonate with these thoughts or something similar.  So what do we do about these “tricky” thoughts that typically result in us deciding to over eat while we are on vacation?  How do I become more aware of these thoughts?

The first step is to be able to recognize when our brain is “tricking” us with these inaccurate thoughts.  Think about it. Is it really true that we will never be able to have this food outside of this vacation?  Very unlikely!  Think about all of the online resources that are now available and allow you to order food from almost any place!  Not to mention the accessibility of travel which allows us to be able to travel to our favorite places more easily and typically less expensively than in the past.  So what do you think?  Do you believe that you will really never be able to have the food that you are eating on vacation again?  What about some of those other “tricky thoughts”?  “I can eat whatever I want because I am on vacation!”.  Yes this is an accurate thought, to some extent anyways.  You can eat whatever you want on vacation and actually anytime, but how do you do this without gaining weight?  It is okay to eat anything you want as long as you can eat the food in moderation.  So how do you figure out what moderation looks like?

Moderation can look differently for each person.  One way to figure out what moderation may look like for you is to help you be able to recognize your level of hunger / fullness.  Eating in moderation means that you are eating until you begin to feel “satisfied full”.  This may seem like a very simple concept, but you may be surprised!  It takes time, practice, and dedication to be able to recognize your level of hunger / fullness.  Some people find it easier to be able to use a scale to identify how hungry or full they are prior to eating, while they are eating, and again after they finish eating.

What does that scale look like?  Many people whom I work with find it helpful to use a scale from 1 to 7.  Typically the “1” on the scale refers to starving, a “2” is really hungry, and “3” means just starting to feel hungry.  A “4” refers to neutral, neither hungry nor full.  A “5” means satisfied full, a “6” is too full, and a “7” is stuffed.  Sometimes it can be helpful to identify your level of hunger prior to eating and then again when you finish.  This takes time to be able to figure out!  It sounds easy, but can be challenging to identify your levels of hunger at first.

What number do you think is the most effective to start eating at?  If you said “3” you are correct!  So why is “3” better than “1” or “2”?  Think about the last time you decided to eat when you were really hungry or starving.  What happened?  Where would you say that you ended up at after eating that time?  My guess is that when you stopped eating you were likely at a “6” or “7”.  So why does this happen?  Well when we begin eating when we are starving we are significantly more likely to eat faster, eat more, and not pay attention to what we are eating.  It is recommended that you begin eating when you are just starting to feel your hunger, around a number “3”.  This will allow you to be more mindful about what you eat and to recognize when you are starting to feel full.  It is recommended to stop eating when you feel you are just starting to feel full or satisfied full, around a “5” on the scale.

In summary, the things to remember when you go on vacation is to pay attention to those “tricky thoughts” that tend to confuse us and make us think that we will never have the option to eat a certain food again, that we don’t care how much we eat, and that vacation can mean a “free for all” in terms of calories consumed.  Secondly, it is important to be able to recognize your level of hunger and fullness.  Without being able to do this it is very difficult to be able to learn how to eat in moderation. Other advantages to being able to recognize levels of hunger and satiety include no longer having to “count calories”, try to figure out what a serving size is, or feel like the only way to lose weight is to “starve” yourself.

So pack the car, load the suit cases, and remember to watch out for those tricky thoughts and to enjoy all of those new foods in a moderate way!  You will end up being able to enjoy the food and the experience more when you eat it in moderation and your figure will remain healthy in that swim suit throughout your vacation!

Tonya McFarland, PsyD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Golden, CO

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