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The summer months with extended breaks from school and hours of work leave waiting to be used are often a popular time for people all over the world to travel and go on vacation. Granted, this practice looks different in recent times given the COVID-19 global travel restrictions and safety precautions in place; however, as the long period of stay at home orders, isolation and lockdown slowly lifts people are eager to begin to travel once more from visiting family and friends to exploring the spots on their “bucket lists.” 

Whether it’s a trip to a nearby beach town or excursion to hike the trails of a national park vacations are often a time in which we are thrown out of our typical routines. This change can often open the door for sneaky diet culture and disordered eating thoughts like: 

“If I’m going to be in a bathing suit all day I better watch what I eat leading up to this trip, and/or restrict my intake while at the beach.” 

“I wonder what people will think if they can see the cellulite on my legs in these hiking shorts?”

“I have to find a hotel with a gym in it so I don’t fall behind on my workouts or lose progress.” 

“Vacation is my time to be ‘bad’ and then I’ll jump back on the diet when I return.” 

The feeling of a loss of control over typical food and exercise routines can be overwhelming and scary for some, particularly those struggling with eating disorders or disordered eating. The rigidity attached to knowing what you are going to eat, how you are going to “workout” and when can be confining and take you away from the spontaneity and joy of being on vacation. Here are some tips that may help you to reduce the presence of diet culture on your next vacation: 

1. Reframe the “vacation” mindset around food

The “vacation” mindset around food often includes people giving themselves “special permission” to eat previously “off limit” foods. Going on vacation is a treat! But it does not mean this is the only time you’re allowed treats. The all or nothing mindset can often lead to restrict and binge cycles. If you feel like vacation is the only time you’ll be able to have a bucket of french fries or your favorite ice cream flavor you’ll likely want to eat as much of these items as you can (even if it no longer feels good) because you wouldn’t allow yourself to have them otherwise. This mentality leaves you feeling hyper-focused on food and comes with feelings of guilt and shame around your choices. Food doesn’t have a moral value, so don’t assign it any. The food you eat on vacation does not have to dominate your trip and neither does it need to be ignored – it not only fuels you for all your activities but also has the potential to provide some of your favorite vacation memories (e.g. that late night ice cream cone on the boardwalk with your kids) if you let it.

2. Enjoy the movement that’s unique to vacation 

Forcing yourself to follow a specific exercise regime while on vacation can be exhausting, rigid and often at the expense of spending time with your fellow trip companions or fully enjoying your surroundings. If you feel the need to exercise frequently while on vacation it may be time to get curious and think about the core beliefs you hold around movement and whether your behavior is compensatory. One of the highlights of vacation is the novelty of your surroundings! Even if you’re not in your typical group fitness class or the usual gym treadmill, you’re still moving your body in new and different ways. When you help your kids build a sandcastle on the beach your arms are building new memories (and likely a laugh or two), when you hike the flat trail to a nearby lake your legs are putting one foot in front of the other to take you to new sites and even when you’re laying in a comfy lounge chair by the pool your chest is rising and falling with each breath, as your body works to keep you alive. Remember, movement may look different on vacation and that’s not a bad thing. 

3. Remind yourself of the WHY

For some people going on vacation is a reason to relax and reset, for others it may be to visit family and friends or explore new, unforeseen places. Regardless of the purpose, focusing on food and exercise takes you away from the present moment and robs you from the experiences available to you on vacation. When you’re at the beach your kids, friends or family they won’t remember that cellulite on your thighs. They’ll remember how you jumped into the ocean with them. They’ll remember you doubled over laughing with them over the latest boogie boarding attempt. They’ll remember the melting ice cream cones you all ate while sitting in the sand. They’ll remember you IN these moments with them, instead of staying hidden under a towel. My hope is this is what you’ll remember too.

While on vacation you are not following a usual routine, and instead of seeing that as a source of anxiety I wonder if you could challenge that feeling with the idea that a change in routine is also an opportunity – to see new places, people and perspectives. And it’s also okay if at times that change feels uncomfortable. Though framed as the antidote to any problem and a time for harmony, joy, rest and relaxation many know that vacations aren’t without their own hiccups. You can feel the discomfort of being out of your routine and recognize that the discomfort is temporary – just as your vacation will (sadly) come to an end, so too will those tough feelings. No matter where you’re headed this summer, whether it’s a backyard inflatable pool or across the county, I hope you’re able to experience the joy of a trip in which diet culture is nowhere on the itinerary.