Why You Shouldn't Worry About Gaining Weight On Vacation

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Every year around this time, the media world is awash in information about how to drop weight fast before vacation, keep it off while you travel, and shed it quickly when you return home. But deliberate weight-control measures around a vacation are not only unnecessary, they can actually can be detrimental to your health and well-being (not to mention distract you from your hard-earned beach vacay).

First of all, despite the common complaint of packing on five-plus pounds while on a cruise, you can’t actually gain that much weight in the span of a typical vacation. If a person had any change in actual body mass (as opposed to water weight, which we’ll discuss shortly), it would likely only be about a pound during a weeklong vacation, says Ellen Albertson, PhD, RDN, a psychologist, registered dietitian, and nutritionist who founded the online program Smash Your Scale.

Plus, that small gain wouldn’t last long. “The difference in eating [on vacation] is not going to have any impact once you go back to day-to-day living,” explains Melainie Rogers, MS, RD, registered dietitian, nutritionist, and founder of Balance Eating Disorder Treatment Center in New York City. “Your weight will naturally readjust itself over the next few weeks once you’re home, without any dieting,” she says.
Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
If you do see a change on the scale or your clothes start to feel tighter during a vacation, it’s probably just water weight — and there are several factors that can contribute to temporary water retention when you travel. Greater salt consumption is one; foods eaten on vacation are likely to be saltier than what you’d cook at home, and the body is designed to tightly regulate sodium levels by causing water to be retained when larger amounts of sodium are consumed. “So if you have a saltier meal than usual, your body will temporarily hang on to extra fluids until it gets balanced out,” explains Rogers.

Another reason people might retain more water on vacation is greater carbohydrate consumption, especially if they previously had been limiting carbs. That’s because when we digest carbohydrates, much of their energy is converted into a type of sugar called glycogen that gets stored primarily in the muscles, where it is used for fuel. Each molecule of glycogen is bound to three molecules of water — so if your glycogen stores are full, water weight may increase significantly, though your actual body mass will not. “It’s like if you weighed a car on empty, and then filled up the fuel tank — the weight goes up, but the body of the car hasn’t changed,” Rogers explains. Traveling to hotter climates can also cause temporary water retention (typically seen as swelling in the hands and feet) before the body acclimates.

These forms of water retention are all natural phenomena and there’s nothing you need to do to combat them. As long as you don't have cardiovascular or kidney problems, or a rare glycogen storage disorder, your body can handle these fluid fluctuations and will return to normal all on its own in a matter of days.
Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Perceived weight gain on vacation can also be the result of earlier dieting. “People might think they’re gaining weight on vacation, when in fact their body is just restabilizing from having lost weight leading into the vacation,” says Rogers.

Do yourself a favor and don’t worry about the number on the scale. “If you’re eating from a perspective of being mindful and enjoying your food, you’ll be fine — so why even get on the scale?” says Albertson.

What about fitness — if you take a vacation from your usual routine, will you return home totally out of shape? Not likely. “People tend to be slightly more active on vacation,” says Rogers. “If they’re at the beach, they’ll tend to take a walk on the beach; or if they’re sightseeing, they’ll be walking a lot more.” Even on the off chance that you're doing nothing but floating in a pool for two weeks, fear not: Research has shown that one or two weeks of inactivity won’t affect your fitness level significantly and it would take a month or more to lose a significant amount of strength and endurance. Elite athletes who have specialized training for certain sports may experience declines in strength sooner, but still nothing very meaningful in two weeks or less.
Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Want to approach vacation in a more balanced way? Try these tips:

Before the vacation, don’t go on an extreme diet.
Rogers explains that restricting yourself and then overindulging can keep you locked in a cycle of black-and-white thinking about food that can continue well after the trip is over. “If you diet before a vacation, you are putting yourself at risk of overeating and disordered eating while you’re away and when you get back,” she says. Instead, practice living in the gray areas — choosing some foods for pure pleasure and others for nutrition.

Start paying attention to your hunger and fullness cues.
Before the vacation, try to allow yourself to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. This practice is part of a method called intuitive eating, which has been shown to help reduce disordered eating behaviors and is associated with lower body weights and less weight gain than dieting. “Your body is really good at maintaining a stable weight, so if you listen to your hunger and satiety signals you should be fine,” says Albertson. She cautions that if you have a lot of trouble connecting with your hunger and fullness signals, you may have some deeper work to do — and vacation is probably not the best time to do it. “Try to address those issues before going on vacation, so that you can legalize food when you’re away,” says Rogers. (If you think you may have disordered eating or an eating disorder, seek help from professionals experienced in treating them.)

Take pleasure in food.

“There’s a very normal mentality on vacation of wanting to treat yourself, and I think that’s natural and healthy,” says Rogers. Try to relish those treats. “If you want to have that decadent dessert, give yourself full permission and completely engage in it, and enjoy yourself,” says Albertson. “As soon as we tell ourselves ‘don’t eat this, don’t eat this’ is when we see people binge on something that they didn’t really want because they denied themselves [the thing they did want].”

Avoid the scale.

If you’re just too tempted by the one in your hotel room, ask housekeeping to take it away.

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