The Vacationer’s Guide to Healthy Eating


Yes, you’re supposed to break the rules on vacation, but that doesn’t mean you can’t squeeze some filling and nutritious snacks in between the debauchery.

This may seem like a fun-killing exercise at first, but we’re not interested in coddling or pandering to our readers, so let’s get the harsh reality out of the way: most of us haven’t earned the right to binge on vacation.

Why should vacationers care about healthy eating?

Isn’t it a bit tone deaf of us to harangue hard-working folks about their eating habits when they finally get to take a break from their stressful lives?

This may seem like a fun-killing exercise at first, but we’re not interested in coddling or pandering to our readers, so let’s get the harsh reality out of the way: most of us haven’t earned the right to binge on vacation.

If everyone exercised religiously and abstained completely from fast food, pop, and all other junk throughout the entire year, then of course a week or two of heedless eating would be much less of a concern (although you’d probably be sick the whole time).

But because most of the world is nowhere near those standards, we have to take every possible step to keep creeping obesity at bay. 

The Creeping Obesity Hypothesis

For obvious reasons, collecting data from study participants before, during, and/or after vacation is logistically problematic, which is why most researchers looking to examine the effect of “holiday dieting” on weight gain and overall health use the winter holiday season as the next best thing.

However, a 122-participant study from the University of Georgia was able to at least assess the following dynamics before and after a vacation abroad:

  • Height
  • Weight
  • Blood pressure
  • Waist-to-hip ratio
  • Physical activity (International Physical Activity Questionnaire – IPAQ
  • Stress (Perceived Stress Scale – PSS)

Perceived stress declined and physical activity increased during vacations, but participants gained an average of 0.32kg, which converts to just less than a pound. 

This may not seem like much (although some outliers gained upwards of six pounds), but the 6-week post-assessment revealed that the added weight was rarely lost.

This is where the term “creeping obesity” comes from—seemingly innocuous instances of minor weight gain that add up over the years.

Our Healthy Vacationing Tips

We completely understand that nobody wants to count calories or meal prep while on vacation, but there’s a healthy middle ground between stressing out and bingeing carelessly.

For example, you can save money and curb the impulse to overeat by bringing some non-perishable food items to your destination. 

Bring Nutritious Non-Perishables

The trick here is to bring fibrous and/or protein-dense items that you can ideally eat either for breakfast or between breakfast and lunch.

By filling up with nutritious snacks, you can limit the amount of calories derived from drinks, desserts, and less healthy entrees later on.

Here are some healthy, non-perishable foods that will survive the trip, save you some dough, and hold the line in terms of weight maintenance:

  • Nuts and seeds
  • Rice cakes
  • Grass-fed beef jerky
  • Dried fruit (watch the portions)
  • Popcorn (unsalted, light or no butter)

Try to Score a Rental with a Kitchen

Understandably, most of us look forward to not having to cook when going on vacation, but booking a rental or room with a kitchen will at least give you the option to whip up a quick meal once or twice throughout your trip.

Think of it as a welcome break between heavier and more indulgent meals.

As far as what you should cook, foods with detoxifying/cleansing compounds are always a smart choice on vacation.

Additionally, foods with fiber and electrolytes are great for slowing alcohol absorption and dehydration. 

Here are some examples:

  • Spinach
  • Eggs
  • Peppers
  • Bananas
  • Whole grains
  • Avocados
  • Almonds

You don’t have to split hairs when it’s only one or two meals—just find something filling and nutritious that pairs well with wine. 

Set Up a Schedule

Between the jet lag, the sudden change of environment, and all the excitement, it’s understandable that mealtime may get shifted one direction or another while you’re on vacation. 

However, the closer you can stick to your normal meal timing, the better.

A review from the University of Murcia in Spain determined that changing meal times—especially moving them to a later time—is correlated with an increased risk of type diabetes and obesity.

Of course, it’s highly unlikely that irregular meal time scheduling over a week or two of vacationing would significantly increase these risk factors, but it can still shock your metabolism enough to facilitate weight gain. 

Make Smart Swaps at the Restaurant 

If we had to pick the most effective strategy for eating healthy while on vacation, this would probably be it.

All-inclusive resorts with buffets can be especially problematic for those of us with less robust defenses against temptation, but with this increased availability of food items comes a greater potential to make healthy swaps.

It’s not rocket science—avoid or minimize the super-high-fat and/or sugar-laden dishes and find more nutritious alternatives.

Here’s what we mean:

Instead of…Try…
BreakfastSausageTurkey/chicken sausage
Waffle/pancake w/syrupWheat toast w/ light butter
Cereal/MilkPlain yogurt/fruit
MuffinEnglish muffin
JuiceWater, coffee, hot tea
LunchRed meat “sandwich” (beef taco, shawarma, gyro, hamburger, etc.)Chicken or fish “sandwich”
Deep-fried foods (chicken, calamari, chimichanga, etc.)Grilled versions
Refined carbs (fries, white bread, pizza, white rice, etc.)Healthier carbs (sweet potatoes, chickpeas, fruit/veg)
Dressings and saucesOlive oil/vinegar
PopWater, fresh juice 
DinnerPastaQuinoa, squash noodles, whole grain pasta, etc.
French breadPumpernickel/rye/wheat
Red meat entreesChicken or fish entrees
High-fat sides: mac and cheese, loaded baked potato, etc.Asparagus/green beans, side salad, squash, etc.
Cake/Ice CreamFruit

Find Something Local

Just because it’s local fare, doesn’t mean it’s healthy.

However, if you seek out locally sourced, freshly made foods that contain vegetables, fruits, and/or lean meats, you’ll be better off than eating at the resort.

Plus, you can use the excursion as a chance to walk around, hike, etc.

The trick is to mentally prepare yourself for the strategically positioned street vendors and the alluring whiffs of greasy goodness emanating from their stands.

Stay strong, keep walking, and find that mom-and-pop that the locals love. 

Watch the Mixers

Obviously, the less alcohol you drink, the better, but it would be nothing short of puritanical to prohibit someone on a hard-earned vacation from drinking altogether.

However, you can significantly decrease the caloric impact of your drink choices by switching from soda to water or club soda.

Interestingly enough, switching to a diet soda will actually raise your “breath alcohol consumption” more than a sugar-sweetened mixer, according to this Northern Kentucky University study.

In other words, you lose either way with soda, so it’s much better to simply stick to water or club soda.

Return to Normalcy

Finally, even though “normalcy” has proven itself an elusive prospect since COVID-19 touched down in the USA, it’s important to remind yourself that the vacation is over after you come home.

If you applied even half of these tips during your vacation, this transition will be a much smoother one.

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