If you've ever struggled with disordered eating or have been stuck in the diet mindset, you're likely familiar with the panic/anxiety/fear that comes with any sort of trip or vacation. And I get it- there are so many things that make traveling a challenge when you have a poor relationship with food. Recently, I found myself on a 10-hour road trip (when I say recently, I mean 5 weeks ago and this post has slowly but surely been in the works since then) and I was reminded of how several years ago, spending multiple hours sitting in a car without access to my "safe" foods was my worst nightmare. And then staying somewhere with no idea of what foods would be available and no idea if/when you would be able to make it to a grocery store? Forget about it. My whole trip would be trying to avoid buying unplanned snacks and thinking of excuses for when I would inevitably skip dinner and/or go for a run as soon as humanly possible. I hear this narrative repeated to me by clients frequently so I wanted to provide some food travel tips (if you're looking for more advice about traveling with an eating disorder, make sure you read this post written by the wonderful Dr. Colleen Reichmann).
Traveling- whether by plane, train, or automobile- usually means a lot of sitting and meals/snacks on the go. If you've ever read a "health" magazine in the summer, you've probably noticed that they're riddled with advice for how to maintain your diet while you travel or how to choose the best gas station snacks, yada yada yada. There are some health professionals out there that love to give this advice and if you're one of them, more power to you (although you might want to examine whether you could be doing harm but that's a topic for another day). I want to offer something different. I want to offer the idea that it's possible to make peace gas station snacks and sitting for long periods of time and in fact, making peace with that and maintaining flexibility might be the healthiest thing for you. So I've rounded up some of my best tips I have for managing food while traveling if you're in the process of recovery/intuitive eating/etc.
Before you go:
- Have a rough idea of when you should be eating a meal or snack. Obviously it's impossible to plan down to the minute but it is helpful to have an idea of how often you need to be eating (probably every 3-4 hours) and about when mealtimes should be. This will help you to eat consistently throughout the day.
- If you're following a meal plan, it may be helpful to make your travel companion (or trusted friend from afar) aware of it so they can help hold you accountable- plus this can help work out the logistics of pit stops.
- Pack lots of snacks! There's nothing I love more than a grocery store trip pre-road trip to stock up on my favorite snacks. For me, a lot of these tend to be salty and grain-based because that is what I enjoy the most but bringing something along with some protein might be a good idea (I'm really into those Justin's portable PB packets and I usually bring some beef jerky along for my partner and I to share). The most important thing is making sure you have snacks that you enjoy that you can snack on in a pinch.
On the way:
- Follow your meal plan/schedule of times to eat and be vocal about your needs if you have to. If you're traveling with other people, there's no shame in advocating for yourself and asking to make a stop soon. Again, discussing this ahead of time with your travel partners might make this less stressful in the moment.
- No need to fear fast food! And no need to choose meals that feel "safe". There's no impending doom if you eat a burger and fries from McDonald's or whatever it is you enjoy. Also: eating is non-negotiable so even if you don't really enjoy fast food but it's your only option, it's better to get something there than nothing at all.
- If you're an anxious traveler (*raises hand*), maybe save the exotic new foods for once you land. The last thing a person needs when traveling is GI distress and mixing new foods (or foods you know don't really agree with you) with a nervous tummy might be a recipe for disaster.
- Don't force yourself to do laps around the terminal to "make up" for the time you're spending sitting if you don't want to. Your body can figure out how to handle days you're mostly still without you stepping in to micromanage. Also: days spent resting, whether you're traveling or not, are mandatory.
While you're there:
- Try to enjoy the food you have access to (if there's no verified allergy that would prevent this). A lot of travel involves eating meals you might not normally eat. Try to enjoy the opportunity to eat different things and recognize that food is probably not the most important part of the travel experience anyway.
- If it feels safe for you, this might be a good time for a fear food exposure. Eating new or different foods can help you better experience the culture of where you are (even if it's not particularly exotic) and it can help challenge your eating disorder voice. Plus, many times we're with people we love when we're traveling so it creates a safe space to do it in. It's a win/win/win.
- Don't panic if you're not able to eat fruits & vegetables as often as you might normally. Your body is totally capable of handling a few days without vegetables (also, can confirm from personal experience that even dietitians go entire days without a veggie sometimes and the body is able to manage just fine). If you're able to eat them at some meals, that's fine but it's not worth getting obsessive over.
- Make sure you're staying hydrated- being dehydrated on vacation/in transit is a huuuuge bummer but can happen easily when we're out of our routines. It also might help with GI issues if you're a person who tends to get a bit..backed up while you're away. As long as you're drinking when you're thirsty and peeing regularly, you're probably good to go.
- Don't skip valuable experiences to go for a run (or don't force yourself to do intentional movement at all if you don't feel like it). As a person who has missed out on many a valuable or fun experience so she could go to the gym, I can tell you that it's never worth it. Your best life is not on that treadmill, it's out doing the things that make you feel whole. Also is there anything more depressing than hotel gyms?
When you get back home:
- Try to tune into your body and eat the things that sound good to you. If you haven't had access to vegetables or fruits or protein, your body will likely crave them (in addition to other foods of course), but you don't have to "detox" or try to compensate. You don't need to "get back on the wagon". Ditching the diet mindset means getting off the wagon completely and taking it step by step from there. In this case, the next best step is eating what sounds nourishing to you (and making sure it fits your recovery meal plan if applicable).
- Don't force yourself to run extra miles or spend hours at the gym. Again, you don't need to compensate for anything! Carry on as usual. If you're feeling like you need to stretch your body out after being cramped up, gentle yoga or stretching might be helpful.
- If you had GI issues while you were traveling, getting back into your usual food/water/sleep/movement routine is going to be super helpful although it may take a few days to get things back in working order. Probiotics- yogurt, kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut- may be helpful if you like the taste and are having some issues getting your shit together (pun intended); if you're working with an RD, this would be a good thing to talk to them about.
- Write/talk about your travel experience so you don't forget what a freaking badass you are for experiencing new things and challenging some of those ED thoughts.
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