Why you pig out on vacation

If you are what you eat, then travelers are so strange. They dine on chicken feet in Hong Kong, bite into beetles in rural West Virginia and chow down on guinea pig in Peru.

No doubt, there’s something about being away from home that makes you want to go all Andrew Zimmern (the Bizarre Foods guy).

But our tastes for the exotic — painstakingly documented on TV and in blogs — are only part of a bigger story during the upcoming summer travel season. For every fried grasshopper or live octopus we nibble on, we collectively consume tens of thousands of tons of more conventional fried chicken, burgers and fare we wouldn’t dream of touching at home.

And it’s a trend worth paying attention to. An astounding 86% of travelers reported gaining an average of up to 3 pounds when away from home for two weeks or more, according to a 2014 study by Extended Stay America.

Do I really have to say it? We let ourselves go when we’re on vacation. And that doesn’t just feel uncomfortable when you can’t squeeze into your pants; it can make traveling worse for everyone around you.

There’s a connection between the strange dishes we try on the road and the automatic 3 pounds you added in Cancun this March. Travelers are always looking for “authentic” food, says James Treacher, whose Tonbridge, U.K., company offers tours of Asian cities, focusing on cuisine. And yes, they’ll help you find those chicken feet in the best Hong Kong dim sum restaurants. “Authentic” can mean exotic, but in many popular destinations, it often also means fattening comfort food.

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“Both types of foods will leave some feeling pretty queasy,” he warns.

Oh, about those beetles. I wasn’t making that up. Alan Muskat, a culinary tour operator in Asheville, N.C., recently organized a dinner at the upscale Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., where patrons feasted on Japanese beetles. They shelled out $275 per person for the privilege. Why? Travelers, he explains, yearn to “push their boundaries.”

And they do. They push the boundaries of their comfort zones. Monica Williams, a digital marketer who lives in Philadelphia, told me the unbelievable story of eating cuy, a type of guinea pig, in Peru. Yeah, it’s a thing. You probably won’t be shocked to hear that guinea pig tastes a little like dark-meat chicken, only it’s chewier and gamier. “After you navigate the bones, there isn’t much meat there,” she says.
But travelers also push the boundaries of their waistlines.

Why do people pig out when they’re away? It’s their vacation, for starters. There’s a sense of entitlement — that you shouldn’t deny yourself anything on your hard-earned getaway. But another explanation for the long line at the cruise ship buffet is that travelers are away from home, and the wagging fingers of friends and relatives who tell them, “You can’t eat that!” It’s amazing people don’t pack on more pounds when they’re on the road.

“It’s, ‘I’m away,’ ” says Seattle psychologist Michael Brein, who specializes in travel cases. “It’s, ‘Nobody’s watching.’ It’s, ‘Who cares?’ ”

But it isn’t the haggis or fish eye you have to watch for. It’s the so-called “native” fare the natives wouldn’t eat, the stuff they call real but really isn’t, that’ll kill ya. I speak from personal experience, as someone who survived an afternoon consuming chili burgers in Santa Fe. It was for journalism, I assured myself. I still haven’t written the story, but if I did, I’d recommend skipping the burgers and just sampling the chili peppers, which are really delicious and practically fat-free.

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“When you are on vacation,” says Rob Volpe, a frequent traveler and founder of a San Francisco marketing firm that regularly works with food companies, “all bets are off.”

In a way, we’re our own worst enemies when we travel — perhaps now more than ever. We don’t just try unusual dishes; we thoughtlessly order unhealthy foods from the menu. There’s more than a few pounds at stake here. Maybe instead of guzzling that 2,000-calorie Pineapple Upside Down Master Blast over lunch, we should try respecting ourselves a little more.

If we treated ourselves well, maybe we’d extend that courtesy to our fellow travelers, too. Imagine vacationing in a world like that. That would be a real treat.

How to avoid weight gain when you travel

• Pack your own food. That’s the advice of David Nico, a motivational speaker and author of Diet Diagnosis. “Always pack healthy organic and non-GMO snacks for peak energy on the go,” he says. “That way, when you’re tempted to graze on those unhealthy hors d’oeuvres at the hotel restaurant, you can say, ‘I brought my own.’ ”

• Stay active. “Walk, walk, walk,” travel psychologist Michael Brein says, “and do it a lot.” I can vouch for that. I’ve tried everything in my travels, and nothing beats a brisk walk around the neighborhood. “Also, stay out of boulangeries,” he adds.

• Eat what the locals really eat. It’s not at the restaurants. Instead, head to the closest grocery store. That’s what Melinda Arcara, a Chester Springs, Pa., health coach, does when she travels with her family. “Whatever town we vacation in, we pick up fresh ingredients like fruit, veggies and nuts.”

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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