Updated: Jun 16, 2018
A lot of my work as a dietitian is spent helping clients learn to eat intuitively, which basically means they are getting back in touch with their body's internal wants and needs while tuning out the external noise from food rules and diet culture. This is a long and, some may say, never-ending journey. It takes patience, strength, and a lot of hard work to undo what we have been taught most of our lives. Many of us have been taught that we cannot trust our own urges and hunger, and that we need others to tell us when, how, and how much to eat. The most rewarding part of my job is seeing clients beginning to trust their own instincts. I always say, “No one knows YOU better than YOU do.”
I just returned from an incredible honeymoon to Europe, and I want to address something that I have been asked a few times. How do you eat intuitively while on vacation? This answer refers to Italy for obvious reasons.
Well, it's not always easy… especially when you know you only have about 6 days to eat as much authentic homemade pasta as possible! But this is how I did it: I continued to check in to my hunger just like I do at home. Some mornings I woke up ready for food and some I didn't. I'm grateful I packed RX Bars so that we could take off for our first sightseeing adventure without having to stop for pastries each morning (breakfast was not a big deal in Italy; mostly coffee and croissants). This way I could break into my bar when my stomach let me know it was time. This worked well for most of the trip, because I knew the combination of fats, protein and carbs would hold me over until lunch. But do not think for a second that I passed on the croissants every day (because I didn't). The mornings that we had pastries were slow, and I had the opportunity to sip my hot tea and savor every bite of flaky goodness.
By lunchtime, we were always ready for a meal. Most days, we picked sandwich spots. I have to admit; this meal involved much more bread than I'm used to. I normally stick to salads or leftovers for lunch, but I honestly enjoyed the change, and I definitely needed the energy. While walking around Florence and Rome, strolling through museums and galleries, and getting lost along side streets, we ended up walking over 5 miles each day (sometimes up to 10!). Our sandwiches often consisted of a large baguette or 2 pieces of focaccia bread with prosciutto, arugula, and olive oil. My favorite sandwich (seen here) also included spicy eggplant and a truffle cream. Most of these lunches were enjoyed with a glass or two of red wine. I may have eaten past fullness a few times, because the food was just too good, but for the most part it was easy to slow down and enjoy the conversation and people watching with my husband. Towards the end of my meal, I would perform a quick check in with my hunger in order to determine how many more bites I could take without causing too much discomfort. Side note: eating intuitively sometimes looks like eating a little more than you need if you know you won't be able to eat for a while.
From here we would either venture to the next sight or if we were lucky, sneak in a quick nap or some relaxation time. These lunches always kept me full until at least 7pm, which surprised me. At home, I was lucky if a breakfast or lunch kept me full for 3-4 hours. Was it that I was too busy admiring this beautiful city to even think about food? Was it the gigantic piece of bread I was consuming? Maybe a little of both.
There were times that I considered a salad or lighter option, however I knew that I needed the energy and stamina for the long walks ahead. Intuitive eating is not selecting what you think you should be ordering based on external beliefs. And sometimes being intuitive is not selecting what sounds the tastiest, either. Sometimes it is simply ordering what your body needs that day. Remember, carbohydrates are energy! A meal consisting of carbs, fats, and protein will fill you up, leave you satisfied, and give you lasting energy to make it from the Colosseum all the way to Vatican City.
By about 7:30 or 8:00, we would be sitting for dinner. At this point, it was my goal to order all the wonderful foods that would be experienced best only in Italy. So how did I manage to eat it all? By taking it slowly and mindfully. Fortunately, Italy likes to do it just so. Courses are smaller and come out slower. First course was usually a bruschetta or meat and cheese plate or vegetable dish. Almost automatically I closed my eyes after every bite (that's how you know it's good!). Then it was silent for a few minutes while our taste buds took us through every flavor. Just a few bites were enough to get the full experience. Second course (the best course in my opinion): homemade pasta. Whether it was topped with cheese or clams or red sauce, it did not matter: This is what we came for. Our conversation mostly went as follows: "Oh. My. God." and "Mmmmmm." and other strange noises that I can not spell. Our 3rd course might be grilled calamari or filet or even another pasta dish! We liked it that much. We wanted to try it all and always asked for the chef's recommendations. No substitutes. No sauce on the side. No dairy-free options. Just exceptional quality food. We usually opted to go on a walk before ordering a small cup of gelato, but overall I was full, satisfied, and not in pain. What a concept!
The most important thing to note here is that even though I went to bed shortly after dinner, I would not allow myself to feel shame laying down after a carb-heavy meal. This is something I struggled with for years. I was constantly overthinking. I used to make sure I ate dinner at least 2 hours before bed. I aimed to complete 10,000 steps or a certain amount of cardio if I wanted to eat heavy carbohydrates that day. I also used to restrict my intake the morning after a large dinner. However in Italy, I ate when I wanted, listened to my body, thought about my balance of nutrients a little bit, and remained guilt-free. And you know what? I felt great. I may have been a little less hungry than usual in the mornings, but I noted that, and moved on.
Here are a few tips on how to enjoy your vacation while also eating according to your hunger:
Think about what you have planned that day. Will you be hiking across the amazon? Will you be lounging at the beach? Will you be casually strolling through town? How much energy do you need? Carbs = energy. So the more energy you need, the more carbs you may want to consume.
When will you have the opportunity to eat next? Anytime you want? Not until dinner? If it's anytime you want, then feel free to eat lighter. If you will be gone for hours, I would recommend eating a bit more and packing a snack. If you think about your hunger on a scale of 0-10, with 0 being starving and 10 being post-Thanksgiving stuffed, you want to aim to eat around a 3-4. It is important not to let yourself get down to a 0 or 1. At this point, you will be so hungry you won't be thinking straight. It's also much easier to overeat when you become ravenous.
My final tip is not to stress about it, even if you overeat. Remember, the gut-brain access is very real! If you worry you will not digest a particular food well, then you won't.
The moral of my story is to savor your food, stress less, and trust your intuition.