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Keeping Healthy On Vacation

There comes a time when one’s livin’, no matter how clean the intent, is tested. A time when temptation is greater, every as-yet untasted morsel appears more succulent, routine is recklessly abandoned, and measuring progress becomes a chore too unpleasant to contemplate. For me, that time is while I’m on vacation.

It stands to reason. When you’re away from home or work you have less control over your environment, are probably not cooking for yourself, and the joys of discovering new foods or enjoying halcyon reminiscences too delicious to pass up.

Even the word “vacation” conjures images of freedom, excitement, and enticing new experiences. It’s a time you want to play instead of work, relax instead of be active, and let the tautness of routine slacken as the lassitudes of recreation multiply.

Or, if you’re me, you run yourself ragged walking around your vacation spot for ten hours straight without taking any downtime to relax, eating junk food from carts on the street as you go.

I’ve been making good progress managing my weight loss over the past few months, so the prospect of a vacation both excited and worried me. The wife and I visited New York City over an extended Memorial Day five-day weekend. New York is one of my favorite places to visit, and a big part of that is the food. Whenever we go to New York there are a bunch of things that we plan to eat that you just can’t get in Chicago, or at least it’s different enough that we enjoy the New York version:

  • Pizza – No one does pizza like New York City, especially at the few and far between coal oven establishments. You can debate which style of pizza is best but when you imagine pizza in your mind, you’re probably thinking of New York Style Pizza.
  • Bagels – There are a few places in Chicago to get passable bagels, but great bagels are so common in New York that it’s rare if they aren’t good. Also, you can’t really get bialys, the bagel’s weird denser cousin, anywhere else.
  • East Coast Chinese Food – Americanized Chinese food is available throughout the country, with various regional differences. New York Chinese food offers a nostalgia for the Chinese food of my youth in Philly.
  • Street Food – In Chicago it’s illegal to cook food in a truck and serve it (there are food trucks, but they have to prepare their food elsewhere and then sell the food from the truck, and there are so many restrictions that you can’t count on a truck having a permanent outpost, so they roam from place to place and post their current and upcoming locations on Twitter. Lame. In New York you can eat any kind of food you want, cooked in a cart or truck on the street. The same cart was there yesterday, and the same cart will be there tomorrow. There are some NYC staples like “chicken over rice” that doesn’t seem to exist elsewhere, and common stuff like falafel, kebabs, tacos, etc.
  • img-grays Papaya Drinks and Grilled Hot Dogs – I don’t know why this combination is only prevalent in New York, but Gray’s Papaya and Papaya King (and half a dozen lesser imitators) serve a combo of grilled natural casing hot dogs and a papaya drink that’s just out of this world, and a very cheap meal. Gray’s Papaya has a “recession special” that offers two hot dogs and a papaya drink for under $5.
  • Dirty Water Hot Dogs – Sure, Chicago may be the hot dog and sausage capital of the country, but there’s nothing like getting a dirty water hot dog (usually made by Sabrett) on the street, topped with mustard and sauerkraut.
  • img-shake-shack Shake Shack – The West Coast has In-N-Out, other cities have Fatburger, Five Guys, Steak & Shake, M Burger, and other local burger joints, but there’s just something about Shake Shack’s burgers that really draw the crowds. We waited about 50 minutes from the time we entered the line until we were actually eating a burger. I’m still on the fence about whether or not it was worth it, but it is a tasty burger. Shake Shack just expanded into Philadelphia, so I expect they’ll continue to open new locations.
  • Knish – Ah, the potato knish. I’m sure you can get them elsewhere, but the fresh round baked, not fried, knish from Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery on Houston are just not available anywhere else in the country.
  • img-katz Deli – Your city has delis too? Not really. You haven’t had a good deli sandwich until you’ve gotten some house-cured corned beef or pastrami from a reputable institution, like Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side[1]. Other cities have delis, and most supermarkets have a “deli counter” where they’ll sell you some sliced cold cuts, but none really do it like New York, and those that do call themselves “New York Style” delis.

I didn’t mean for this post to turn into a list of unhealthy but delicious things that are available in New York City, but there you go. I’m sure I forgot some New York City street food staples too.

When you’re trying to lose weight, though, walking around New York is like navigating a minefield. There are delicious and cheap foods everywhere and you have to walk by one of those carts every twenty paces. I think I did pretty well, considering.

How To Mitigate The Damage While Still Enjoying Your Vacation

  • Walk Around – Walking around a new place can be a lot more interesting than walking around the same streets over and over again at home. While walking alone won’t make up for an extra two thousand calories, it helps mitigate the damage caused by eating poorly.
  • Share the (Caloric) Load – If you’re traveling with a friend or partner you can reduce your caloric intake by sharing the foods that are higher in calories. Some things are easier to share than others, of course, and convincing someone else to go halfsies may take some doing.
  • If You Can’t Share, Spread It Out – A single hot dog and bun is like 300 calories (and not much more if your toppings are comprised only of low-calorie items such as mustard and sauerkraut or onions), so if you eat one and then have a slice of 300–400 calorie pizza a couple of hours later, you’re spreading it out over time, and hopefully walking off some of those calories in-between.
  • Don’t Spend More Than You Make – Just like when you’re home, you should set a budget and stick to it. I set my caloric budget while on vacation to the amount of calories it would take for me to maintain my weight. I figured if I could break even throughout the course of my vacation, I’d call that a “win.” It’s harder, however, to have an accurate calorie estimate of foods you don’t prepare yourself, so while away I tend to try to over-estimate everything as a worst-case scenario. Pizza isn’t going to be consistent between pizzerias, or even between slices from the same pizzeria. Do the best you can.
  • Choose Your Battles – Since you’re still operating under a budget (albeit a looser budget, most likely) you should be smart about how to spend those calories. When you consider the opportunity cost that eating one thing precludes eating something else (in terms of space in your stomach let alone calorie budget) be sure that you’re choosing to eat something that’s highly caloric that you’ll truly enjoy. Save up throughout the day for that one meal for which you’ve made reservations. Pass on the soft serve from the truck and walk the mile to the artisan ice cream shop you saw on TV. You don’t have to deprive yourself, just make sure that if you’re going to pound down the calories that you’ll actually be enjoying the experience.

Easier Said Than Done

So how’d I do?

On the morning of the day we left I weighed in at 290.8 lbs. The morning after we got back I weighed in at 298.0 lbs. Oops. Since I was counting my calories while away I knew that there was no way I ate an extra 25,000 calories over the course of a week over what I burned, so something else had to be accounting for the extra weight.

It took me five days to get rid of my vacation weight (and another couple of days to be sure I kept it off and I didn’t just dip below it due to water balance changes):

Day Weight (lbs) Delta (lbs)
23 May
(leaving for vacation)
290.8
31 May
(return from vacation)
298.0 +7.2
1 June 297.0 +6.2
2 June 294.4 +3.6
3 June 294.8 +4.0
4 June 292.6 +1.8
5 June
(back to pre-vacation weight)
290.6 –0.2
6 June 289.6 –1.2
7 June 289.4 –1.4
8 June 288.8 –2.0

Totally worth it.


  1. It’s the deli where Sally faked an orgasm (“I’ll have what she’s having.”) from the film When Harry Met Sally.  ↩

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This entry was posted 4 years ago and is filed under food, progress, weight loss. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

3 Responses to “Keeping Healthy On Vacation”

  1. June 13th, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    Joe Dempsey, Sr. says:

    I was just about to tell that they opened a Shake Shack here in Philly but it seems you’ve already found that out. I don’t know where it is located. I guess I’ll give it the Mt. Fuji treatment some day.

    Also, another great post. Thanks!

  2. June 13th, 2012 at 8:42 pm

    Amanda says:

    I just want all the readers out there to know that I didn’t eat “1/2″ of what you ate. We shared, yes, but not always half.

  3. June 14th, 2012 at 9:48 am

    Joe Dempsey, Sr. says:

    @Amanda I assumed he ate more than you whether you shared on a particular occasion or not. For example, the picture of the Shake Shack burgers showed one single and one double. I assume he ordered the double.

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