Weight It Out: The Math Behind Vacation Weight Gain

You come home from your vacation proclaiming a 10 pound weight gain. But a week later you feel back to normal. Diving into the math behind vacation weight gain will help you realize it’s not as dramatic as you think. Enjoy your trip knowing that your regular healthy eating patterns matter much more than a few days of indulging.

giant 10' sprinkle layer cake

I still dream about that amazing 10′ sprinkle cake from the Nest County Fair!

Vacation Weight Gain: Weight (Wait) It Out

Over a decade ago when I had just finished losing my college weight, I used to weigh myself daily. But the scale started to control my emotions and I knew it was no longer serving me. I gave it up years ago. These days, the only time I hop on a scale is at the doctor’s office. My goal is to feel good in my body and in my clothes. A scale tells me my force against the earth, but it can’t tell me how I feel.

A scale can be a useful tool to track long term trends and motivate someone to lose weight if they have medical advice they need to. I don’t think that all scales need to be banished from society, as they serve a purpose for those whose health would benefit from weight loss. But if you’re healthy and happy at the weight you are, a scale will likely cause more frustration than cheer.

As I have made peace with my body over time, I realized that the number on the scale discouraged me more than it helped. Stepping on a scale after a vacation was one of those times. I have overheard folks report back from a week-long vacation, “I gained 10 vacation pounds on my trip to Italy!” I want to tell them to weight it out.

I’ve learned that it takes about 2 days into a vacation of eating more than I usually do, in both portion size and richer foods and alcohol, to notice that my body feels different. And upon my return it takes me about 4 to 5 days of regular meals and my exercise routine to feel normal again. Most of this extra weight is in the form of water. Remember that to gain a pound of fat you have to eat 3,500 calories more than your body needs to burn to function.

The Math

Consider a vacation to a big city where you might walk five miles a day sightseeing, visit a hip new fitness studio once during the week, and go for one run while you’re there. You are likely burning 2,200+ calories per day. That means you’d have to eat 2,200 PLUS 500 calories more every day to average a single one-pound weight gain on your trip. 

If you came home from your vacation five pounds heavier on the scale, you likely didn’t eat 17,500 calories above your needs in a week – that would be an average of about 4,850 calories per day! Now I know I’ve probably come close to eating that number in one day before, but not seven days in a row. I find that my body usually wants to eat less the day after I eat a lot. #balance

All That Weight Is Mostly Water

The reason for the five pound “gain” is water retention. Not only do certain rich foods leave you retaining water, but you also have the physical weight of the excess food traveling through your system for at least 48 hours or so. Kind of gross, but it’s in there!

Once you’re home, just slip back into your healthy routine (you’ll probably want to!), stock the fridge with fresh produce, and wait it out. Do not weigh yourself. Wear your stretchy pants (so as not to get discouraged by tight jeans) and see how you feel a few days later. I bet the jeans fit perfectly. I used to feel more self conscious about my post-vacation bloat, but then I realized that no one else can tell. It’s more about how you feel than how you look. And the squiggly line effect will take care of the rest. 

Fanny packs make great additions to vacations! Ha.

A few tips to FEEL your best on your vacation

  1. Aim for three meals per day. If you’re like me, you tend to eat more at each meal while traveling than when at home. But I find that because I’ve had a bigger lunch, I don’t really need a snack! My body is smarter than I think.
  2. Curb the booze. I know, I know. Drinking beer all day at the lake might be the best part of your summer! But at least for me, nothing makes me feel worse than dehydration or a hangover. Definitely enjoy some drinks, but just don’t get hammered ok?! You can probably easily drink a lot more calories than you can eat.
  3. Bring just one part of your workout routine with you. That could be just one run along a new city’s river or one power walk on the beach. Or yoga via podcast in your cozy cabin one morning. Or a trail hike in a new part of the world. Breaking a sweat will help you feel your best.
  4. Add in a little mindfulness. I am ALL FOR enjoying your trip and indulging in the most delicious foods you come across. But just make sure they are good ones. Don’t gobble down a gas station donut on your car trip. Visit that local ice cream shop that is known for their birthday cake ice cream and use your five senses to devour it.

How To Avoid Vacation Weight Gain: Don’t Worry So Much!

As a Registered Dietitian, I’m telling you to relax during your vacation. Knowing the math and how my body operates helps me truly embrace the trip. Remember that just a few days of healthy eating is all it takes to counteract a few days of overeating. Your long term eating habits in your regular daily life are way more important than those you adopt for a few days away.

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