Travel & Weight Loss
How traveling gave me a healthy perspective on eating and indulging
At the risk of sounding like a reiteration of Eat, Pray, Love, let me tell you that my relationship with carbohydrates has been a troubled one.
Probably since the age of 13, when I realized my thighs were too big, I remember getting the advice that I should limit my sugar and carb intake. It’s not terrible advice to give to a teenager with a serious sweet tooth, but it unwittingly made me very very self-conscious about eating anything sweet or bready. (Read: anything tasty from my local bakery).
When I was 21 I spent a year traveling around Europe own a budget. We stayed in hostels, ate cheaply, and scrimped and saved to make every penny of our trip budget last as long as possible. This meant eating carbs. If you want a cheap meal, pizza, pasta, and chips are all going to be in steady rotation. Despite indulging in all the patisserie, pizza, and pasta that I wanted, I lost probably 20 pounds in 4 months while traveling. Since returning home and having resumed a more normal 9–5 work day lifestyle, here’s how I kept the weight off (based on why I lost it in the first place.)
The problem with a lot of health and wellness science is that it can be hard to make part of your real, everyday life. Here’s some of the ways that I’ve made science-backed changes in my diet part of my day-to-day life without having to think about it too much.
- I was walking a lot.
When you’re travelling, you’re sightseeing. In Europe that means a lot of walking and running for public transport. The allure of places like Paris and Rome is simply wandering the streets and soaking up the ambiance. I was walking anywhere from 15k to 30k steps a day.
Now that I’m back home I don’t exactly have the same street-side ambiance, but there is a charm in walking around my neighborhood everyday during my lunch hour. I also make a point to walk, not drive, to my local shops, and my after-dinner walk is now an established ritual.
I aim for 10k steps a day, which translates into about 1.5 hours walking, and its a really enjoyable, relaxing habit to have.
2. I was carrying heavy things daily
For those of you who have been backpacking, you know the drill. Every morning you launch a 25–30 pound backpack onto your shoulders and walk around looking at street signs in foreign languages and trying to find your nearest bus station.
You’re carrying a fair amount of weight around, almost every day. When I came home I made lifting weights part of my weekly routine, aiming for 3 sessions a week, lifting heavy things for about 20 mins. That’s it. Nothing too fancy, just some body weight exercises or a YouTube weight workout. I only own a 10k weight so I get creative with that.
3. I was eating intermittently
Being young, skint, and travelling means that we booked whatever train tickets were cheapest. That sometimes meant getting up at 5am or leaving at 10pm to get an overnight express to Naples, or a mid-afternoon bus ride to Pisa. Our travel plans were our priority, meal times came second. Which actually meant that most days we only ate twice. We might arrive in Paris on an overnight train have breakfast at 11 and spend the afternoon wandering the Louvre. A glass of wine in a cafe at 6, and a nice dinner or bit of street food around 8 or 9.
Everyday our schedule varied, but often we would go long periods without eating. There is a lot of science on the benefits of intermittent fasting, and we were doing in unknowingly.
Psychologically, we were keeping so busy we weren’t thinking about food and our ‘normal’ meal times. Instead we ate when we were hungry and when we had time. It was a good mindset shift.
4. I was eating good quality, tasty food
I hear it from every American that travels in Europe. The food quality is better.
I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that the vegetables tasted fresher, meats were often local, and the cheapest options were domestic wines and beers.
I think the main point here is that food was flavorful and fresh. Nothing had an expiration date and we didn’t eat anything that we could buy in a shop at home, so most of the big branded foods were forgotten.
Having a fresh baked croissant from a bakery, laden with butter and flour, is more sustaining than a vacuum-packed version from a convenience store. I don’t know why, but the fresh version will keep you fuller longer. It’s delicious and actually satisfies a craving for crunchy flaky pastry, as opposed to a poor man’s version that will just leave you wanting more.
5. I was eating smaller portions of rich, fatty foods
Comparatively, the portions and plates were smaller than in America. So I was eating less. However, I was eating a lot of gelato, pasta bathed in olive oil, dark heavily spiced meats, cream-filled pastries covered in powdered sugar. In theory, I shouldn’t have been losing weight with my three main food groups consisting of bread, cheese, and gelato.
But…..I was fuller for longer on my indulgent diet. Think about it. If you have a measly little salad with a bit of low-fat dressing on it, you’ll likely be hungry again in an hour. And when you are hungry again you probably aren't going for another salad, you’ll be going for snacks. The fried, over-processed, comes in a sealed plastic bag with an expiration date of 2035, kind-of-snack.
My habits now are to avoid snacks as much as possible. I have two or three meals a day. A salmon fillet with lots of butter, a side of potatoes and some green beans is a rich lunch, but it keeps me full all afternoon and into the evening. A lot of research shows they are essential to brain health and being satiated. My diet now is full of olive oil, butter, and coconut oil. It keeps me full and it tastes great.
6. I gave into cravings
Hey, I was on the trip of a lifetime and I knew it. If I wanted a glass of red wine while we toured a Tuscan vineyard, I got it. If we wanted a chocolate gelato every afternoon in the relentless heat, we had one. The allure of travel is being able to sample new cuisines, indulge in the local bar and cafe culture, and milk every ounce of joy out of experiencing a new place.
I realized that for a long time I had gotten into a habit of denying my cravings. If I wanted something sweet I would try and fob off my desire for chocolate by eating an apple. It never worked, as typically I would eat the apple, then eat an orange, and then eventually eat a whole bar of chocolate in a collapse of will-power.
While traveling I realized it was better to give into my cravings in a small way instead of denying my sweet tooth wholesale. It was still possible to make good choices, but if I wanted a gelato I got it. (A small scoop was enough to satisfy the craving!)
Now at home, I only keep a couple sweet things in the house at any given time. If I have a craving I have a small piece (a cookie, a square of chocolate, or some fresh cream and berries) and that’s usually enough. If I want something that isn’t in the house then I have to make a special trip to the shop to get it. I have to walk to the shop (built-in exercise), and then I enjoy the treat when I get home. If I want a donut, I buy a nice one and I enjoy it. I don’t buy a dozen and keep them around the house for grazing.
In conclusion, if you are struggling to get in a consistent routine with your eating habits, may I suggest we follow the habits of a 20-something year old backpacking around the continent….