Even the most exciting holiday can turn into a huge source of anxiety if you’re worried about disrupting your hard-earned progress. But you didn’t turn to a fitter lifestyle to become a hermit. Here’s how to enjoy the break without finding yourself back at square one.
First, let’s talk about the reality of travelling on a diet. If you’re on a weight loss program, chances are that you will halt progress to a degree. A break isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but building momentum and a positive feedback loop is one of the most important things when starting a diet. If feasibility allows, embark on a weight loss plan only when you have a few uninterrupted weeks.
Understand That If You’re Not Backtracking, You’re Making Progress
Before diving into actionable tips, let’s make sure you have the correct mindset.
One of the biggest mistakes that dieters make is keeping a constant progress “velocity” all times, rather than riding life’s natural ebb and flow. This is akin to driving a constant 90 kilometres per hour on a cross-country trip regardless of traffic, fatigue, or the opportunity to go a bit faster.
There will be times that you can drive at top speed, and there will be times that traffic may slow you to a halt. You’ll also need to take breaks to sleep, refuel and eat, but that’s OK; as long as you’re not going backwards, you’re progressing towards your destination.
Dieting is no different. At certain points in time, your personal obligations will become more important than hitting your caloric targets, or perhaps you’ll feel like your motivation is exhausted. During these times, you’ll want to coast along at a lower velocity. As long as you’re not backtracking (i.e. specifically, keep your calories around maintenance), you’re progressing, because you’re simply waiting for the right chance to speed up.
That chance is when life is going great or you’re extra-motivated by the progress on the scale. This is the perfect time to take advantage of your situation by nailing your diet goals for many consecutive days or pushing yourself hard in the gym.
Too many dieters push themselves even when external factors don’t allow. We’re not saying to make excuses — you’ll have to objectively and mindfully evaluate whether these factors are real — but be OK with varying your velocity.
Take A Diet Break
Now that you understand the importance of varying progress speed, let’s introduce the concept of a “diet break“, a concept made relatively popular by nutritionist and author Lyle McDonald.
Lyle points out a study where subjects were made to go on an intentional break from their diet. Nutritional researchers know that dieters are notoriously bad at restarting their programs once they have stopped. In this case, however, the subjects got back on their regimen with relative ease. We’ve talked about this in our article on planning to fail: when you intentionally stop your regimen, you maintain a feeling of “control”, making it easy to restart.
Know that you won’t be sticking to your regularly scheduled regimen, and that’s OK. Remembering this will allow you to maintain the feeling of “control” the entire time and allow you to get back on the horse.
Move As Much As You Can
Telling you to move in order to maintain progress seems as silly as telling you to “eat less, move more” to lose weight, but the specific context is what makes holiday activity special. Exercise is less effective when it is intentionally done for the caloric burn. On the other hand, holidays are a special time when you have many opportunities to move around more for the purpose of fun — not exercise.
Consider planning a lot of your activity before eating your first meal. Fasted exercising causes your body to release compounds called catecholamines, which may have an appetite-suppressing effect. Before heading to your destination, do your research and plan one activity each morning.
Have One Splurge Day For Every Two Reasonable Days
Perhaps you’re going on the type of holiday where large quantities of food are part of the experience, such as going to Las Vegas or sailing on a cruise (i.e. floating buffet). Obviously you can’t expect to splurge every single day and not take a few steps back. Still, if you’re on a diet break, the last thing that you want to do is count calories.
One rule that I came up with is taking a “splurge” day every three days, provided that I spend two days eating as similarly as possible to my pre-vacation regimen. That means if my normal diet regimen consists of three meals of protein, a side of starch, and vegetables, I mimic this as much as possible during my holiday.
If you can’t find anything similar to your normal diet fare, another alternative is eating meals that are either high in protein/fat and low in carbohydrates or high in protein/carbohydrates and low in fat. This allows you to experience a variety of foods, but reduces the palatability of your food choices. This is helpful if you have the tendency to overeat. Again, every third day, allow yourself the freedom to eat whatever you want.
As with everything in fitness, balance is the key to success. Using these tips, you won’t have to get “back on the proverbial horse”, because you never got off in the first place.
Lifehacker’s Vitals column offers health and fitness advice based on solid research and real-world experience.