The Vacation Diet: How To Maintain Your Weight While Traveling

Regardless of your goals, maintaining a steady diet is fairly easy when you’re in the comfort of your own home and regular routine.  However, when the summer rolls around or the boss sends you out for work, traveling can pose a major issue for any fitness enthusiasts diet.

When I mention diet in this sense, it does not imply a fat-loss diet.  I’m merely referring to our everyday choices regarding the cooked animal, fresh produce, and often processed goods we routinely consume.

While traveling in the past, my diet usually went from fairly decent to absolutely horrible in a matter of days.  This is what I’d call my “vacation diet.”  To completely lose ALL control was fairly common as my rigid guidelines and ideas regarding meal frequency and varying degrees of clean and unclean food were completely irrational and unsustainable.  However, I’ve since grown out of such a mindset.  Read my e-book to find out how I finally discovered the big picture and how I now push minutiae to the wayside.

Vacation Diet Blunders

When traveling, there are many ways to mess up a near-perfect, habitual intake.  The first issue is lack of time.  When travelling, one usually spends more time on the road, in between flights, in meetings or (insert random activity here), than normal.  Therefore, the less time one has, the less time there is to cook.  When there’s no time to cook, lots of dining out or the seemingly quick fixes you discover at the gas station usually ensue.

Another issue is the temporary break in your daily habits.  If you ever pay attention to your daily actions, I’m quite certain you’d be surprised by how much we rely on a set routine.  It’s like clockwork for me.  I wake up at 4-5 a.m., pour some coffee, check out my feedreader and work on articles or other website-related stuff.  After an hour or so, it’s time to start the day.

A few hours later, I’ll finally eat something, which is usually a TrueProtein shake, and bananas dipped in peanut butter; then I get on with whatever I need to work on.  If I’m training, I’ll normally have my carb-heavy post-workout feast which consists of oats, cereal, milk, protein powder and another starch (usually rice or potatoes).

Then for dinner I just make up for the rest of my calories with whatever sounds good.  I’ll usually make a few egg sandwiches, and some sort of cottage cheese + yogurt + peanut butter concoction chock full of protein and carbohydrate.

As you can see, if you’re traveling, access to these foods may not be practical.  Plus, even if you have access, you may not have the time to cook your eggs or to actually sit down and enjoy your post-workout feast.

Another issue is traveling with others.  You don’t want to be the person who buys a bunch of food in bulk only to dine in solitude in your fifth floor suite.  Then again, it’s rather difficult when you’re traveling with those who are everything but health and/or physique conscious.

Most people enjoy a nice meal and a few drinks out with their family/coworkers, etc.  While you probably don’t wish to pig out ad infinitum, you also don’t want be the obsessive, neurotic fitness enthusiast who “does their own thing.”  Don’t be the social pariah.

In cases such as these, you must learn to embrace the menu, glean over it with a sharp eye and pick something both tasty and friendly to whatever diet you’re following at the time.

Is it Possible to be Physique-Conscious While Traveling?

Yes, but what do you really do when traveling?  Is there a sane approach to at least maintain your weight or even lose weight while being away from your daily routine?

Sure there is, you just have to be a bit more mindful with your approach.

First of all, let’s take a look at what’s likely the biggest downfall to dining while you travel.  Fast food.  It’s easy, cheap and plentiful.  It’s on every corner and typically the main food source for those who are on-the-go.  I understand the reasoning and I don’t think a little fast food now and then is ever a bad thing.  It does become a problem, though, when it’s all you consume for every meal.

Typically, fast food is low in protein and high in calories.  It depends on what you order and where you dine, but for the most part, the macronutrient ratio is not too favorable for most fitness enthusiasts.

When, not if, you go out, it’d be a good idea to focus on foods that are higher in protein and lower in calories.  This means opting for sandwiches with grilled meat as opposed to fried.  Try to get chicken breasts instead of beef (as most beef tends to be really low quality and full of fat which equals more calories).  If you have the chance to visit a sandwich shop like Subway or Quiznos, just get double meat with lots of veggies and a you’ve a nice dose of protein and a good balance of other macronutrients.

If you go out to dinner at a dine-in restaurant, look to see if there is a “light” menu.  Most places will cook to order; so, if you’re polite and sincere, asking the server to prepare your meal with less oil or butter is rarely a problem.  Just be stern and make a point to emphasize the importance to you.

Or you could lie and say you’re deathly allergic to oils, and fried food.  That always goes over well for me.

A Real-World Approach

While it’d be nice to say that your vacation diet will always be physique-friendly, I can assure you it won’t be.  So here are a few choices you can opt for when you find yourself on a fat-loss diet or merely trying to maintain your weight during your travels.

Pack Protein Powder – Protein powder is cheap, easy to store, and relatively hassle-free.  If I’m going to be away for a week or so and know I won’t have a decent source of protein at my disposal, I always throw a few pounds of protein in my bag.

This way, I ensure my protein needs are met and I’m not stuck for weeks on a sub-par protein intake.

Plan workouts if possible – if you know that your hotel has an exercise room, commit to using it at least a few days during your visit.  Not only will this increase your expenditure to help balance out the excess fast food intake, but it will keep you from getting stale.  It’s never fun to return home after a 10 day vacation and be fairly detrained – the first week back on the weights is usually pretty brutal as DOMS sets in.

If you don’t have access to a weight room, plan to do some mobility/conditioning work outdoors if the setting permits.  Bodyweight exercises can do a lot more than you might think.

Move around A LOT – Typically, when I’m traveling, I tend to do more walking than usual.  Maybe it’s just chance but I find this to be the case for many, especially if you travel to a beach or go to the city for a business trip.  Both are very conducive to lots and lots of walking.  I’ve discussed multiple times here the effects of NEAT.

I’ve also noted in my experiments with the bodybugg and the gowear fit, that consistent moving around burns far more calories throughout the day than an hour long weight training session followed by nothing but sitting on my rump.

Eat Your Breakfast for Lunch – That’s not a typo.  Simply break your fast­ much later than you normally would.  Intermittent Fasting can be a physique-saver when traveling, especially if you’re known to let loose and pound the food.  I recommend doing a 14-16 hour fast daily which means if you eat your last meal around 8 p.m., you simply wait until 10 a.m. to 12 noon to have your first meal.  Ideally, you’ll break your fast with some lean protein, fruit and some veggies.

Since your eating schedule and food selection are going to vary, getting half your daily protein needs in this meal can provide a few benefits.  One is the satiety factor of eating 75-100g protein in one meal, and another is knowing you’re already halfway to reaching your protein daily protein needs.

Then, when you go out for dinner, you can be fairly liberal with your food choice considering you haven’t eaten much the earlier part of the day.  Now, this is no excuse to pig out and set personal gluttony records, but you’d be able to order from the main part of the menu instead of opting for a light option.

I should also mention this is relativeSome Most portions nowadays are fit for 2-3 people as opposed to one.  A good idea is to focus on protein being the main part of your dish and then enjoy all the tagalong sauces, carbs and other goodies.  Think grilled salmon atop a bed of rice for this meal – just an example but it’d be a great choice.  If you fail to hit your protein targets, simply mix up a quick shake before bedtime, hit the lights and call it a night.

Example of a Practical Approach

Fasting is my preferred method of damage control whilst traveling.  Here’s an example of what I did on my last excursion back to my home state in mid May ‘10.

As soon as my feet finally rejoined the earth, I headed to the neighborhood supermarket.  I loaded up on about 10lbs of bananas and 5-6lbs of apples – fruit would serve as my fast-breakers for the week.  I only bought a few pieces of lean, red meat and a bag of frozen chicken as I had about 3lbs of protein packed in my suitcase.  I also picked up a small jar of peanut butter as it’s probably my favorite food in the entire universe.

A typical training day looked like this:

8 a.m. – Wake up, make a pot of coffee and work on my computer for a few hours.
11 a.m. – After 2-3 cups of coffee, it was time to shower and get ready for the day.
1 p.m. – Break my fast with 50g protein shake, 2 large bananas and a tbsp of peanut butter.
3 p.m. – Train at the gym or do something active with friends (hiking, biking, whatever).
4 p.m. – Another 50g protein in a shake + bowl of cereal and a few bananas post workout.
8 p.m. – Grab some dinner.  Usually something like a couple baskets of hot wings and a pitcher of beer split between 5-6 guys.
10 p.m. – Go out and enjoy the nightlife.  Possibly drink a few more beers or a lot depending on who was buying.
12 p.m. – Return home and make up for my caloric intake with protein if I was short for the day.

The only difference on a day that I didn’t train was that my first meal was twice as much protein or roughly ~100-120g.

If I drank a wee bit too much one night, I’d make a point to be more active the next day and simply write it off with little worry.  One to two days of overeating and drinking every now and then never hurt anyone.  Ask Martin.

Wrapping Up

I hope I haven’t lost any of you.  If you’re still here, awesome!  The main points are as follows:

  • It is possible to maintain your weight or even keep up your fat-loss diet but you’ll have to be mindful of food selection and make a point to have some sort of structure.  This means being cognisant of the foods you’re eating, when and how much.  It also means being sure to hit your protein targets as this helps with retention of lean body mass, as well as provides the satiety that’s oh so important on any diet.
  • Maintain some sort of exercise routine.  It can be in the form of weight training, bodyweight training or keeping up with your cardio work.  Just do something and make sure to move around as much as you can (within reason).
  • Remember the reason you are traveling.  If it’s for work, make sure your priorities are kept.  If it’s vacation, remember to enjoy the time you’re spending with loved ones.  The relationships and experiences we garner as a result of interaction with those around us are far more important than sticking to a rigid, neurotic diet and exercise plan.

What about you?  Do you have any strategies you’d like to add?  If so, share them in the comments!


August 8, 2010
35 Comments.

  • The Mancini @ Fitness Repository March 03, 2011

    Hey JC,

    This was exactly what I was looking for and pre-planning in my mind for the summer 2011.

    I’m always concerned/picky about my eating and having had good experience of IF past 4 months I’m sure that I can keep my physique intact during the coming vacation.
    This time around there should also be a gym available at the hotel and if my memory fails me I’ll be sure to pack a good bodyweight routine with me (and some good whey). Now if I only had the powers of a Jedi and could mind-control my girlfriend into this as well…

    I like your blog BTW, interesting views on things and also some interesting commentary in your posts. :)

    Keep up the good work!

    - The Mancini -

    • JC Deen March 03, 2011

      I am a Jedi Master – let me teach you my ways!

      thanks for stopping by. we appreciate it.

  • Stacy September 15, 2010

    Hey JC,

    I thank you for this. I am going out of town this weekend and I never thought to just break fast later and eat smaller (with my snack items) until like dinner with the fam. I have been able to introduce healthier cleaned up (which I see you have some kind of issue with) meals that taste good and so I am going to try to incorporate that with my extended family on travel so it won’t seem like so much of a struggle.
    I am over 30 and have three boys and am not playing about getting these last 20 pounds off so I will have to do what it takes.
    I am really still trying to understand this calorie deficit thing and fasting. I knew that when my body got to this comfortable weight I couldn’t lose because I wasn’t fueling my body enough but at the same time doesn’t 1900 cal a day sound like too much to be eating to lose weight? I mean I am just satisfied enough on that with the intense workouts that I do and my muscle mass so I would die to go any lower but the weight (on the scale) is coming off SLOW!

    • JC September 15, 2010

      Glad you found the article useful!

      I don’t have a problem with clean foods – I have a problem with the mindset that accompanies these false beliefs. But I’ll write more about that in my follow-up article coming out next week.

      Well, as far as a calorie deficit goes you just have to make sure you’re expending more kcals than your consuming. It’s not unheard of for women who aren’t active (working out 3-4 hours per week without a sedentary job) to resort to 8-10 kcals per pound to see appreciable weight loss.

      • Stacy September 15, 2010

        Thanks JC,

        You are Awesome! Can’t wait to see the article next week. I have you on my google reader and feed or whatever these computer geeks have set up. I get lost in it, LOL. I think I am more confused with the calorie deficit but Imma try to find some more of your articles. I workout hard 5-6 times a week (500-600 calories burn i guess) but I do a computer desk job. I weigh 186 pounds but I am only 23.45% body fat at 5’8 inches tall. My weight is only in my 34DD breast, hips, and thighs so I am really shapely. I fear upping the cardio with only a 1900 calorie a day intake. I am losing 2 pounds a week if I am “good” and one if I have a girls or Date night one or two nights a week. You probably are thinking that I am doing good huh? I am trying to be 165 pounds of solid muscle with only 13-14% body fat.

        • JC September 15, 2010

          aww thanks. You might be burning a bit less (or more) during your workouts depending on many things but that’s not the point. The main factors here are the sedentary lifestyle coupled with a diet that will produce fat loss.

          However if you are losing 2lbs per week, that is DAMN GOOD for ANYONE. Even the experts like Lyle, Alan, Martin, Matt Perryman, Jamie Hale, Leigh Peele, etc. will attest to that fact. So whatever you’re doing, it’s working. And yea, for your weight and work schedule – if you were my client, that’s about where I’d have your calories. So keep it up. When things stop working, that’s when you should worry.

  • Siggi August 30, 2010

    “Or you could lie and say you’re deathly allergic to oils, and fried food. That always goes over well for me.”

    I’ll try that one.

    • JC August 30, 2010

      It’ll get the chuckles every time.

  • Dave August 14, 2010

    With a vacation planned in two weeks, this is timely. However, the main thing I do is just work extra hard before the vacation so I can afford to splurge without losing too much ground. A week away has never completely killed my body in the past. It’s not progress, but it doesn’t set me back to much either. That being said, intermittent fasting has helped with this. In my opinion, the optimum time to fast is during travel. Who wants airplane food anyway?

    • JC August 14, 2010

      Hey Dave,

      Yea, taking a week off is not going to ruin your physique and it’s often a good thing to take that time off every now and again. And plane food is rarely any good unless it’s free and/or liquor.

  • JC August 13, 2010

    Great tips, Derek. I love sushi too.

  • Derek August 12, 2010

    Great read, and definitely some good pointers. While not a vacation travel, I travel for my job nearly every week… sometimes for a day or two, other times for the entire week. I almost dread going on the road since I’m on my duff, staring at a windshield, and running around on appointments with a highly unpredictable schedule, which throws of my normal eating/workout routine. I have however gotten a lot better at knowing where to go, and when, to try and plan my meals around where I’ll be.

    - Starbucks is always the first stop for morning coffee. They have a nice stock of Bananas, bottled water, nuts, and usually protein packed Odawalla juice drinks (mix of soy and whey).
    - Panera has well balanced salads. Plus, their chicken is anti-biotic free. I try to hit these in the evening.
    - If you’re short on whey when traveling, or forget it all together, dont short-change gas stations/convenience stores. Meal replacement bars are found at every one I’ve ever been to. If you find the one that doesn’t offer these, Jack Links Beef Jerky packs 20+ grams of protein in each bag. If you look around, you’ll typically also find a cache of Muscle Milk in the Dairy or “healthy drink” section. Some (Wawa, Sheetz) even sport made-to-order foods, of which some can be well balanced, and customized when ordering.
    - Check the kids menu at a sandwich/sub shop – this is where you’ll usually find the PB&J.
    - If you’re frequenting the same areas like me, you’ll also get to know the variety a restaurant/chain has to offer. Keep these in mind when your clients are looking to head out for something to eat.
    - Whole Foods, Wegmans, and others, have a nice stock of well balanced ready-to-go foods, including my personal favorite: Sushi.
    - While not all hotels have a gym, many have pools. Nice way to burn a few cals, and also maybe run into some lonely travelers of the opposite sex.

    Not sure if this is helpful to anyone out there, and I may get some shit for some of the recommendations, but when I’m on the go, I’ve been able to maintain BW, or even lose a bit since I’m even more conscious about my intake while being so inactive.

  • Wazzup August 12, 2010

    >> away for *a week* or so ….. a *few pounds* of protein in my bag.

    WHAT ?

    Get real. (eat some real food on vacation.. Hence the name.. vacation. You only need loads of protein when you’re working out vigorously anyways and since it’s a vacation you won’t do that either (I may hope)). Or maybe when you’re on a strict diet (which you shouldn’t do on a vacation either)

    I pack a couple of protein bars for when I get peckish when traveling and have some protein powder samples lying around I will add for when I get ridiculous low protein when on vacation (especially when backpacking other wise I usually don’t bother). It’s good to let go of all these mental things when we go on vacation (like obsessing over meal frequency… just be a bit smart on your intake)

  • JC August 11, 2010

    @McB: Yikes! Forward her this article as a guide for her future travels!

    @Jamie: true. I am similar as IF makes it so easy.

  • jamie hale August 11, 2010

    Good read

    I like IF while traveling

    jhale

  • McB August 11, 2010

    Too late……my friend just emailed after having visited me at my cottage for a couple weeks – she gained 11 pounds! But I’m gonna re-read this article and take notes..;)

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