What are the essential ingredients for a holiday? Sun? Swimming? A change of scene? A lie in?  It’s different for everyone but many of us would consider ‘special’ food and drink an important part of a great holiday.  But as we know, typical ‘treat’ foods are usually the foods which don’t do our health any favours – the ultra-processed foods high in sugar and refined starches, confectionery, cakes, biscuits and ice cream. Fizzy and alcoholic drinks are on the same list. 

So, is there a way to do holiday food without the downside of weight gain or getting into habits which are hard to break when the holiday’s over? Here are a few ideas;

Reframe: break the link between holiday food and sugar

‘Treat’ food is often sugary. But could holiday food be indulgent in some other way? Could you splash out on some of the foods you wouldn’t normally buy? Treat yourself to a leisurely breakfast or brunch with the newspapers, or string up some fairy lights or decorations to give eating outside a holiday vibe? Could you cook outside? – on a BBQ or, if it’s feasible and safe, a camp fire? What about taking time to prepare food and eat with friends and family?  Eating together is a wonderful human bonding experience, all the more precious after the long months of covid restrictions.  

Keep treats as real treats

As predictable and boring as it might sound, trying to keep the treats as proper treats, ie not eating them often, really does help protect health. After all, what’s special about an ice cream if you have it every day? 

But there’s another reason to limit sweet treats: sugar makes us hungry and crave more sugar. Sadly, the body doesn’t know or care that we’re on holiday so sugary holiday habits can easily extend into everyday life and contribute to ill health. We’ve known for a long time that eating sugary food causes a rapid blood sugar spike which, due to the swift action of the hormone insulin removing excess sugar from the blood, can swiftly lead to low blood sugar … which makes us crave sugar again. This is the ‘blood sugar rollercoaster’. We’re eating often yet still feeling we need to eat more.

Two recent research studies provide more insight on this. One found that big blood sugar highs, and correspondingly big blood sugar lows, make some of us hungrier for longer and eat more. Another study found that, compared to a low carbohydrate diet, a higher carbohydrate diet made people crave more carbohydrate by stimulating the part of the brain associated with pleasure and reward. There’s even a study which found that the more ice cream adolescents ate, the more ice cream they needed to get a reward response in the brain. So it’s not just blood sugar levels stimulating our hunger for sweet things. It seems that sugar gets the brain in on the act, too, making sugar a tough habit to break. Protecting ourselves and our children from the sugar habit makes sense.

Make cooking from scratch a pleasure

Ultra-processed food is associated with ill health and in the UK over half our daily energy comes from ultra-processed food – the highest rate in Europe. It might even help to explain why our covid mortality levels have been the highest in Europe. 

Ultra-processed foods are changed by industrial processing to be very different from the original ingredients. Think fish fingers rather than fish, cheese strings rather than cheddar, tomato cook-in sauce rather than fresh tomatoes. They come in eye-catching packaging and contain more than five ingredients, including sugars, preservatives and seed oils. 

Avoiding ultra-processed foods means we have to cook from scratch.  For some people, having the time to cook from scratch is a pleasure worthy of holiday indulgence, but for others it’s a chore. How can we make cooking more satisfying?

  • As a holiday treat, try one of the ingredient kit services like Green Chef, Hello Fresh or Gousto. Ingredients for the dishes you choose arrive pre-prepped at your door, with the recipe, all ready to go. 
  • Make it a family affair. Get everyone involved in deciding what to cook, the shopping and prep and cooking, and of course, eating together. Some foods are great for this. Pizza – you can make the bread base, everyone can add their favourite toppings and eat with their fingers – a winner with kids of all ages! Or build-your-own foods, like Mexican fajitas, are great: a selection of fillings like cooked chicken, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, some chillies, cheese, soured cream or yoghurt dressing means everyone can build their perfect fajita. 
  • If you can’t travel to a different country, what about bringing a country to you through food? Why not recreate a special meal from a past holiday.  Go mad and dress up for the occasion!
  • Have a big cooking session before or at the start of the holiday. Make and freeze loads of different dishes for a supply of your own homemade ready meals to defrost.
  • Someone sensible once said, if you’re going to eat junk food, make your own. There’s a world of difference between a pre-packaged, additive-laden burger patty and one home-made from minced beef, with a bit of onion chopped in (or not) and some salt and pepper. The homemade one will be tastier and more nutritious and might be cheaper, too. A lot of ‘junk foods’ can be of limited nutritional quality if bought as a take away but could be zinging with nutrients when homemade. Think pizza or burgers (add your own salad, pickles, and cheesy toppings). Or real kebabs. To pitta bread, add spicy meat or vegetarian substitute, shredded lettuce, onion, tomato and cucumber, and top with a drizzle of yoghurt or spicy hot sauce.  Food of the gods! Even the sweet stuff like cakes or ice lollies are likely to be less unhealthy and more satisfying if they’re your own creations.

Try not to snack or graze

Holidays can mean constant eating, especially with all-you-can-eat or all-inclusive deals. But eating can contribute to weight gain. Also, leaving gaps between meals gives your digestive system time to deal with its last meal and promotes metabolic health.  And food tastes even better when you’re hungry!

Snack food advertising and marketing would have us believe hunger is something to be avoided – we’re urged to fill the hunger gap, eat on the go etc. But as long as you don’t have an eating disorder, being hungry is a natural human state and isn’t dangerous. Similarly, if you’re not hungry first thing in the morning, you could experiment with delaying the first meal of the day until you’re hungry. A late morning brunch (or lunch) might work well on holiday – and could be a holiday habit worth continuing.

Lou Walker is a health coach specialising in weight management and improving health through eating real food and making realistic, sustainable lifestyle changes. Find out more on http://www.louwalker.com.