I Don’t Need Your Permission to Eat While on Vacation, Thanks.
“Take a girl like me to the Deep South but I WILL find a juice bar. And almond milk.”
These words were written on Facebook by one of my friends during a visit to New Orleans, a city known for its cuisine. It brought up a lot of anger for me, not directed toward her, but toward the diet culture we live in, one of which I was once part of it. And if I’m being honest, I still am to some degree.
I traveled to New Orleans four years ago and did the same thing, so maybe reading it was triggering. My (now) husband and I walked miles to the one clean-ish restaurant in the city. I found it on a Google search, and it ended up being in a large office building — It was one of those places. In the midst of some of the best food in the country, we laughed when we arrived from our long hike, expecting, well, not quite sure, but something else.
Jason has an overwhelming appreciation for food, so we went to the prominent restaurants of the city; all too many for my weight-conscious self. I ordered whatever looked the healthiest on the menu and then drove servers crazy with a gazillion adjustments to make it even cleaner. A part of me know I was missing out as I listened to him and our friends converse over the food — the creamy, fried, cheesy, rich, sweet goodness.
They were not only experiencing the food but the culture, and it was something that facilitated connection.
I wasn’t ready to go there, and it made me the odd one out. I felt myself dissociating from the conversation, overwhelmed by the cuisine, obsessing over what I ate or didn't eat. And that took me out of the present, out of the true experience of letting go and being a part of what was happening around me. I shrunk.
I almost made the same mistake years later when we traveled to Italy on our honeymoon, but I promised myself I wouldn’t restrict. At first to prove to my husband that he married someone who could eat ‘normally,’ but somewhere along the way, it shifted to something I did for myself. My husband took a photo of me eating gelato as that was just as much a moment to capture as standing in front of the Trevi Fountain. It remains one of my proudest moments.
I tried many new and scary foods on that trip, not without fear, but I did it anyway. Italian food is amazing, an integral part of their culture, and necessary to truly experience it.
The most remarkable “ah-ha” moment was a pack of biscuits were served on the train from Florence to Rome. Instinctively, the first thing I did was flip the bag over to have that “is it worth it?” battle in my head. But the word “calorie” wasn’t listed.
Instead, where the words calorie should have been, it read, “energy.”
What a shift! I felt empowered eating them and broke my own rule of not eating between meals — I stopped looking for internal permission. I was beginning to feel hungry, and who knows when I would have lunch, so in an act of self-care, I gave myself the energy I needed to enjoy the city — a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I almost went into lightheaded.
Can we please bring this “energy” thing to the U.S. labels? Please?
Let me be clear:
- Having food preferences is OK.
- Having restrictions due to food allergies or other medical reasons is OK.
I’m not here to judge but to remind you to look at your intentions for avoiding certain foods.
Like a child carrying a stuffed animal for comfort, I still pack ‘just in case’ foods in my suitcase (protein bars, figs, oatmeal), fearful of not having safe options, but I rarely use them anymore. I find myself looking forward to diner eggs for breakfast and a Maine lobster sandwich (on bread!) for lunch.
We’re missing out on so much more than food when we deny ourselves permission to eat — metaphorically, staying small keeps your life small. The less you obsess about body size, the fuller life is because you have space to live in it.
I want to go to a celebration and have a cupcake because it’s part of what you do at parties. Or a cheeseburger and fries at a dive bar. Or the chocolate in Switzerland and macaroons in Hamburg that I never tried — OUT OF FEAR. Plain and simple. And that's not OK.
I’ve since embraced the occasional cheeseburger and fries, and it feels like a delicious act of rebellion, filling me with self-love for nurturing my body’s cravings, and I enjoy the meal that much more. It’s sad that food has to be something I overthink so much. Food shouldn't scare us, but it does. Food shouldn't have a moral value attached to it, but it does.
I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the other side of the coin:
Giving yourself a free pass to break diet rules when traveling. The binging bred from the thought process: Travel = Cheat on diet time.
The thought process here is that you have permission to eat on vacation, but not at home. No matter the specific eating disturbance, the feelings overlap, and we seek permission to feed ourselves rather than allowing our cravings and innate preferences to be heard.
How Can We Leave The Food Baggage Behind When Traveling?
It’s hard, and I don’t have a quick fix, but I can share what has helped (not cured) me.
- Be mindful of the feelings you are bringing into the meal.
- Push yourself to engage in table conversation rather than losing yourself in your inner dialogue.
- If comfortable, confide in a travel partner and ask for support.
- Stay grounded while eating to prevent falling into the food rumination tunnel. Notice the things around you, the sounds, the conversation, grab your partner’s hand. Whatever snaps you back into the present moment.
- Be honest about your struggle. If you feel safe with your company, open an authentic conversation about your fear — you are likely not the only one. As Brene Brown says, be “selectively vulnerable “— basically, know your audience.
- Recognize that sometimes after a string of ‘challenge’ meals, you will want a clean meal to cleanse your palette. That goes back to intention — Is it a preference or a safety signal? Even if it is a safety signal, acknowledge that's just part of the process, and it’s OK. Cliche, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.
- Bravery is relative, and letting go of what is safe takes courage and time, so go at your pace.
- Conquering food fears is an experiential process. You have to walk through the trenches of it to change, but it becomes less frightening with each bite.
- Small successes are still successes. Don’t minimize them! I wasn’t completely free in Italy, but I had some huge wins. I fell back a step in Germany, BUT it was better than New Orleans. During my most recent trip to Maine, my meals were amazing, but I’m not naive enough to believe I’ll never experience a setback.
- Recovery is a slow process — sometimes, one meal at a time slow. Stay the course.
Now go enjoy that trip, carrying a lighter load along the way.
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