What Travel Has Taught Me about Food, Exercise, and My Relationship with My Body

I'm not typically a fruit person, but that was often the only option in El Salvador. Gotta go with the flow!

I'm not typically a fruit person, but that was often the only option in El Salvador. Gotta go with the flow!

I returned from El Salvador a few days ago, and as is often typical for me when traveling, I learned more about my relationships with food and fitness. In addition, many of the lightbulb moments I experienced during my backpacking travels and while living at home with my parents a few years ago were reinforced.

When I was backpacking in Southeast Asia four years ago and while living with my parents for the summer after I graduated college, I wasn’t focused on losing fat or gaining muscle. I was determined to learn how to listen to my body, to enjoy the local cuisines, to workout to move my body when it called for it and for some alone time, and most notably, to do some serious inside work.

I wanted to improve my damaged relationship with food, and I realized that the extreme manipulation of my intake by way of restricting carbs wasn’t working. Rather, I decided to attempt to eat based on fullness and hunger cues and to understand what my body was asking for in the moment (I say “attempt” because learning to tap into this was difficult after ignoring my body for so long, so I knew it would take time); all while working to create a balance of making my body and mind feel good while participating in life. And amazing food is a very enjoyable part of life for me.

I was purely focused on my behaviors, mindset, and learning to finally connect with my body; not physical outcomes.

In Southeast Asia, most of the local cuisines are dominated by vegetables and white rice with scant amounts of meat, coconut milk (hello, curry), and the occasional baked good. I was on a serious budget, so we didn’t often partake in Western foods, and most of my diet consisted of fresh, unprocessed foods during those three months.  I definitely missed my meat at almost every meal that I was accustomed to, and I was eating far more carbohydrates than I was used to with less fat. Essentially, my diet was the opposite of the low-carb, paleo diet I had been adhering to for a few years.

A similar situation had occurred right after I graduated college and moved home to New Mexico to live with my parents before starting my full-time job in Denver. I participated in walking and yoga instead of HIIT workouts, I only started to eat when hungry and stop when satisfied, and I ate what sounded appealing to my body instead of my mind. Mind you, that was often whole and unprocessed foods, but I didn’t restrict myself if I really wanted something.

I didn’t expect my body to respond the way it did during either of these times in my life. I was incredibly perplexed by how I was able to lose weight without consciously trying to do so.

After returning from Asia, I reflected on what was different during both of these times in my life, and I tried connect the dots. How was I able to lose weight in such a calm and stress-free way and without even trying?

1.     Natural Eating Behaviors Based on Body Cues: I focused on eating behaviors; those we’re naturally inclined to emulate when we’re tuned in and listening to our bodies. This included honoring hunger cues, stopping when satisfied and “energized” (rather than full and lethargic), and eating foods that made me feel well both mentally and physically the majority of the time. No food was off limits though, with the exception of dairy due to my intolerance, and I worked with what was available to me at the time. I didn’t follow any food rules; the only goal was to tune into what my body was saying and follow through with the best of my ability at the time.

I want to emphasize that this was very much a learning process, and it’s one that I still have to revert back to when my eating behaviors become chaotic. There are still times when I eat out of boredom rather than hunger or overeat, and during my time in Asia, the food was often so delicious that I ate beyond the point of satisfaction. The major takeaway is that these were exceptions rather than my consistent behaviors, and I simply moved on after it happened.

2.     Not Having a “YOLO” Mentality: The more common definition of “you only live once”, anyway. It’s so easy to dive head-first into the YOLO mentality, which for many means going balls-to-the-wall with all food and drink. My definition is different. Yes, I only live once, so my goal was to learn how to enjoy the foods I want while also feeling great and not stressing about food. I wanted to learn to live my life to the fullest, which meant reducing food and body stress as much as possible.

Furthermore, I don’t want to spend my life feeling lethargic, overly full, hungry, nor deprived. So a balanced approach was best for my priorities and goals. Eating healthy foods that make us feel great most of the time doesn’t make us bores, and it certainly doesn’t mean we’re not living life to the fullest. In many cases, it can mean the exact opposite. However, there’s a fine line between subscribing to neurotic and controlling food regimens under the guise of “clean eating” and actually listening to what our bodies are asking for.

3.     Less Alcohol, but This Doesn’t Have to Mean None: I was also working on my relationship with my extreme drinking habits during these times in my life. I never had the intention of removing alcohol completely, and I still don’t! I love myself some red wine and a marg. But these times consisted of far less alcohol than I was consuming previously, and in doing so, my sleep was better, which led to decisions that were more closely aligned with my body’s signals. I find it to be rather difficult to listen to my body with a hangover or while drunk – anyone else? Of course, this led to fewer calories being consumed too.

I rarely drank alcohol while in Asia, but I had a glass of wine almost every night when living at home with my parents. This illustrated that there isn’t just one ideal approach or diet, and there’s a lot more flexibility in preferences than any “plan” out there will lead you to believe. I can actually make my own rules? Mind. Blown.

4.     More Movement, Less Exercise: I love intense exercise. Like really, really love it. I find it to be a lot of fun, a great mental and physical outlet, and an avenue for personal growth due to the challenge. But I really slowed down during these times. While at home with my parents, I only partook in walking the dogs and mellow yoga classes. While in Asia, I walked a LOT while exploring the city, and I sprinkled a few body weight and short jogs in throughout my weeks. In both scenarios, I also enjoyed many days of being mostly sedentary.

This was a big change for me, and I really had to practice relinquishing control over my intense exercise habits. I noticed my body feeling so much more at ease, less stressed, and my hunger signals were eventually more consistent and clear. It became evident to me that my body loses fat much more easily when I’m partaking in low-stress movement over intense exercise while coupled with a caloric intake that will facilitate weight loss (i.e. consuming fewer calories than I’m expending). Note that my caloric deficits were unintentional at the time, hence my confusion with the weight loss.

Intense exercise is still a huge love of mine, but I don’t do much of it if I’m wanting to get back in touch with my body, have poignant stress elsewhere in my life, my body starts showing signs of hormone imbalance, or if I’m wanting to lose some fat. These times taught me that we don’t have to do the same kind of movement or exercise all the time, and our bodies may actually flourish with the ebbs and flows.

5.     Calories Matter, and I Can Eat All Foods: After subscribing to a low carbohydrate diet for almost a decade (when I wasn’t drunk or hungover), it was very powerful for me to experience fat loss while consuming diets with low protein, higher carbs, and medium-range fat intake. While these amounts are relative, and I wasn’t counting anything during these times, the point is that these times jolted me out of my dogmatic approach to macronutrients.

I had previously believed that carbs were the devil and the source of all fat gain, so gaining first-hand experience with the opposite being true was mind-blowing. It shed light on the truth I so sternly fought before: calories really do matter for fat loss. I started to reconsider other dogmatic approaches to health, diet, and fitness I was subscribing to. I still surprise myself to this day by uncovering something I blindly accepted as truth!  We need to question our biases always.

6.     Habitual and Emotional Relationships to Food: When I was in Asia, I became aware of my attachment to wine and dark chocolate. I didn’t need either of them, but they were readily available previously, so I often didn’t give my consumption a second thought. When living at home with my parents, I became much more aware of my excessive drinking habits from college.

Whenever I travel, I notice new emotional or habitual relationships with food or exercise I wasn’t aware of previously. My habits with foods are always changing in response to my ever-changing priorities and lifestyle, and it’s easy for me to start functioning on autopilot when I’m consistently in the same routine or environment. While all of these habits are fine to have, it’s important to ensure I’m participating in them consciously.

7.     Mindfulness Is King: this was my primary focus during both of these periods in my life, and without developing the skills to get in touch with my body and mind through meditation and journaling, I wouldn’t have been able to lose weight or learn anything as a result. Without mindfulness, I wouldn’t have been able to bring awareness to my habit of overeating, my propensity for eating out of boredom, how to tap into what my body was craving, feeling whether or not my body needed movement, exercise, or rest, and what foods/drinks I had emotional connections to.

None of these are negative in a vacuum, but I was operating in a mode of “sleepwalking” most of the time, so bringing awareness into the picture changed many of my nutrition and fitness habits inadvertently. It forced me to consciously interact with my body, and if I was overriding any signals, I was doing so in full awareness.  

My recent travel excursion to El Salvador reinforced these lightbulb moments I had years ago, yet I learned something new during this trip, too. This trip highlighted my habitual consumption of coffee and dark chocolate. These very much fit into my current personalized eating framework, my Balanced Baseline, but it’s always useful to assess and be aware of my relationships with various habits, foods, drinks, and exercise habits. Do I really want the coffee and dark chocolate, or are they items I mindlessly consume out of habit?  Results: I really want themJ

Travel can be an extreme source of food and exercise anxiety for many, as it used to be for me. But it really doesn’t have to be that way! Rather, I recommend using these times of being out of our routines as opportunities to observe tendencies to grasp for control and to bring awareness to our relationships with our nutrition and exercise habits.

I want to highlight that I had to experience many of these concepts twice for them to begin to stick. I lived at home with my parents in 2011, and I backpacked in 2014, so there were a few years of pushing everything I had originally learned into the back of my mind. Looking back on those times, I really wasn’t ready to make the changes in 2011 due to conflicting priorities. And that’s ok! Partying and socializing were my focus, and I had to navigate and better understand various other aspects of my life before committing to tackling my relationships to food and my body. I have also neglected or ignored these concepts many times since I brought them to light in 2014.

Undoing years of food and body negativity and stress isn’t accomplished overnight, and it can even take years (as was the case for me). This is all a journey, and it’s one that is never-ending. If there is one thing you take away from this post, please don’t beat yourself up for not being where you want to be.  One step at a time, when it feels right for you, and when you’re truly ready.

It’s worth mentioning that I consider “travel” different from “vacation” most of the time. For me, travel is focused on obtaining a cultural experience, and I’m often on the move to explore the particular location. Vacation, however, is more focused on relaxation or spending time with a particular group of people. For example, visiting my family during the holidays, going to a friend’s bachelorette party, or going to the beach for a few days with the expectation of being relatively sedentary and enjoying a few more cocktails are what I consider vacation. I still strongly advocate for awareness in the context of a vacation, but the priorities may be different.