by Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD, President & Co-Owner, Green Mountain at Fox Run
It’s a story told time and again. You’re doing well with self-care, eating well, and getting plenty of physical activity… then vacation happens. On return home, you’re discouraged by pants that fit more snugly than before you left and you feel overwhelmed at the thought of starting from scratch all over again. What if you were to look at it all differently, and just expect slightly tighter-fitting pants while not stressing about it? That’s what a mindful, intuitive eater might do.
Vacations Mean Eating Differently
To say that it’s to be expected to eat differently on vacation is a “duh” statement if we’ve ever heard one. What we can change, though, is how we respond to the experience, which is related to old thinking patterns.
Worrying about the calorie, fat, etc., content of the food we eat and how much weight we might gain, can actually be more of a problem than eating richer foods. That’s because worry produces stress, which interferes with our metabolism with stress hormones such as cortisol. So any real weight gained might be more the result of cortisol, not calories. Additionally, the more we stress about our eating, the higher the possibility that we fall into the diet trap of restriction, which undermines our appetite regulatory system and can drive us to overeat.
When we relax, and eat according to our internal cues (which may guide us to eat more than we normally do), we can quickly return to our normal weight once we return home, without any long-term ill effects.
Why We Often Eat More on Vacation
New Foods = Fun
When faced with different foods that offer new and pleasurable taste experiences, it’s usual to eat more than we might normally eat. That’s due to the physiologic phenomenon called sensory specific satiety.
In our everyday lives, we get used to eating the same foods, even if we generally include a wide variety. When we’re hungry, we look forward to eating those foods, but we often reach the point where we’re satisfied just a little bit earlier in the game than if the food is new, as it usually is on vacation. So when everything is new, it may take a few more bites to achieve satisfaction (if it’s tasty food). If we continued eating these foods, then we’d likely find them less interesting eventually, and find our stopping point sooner.
Eating Out Means More Choices and More Courses
Vacations also generally mean eating out a lot. When we eat out, we usually have a lot more courses than we might have at home. Sensory specific satiety can play a role here, too, because with each new flavor, we often want to eat until we’re satisfied with that flavor. But that doesn’t necessarily mean significantly overeating if we’re intuitive eaters because other factors that stop eating are more powerful.
For example, if we’re getting too full, we stop because we don’t want to be uncomfortable, even though the taste might be something we really like and would like more of. Still, we may often eat just a few more bites than we would at home when we don’t have as many choices, or again, when we have the choices as often as we like.
Social Settings and Portion Sizes Affect Intuitive Eating
There’s also another phenomenon with eating out that’s not well understood, but it has to do with portion sizes. Studies show that when we have larger portion sizes, we tend to eat more. And of course, restaurants – especially American restaurants — are generally known for larger portion sizes.
In theory, this shouldn’t affect an accomplished intuitive eater, but because eating out is generally a social occasion, it could have an impact. Studies suggest that we eat more when we eat in groups than when we eat alone. This probably has to do with not listening as closely to our cues, and the social role that food plays in our lives. It’s a good time, but at the end of such an event, we might find we ate a bit more than we really wanted to.
The Key to Eating Well is Trust
So it makes sense that all this can add up to tighter fitting pants when we return home. What do we need to do about it? Nothing, really.
If we return to our usual intuitive eating or mindful eating behaviors, our bodies will take care of any extra energy (calories) we’ve stored from vacation. We won’t be as hungry as usual, and will find ourselves eating a little less – maybe not noticeably less but, it will be less – until our bodies stabilize at their healthy weight. It generally doesn’t take more than a week or so, sometimes even just a few days.
What’s implied in all this is that we trust — in our bodies and in intuitive, mindful eating.
Now that’s something to come home to!