Traveling with an eating disorder packs a triple whammy for the already beleaguered spirit in desperate need of true rest and relaxation. Whether you struggle with dieting, overeating, purging or a general dissatisfaction with your physical form that prevents you from settling peacefully into the moment, a vacation can be a stress-filled experience that makes you want to just stay at home instead with the covers pulled high.
In this 3-part article, I will not deal with the obvious stress of the obligatory attempts at dieting in anticipation of any vacation that requires the baring of any skin above the elbow or knee. That is a topic for another day. Instead, I will address the 3 key ways in which traveling can challenge the tenuous grip most disordered eaters have on their relationship with food and weight: limitations/abundance of choice; change in routine; and the emotional impact of traveling. As I explore each of these confounding circumstances I will provide you with some suggestions on how to approach them in the most simple and life-enhancing way so you can relax and enjoy your well-earned vacation.
First let’s explore the physical constraints of choice and their impact, depending on where you’re traveling and where you’re staying. Many vacation destinations (all-inclusive resorts and cruise ships for example) have an abundance of choice that does include, if you commit to looking for them, choices that are healthy: foods low in processed and refined flours and sugars and trans fats. But these types of resorts, for the disordered eater, are typically disasters waiting to happen. The abundance of foods and the temptation of fattening desserts and entrées will lead even the most healthy and natural of eaters (those who eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full and choose life-enhancing foods overall) to tune out to the natural rhythms of their body and overeat at most meals. The natural eater will often return home from one of these vacations with a few extra pounds but they won’t carry a lot of energy and guilt about that. They will simply return to their normal routines of eating when hungry, stopping when full, exercise in moderation, and find themselves back at their natural weight within a few weeks. No muss, no fuss.
On the other side of the equation we find the individual who has an uneasy relationship with food, doesn’t trust themselves to eat naturally, and has no confidence in their ability to return to a natural weight. They will be devastated by a few extra pounds and will become convinced they’re doomed to fall down the slippery slope back into uncontrolled weight gain again. For this person, these all-inclusive / buffet-style holidays become not about fun and play, sightseeing and rest and relaxation, but about food and what they will or won’t allow themselves to have, plus the guilt, shame and Drill Sgt.-self-loathing that follows the consumption of any “forbidden” food.
And for those of us who aren’t traveling to the all-inclusive resort but to a hotel with the average restaurant menu (pasta, steak, burgers, fries, quesadillas, salads, etc.) or to places where fast food abounds, choosing foods that feel good to our body and our palette and our mind can be a challenge. Again, in all but the most extreme of situations, if you are committed to looking for ways to eat healthily, you will find them (or at least some reasonable facsimile). But if you feel easily overwhelmed by the proximity of certain, shall we say, less honoring choices, you can find yourself ignoring or not even seeing the healthiest items on the menu and just defaulting into thoughts like “Screw it, I’m on vacation” or “There aren’t any “good” options on this menu so I’ll just have the burger and fries.” Chances are you’ll be hearing from both your body and your Drill Sgt. pretty quickly after that meal: Your body, to protest the quality of the food and perhaps the quantity as well; and your Drill Sgt. to protest the compromise of your integrity in eating something that you have judged as something you “shouldn’t” be eating.
And what about those of us who aren’t staying in a hotel, all-inclusive or otherwise? What about those of us who are, dare I say it….visiting relatives? Even if we really like these people and are looking forward to see them, it’s a challenge for anyone who uses food to cope to be a guest in someone else’s home – often in many ways (ie. emotional, psychological and space wise) – but especially so where meal times choices are concerned.
Assuming we have some degree of comfort and familiarity with these folks, we may be able to ask for certain things to be on hand in the fridge/cupboards and certain things to be served or not served. Or at least, we may be willing to just let it be okay to eat certain bits of what’s served and not feel obligated to eat other things that we aren’t comfortable with or that may trigger binging and/or the Drill Sgt.’s many criticisms. For those who use food to cope this is a wee bit of a stretch as usually we use food to cope, in large part, because we don’t know how to take care of ourselves in relationships with others and we have a hard time setting boundaries about what we need and when.
This means that we are more likely, when visiting friends or relatives, to eat what is served, when it is served and to just deal with the consequences “later” either by restricting or purging when we can or by throwing ourselves on some crash diet as soon as we return home. Either way, we feel anxious, unsettled and uncomfortable in our bodies and have a high degree of Drill Sgt. chatter going on at a time when we really deserve to just relax and enjoy our friends and family, or at least, to enjoy the fact that we’re not at home and working!
We are often reluctant to speak up and ask for certain foods and certain quantities when visiting friends or relatives because we feel we would be drawing attention to our weight and our relationship with food, an area of our lives around which we already feel quite conspicuous and self-conscious. Thus we end up eating things that trigger bad body thoughts and self-judgement, and/or eating at times when we’re not at all hungry because that is when the meal is being served and we don’t want to stand out by not eating.
Yes, honoring choices become a challenge when traveling, but it is possible to travel and feel in control of our food choices rather than the other way around.
- Make a commitment to listen to the cues of your body about when you are hungry and only eat when you are truly physically hungry.
- Eat what you are truly hungry for when you are physically hungry. Don’t second-guess and try to manipulate yourself to want something that you don’t. If you’re hungry allow yourself to have what you want.
- Stay tuned! Notice how your body feels as you eat and if you’re starting to get full, slow down. If you feel resistant to slowing down or staying present, ask yourself the following question: “Am I resisting staying tuned to my body because I don’t want to stop eating and if I listened to my body I’d realize I’m full?” If the answer is yes, reassure yourself that you can always have more later and invite yourself gently to stop now. Allow yourself to start with dessert next time if you want, as long as you’re hungry when you eat.
- Make a commitment that you will not eat simply to make other people happy or comfortable. You will only eat when you’re hungry and you will have what you want. If you only want salad, have that. If you only want dessert, have that. If you only want Oysters, have that (assuming they’re being served!)
- Either bring with you or purchase snack foods you enjoy and feel comfortable having (and that travel well!) so that you will always have something tasty and enjoyable and quick with you wherever you are. This will help a lot with situations where you’re not hungry but everyone is eating as you won’t feel as pressured to eat now because you’ll know there is something you can have when you genuinely are hungry. It will also help with situations where you’re hungry and no one else is, or there isn’t any food in site, as you will be able, through eating your snack, to take the edge off and make sure that you’re not ravenous (ie. in binge mode) when you next get around food.
It really does feel so good to take care of yourself. It feels healthy, it feels adult, it feels mature, it feels honoring, it feels authentic, caring, loving, kind, and respectful.
Print this article and carry it with you for those times when you’re away from home base for an afternoon, a day, a week, or longer. When you notice yourself starting to stress about food and choices, pull this article out, read it and remind yourself of some very simple and concrete things you can do to feel a greater sense of peace, ease and self-respect in your relationship with food.
Enjoy that vacation!
Stay tuned for Part’s II and III of this article where I’ll talk about the impact of changes in routine and emotional triggers that we’re likely to experience on the road. Ahh, traveling – isn’t it fun?!