How to Survive A Diet-Challenging Vacation

Rachel Pomerance
June 10, 2013

Woohoo! You're going on a cruise! The sun ... the sea ... the midnight buffet ... er, 24-hour buffet. Yikes! You're trying to whittle your waistline, not widen it. None of this gain-a-pound-a-day-on-the-love-boat-buffet for you. But when you're surrounded by heaps of shrimp cocktail, towers of multi-tiered cakes and gobs of chocolate goodness, how can you avoid going overboard?

Never fear! U.S. News is here! No matter how diet-challenging your summer vacation may be, you can avoid all-out hedonism and indulge gracefully. Here's how:

Scattered, smothered and covered, baby!

Nothin' says lovin' quite like fried chicken and biscuits. But calories still count down South. As Gayl Canfield, nutrition director at Pritkin Longevity Center in Miami, puts it: "When we go on vacation, we don't stop having diabetes." So what do you do when you find yourself betwixt all things battered and buttered? Remind yourself of your health goals, Canfield says, and "make smart choices depending upon what those goals are."

So, say you're vacationing in New Orleans, where the M.O. is often: "If you can fry it, you can eat it." No one's knocking it, but you're free to make your own rules. It's your vacation, right? New Orleans boasts "unbelievable seafood," Canfield says. "Asking them to grill your shrimp as opposed to deep-frying it is sometimes all it takes."

"No matter where you go, there's always going to be healthy food, and there's going to be not-so-healthy food, and it's all about being comfortable asking" for what you want, Canfield says. She advises seeking out restaurants ahead of time (hotels will often list local restaurants on their websites, she notes) and asking if what you want can be prepared more healthfully - with less fat or without added oil and salt, for example.

[See: Best Weight-Loss Diets.]

Ooh la la ... croissant!

How can a place with that much nutella - and cheese and wine and the kind of bread that dreams are made of - host so many svelte women? Mireille Guiliano, former spokeswoman of the French champagne company Veuve Clicquot and an exemplar of said women, debunked the mystery about 10 years ago with her best-seller, "French Women Don't Get Fat." After a fattening tour of America, she returned to France and to a different way of eating, one in which food is enjoyed slowly and with all one's senses, she says.

Elisabetta Politi, a registered dietitian and nutrition director for the Duke Diet and Fitness Center in North Carolina, takes a similar approach, advising that mindfulness and portion control hold the keys to eating well. She often passes along Guiliano's advice that three bites of a dish can quench a craving, and she urges clients to go for quality over quantity. "If you eat less of it and you pay attention, it's going to be very satisfying," Politi says.

[See: Best Heart-Healthy Diets.]

When in Rome ...

"If you go to Italy, go with the flow - eat less for breakfast and have more at lunch and dinner," says Politi, who is Italian and says that's how it's done there. Politi outlines a possible daily meal plan: cappuccino with a slice of toasted bread and jam for breakfast; pasta with marinara sauce and a salad for lunch; fish and some eggplant for dinner and gelato for dessert. Consider having two courses and either dessert or a glass of wine, she says.

"It's important to indulge and not go home thinking you didn't eat this,because you wanted to stay on track," she says. "The goal is, of course, try to eat nutritious meals because food is fuel." So you have the gelato, she says. "But its not the center of your meal, and it's not something that you eat excessively."

[See: 6 'Bad' Foods That Really Aren't.]

Welcome aboard!

Although cruises can seem like the most diet-challenging of all vacations, they're among the easiest vacations to manage, Canfield says. "If you truly want to do well on a cruise, you can do beautifully," she says. "Twenty-four hours a day there's food out, but there's also beautiful fruit buffets and salad buffets, so it's easy to make those choices if you want to do that." She also notes that cruises have plenty of physical activities available to help passengers stay on course.

When faced with an all-you-can-eat buffet, or any diet challenge, Politi says to follow the government's MyPlate recommendations, in which half a meal plate is comprised of fruits and vegetables, and the rest is split between grains and protein. "Anytime that you have a generous portion of vegetables and fruit, you know that you're not going to eat a high-calorie meal."

[See: Cruise Control: Lose Weight on a Cruise Without Trying.]

Wherever you go ...

Treat yourself to the local produce, says wellness coach and registered dietitian Julie Schwartz, founder and principal owner of NutriWell Coaching & Yoga in Johns Creek, Ga. "It sure tastes different when it comes fresh picked or fresh harvested versus picked and transported to our local grocery store." Schwartz says local tourism boards and chambers of commerce can be a resource for learning about area festivals and specialty foods.

And don't forget about the local supermarket, says Phil Lempert, a food industry analyst also known as "Supermarket Guru." "If you're traveling, and if you've got a family and you want to experience for a week or two that local culture, the supermarket remains at the center of community," Lempert says. Check out the prepared foods to discover local dishes, ask for a store tour, noting that you're new to the area, and inquire if a registered dietitian is on staff who can make healthy suggestions.

Finally, eating well has a lot to do with attitude. Commit to your good health, experts say, and the rest should fall into place. As you explore the local cuisine, enjoy making food part - not all - of the adventure!

[See: Meet the Supermarket Dietitian.]