3 Reasons You Gain Weight on Vacation (And You’re Gonna Be Fine!)

If you come home as happy as you leave, you have had a good vacation. – Unknown

We all need time to relax and reinvigorate ourselves. Usually that can be accomplished on the weekend. But sometimes, it can’t. And that’s why we have vacation. Some people need sun and sand to unwind from their daily grind. Others find the tranquility they seek in the warble of mountain streams.

Realizing you have to come home from vacation is never fun. But coming home from vacation and noticing that you’ve gained weight while away can send you into an emotional tailspin.

Is it possible that you gained “that” much weight while in Cabo? What kind of reckless idiot possessed me while I was in the Finger Lakes? Oh God, should I never take a vacation again? Am I going to have to start all over on my #weightlossjourney? The answer to all of those is, no.

No: You didn’t gain “all that.”
No: You are not a reckless fool.
No: You can take a vacation again.

And no, you won’t have to start your journey over again. Weight gain on vacation isn’t necessarily a big deal. If it happens to you, don’t worry, it’s not all doom and gloom. You haven’t turned into Thanos and snapped away all your hard work. The majority of weight gain on vacation can be attributed to three factors.

1. Sodium, Sodium, Sodium

3 Reasons You Gain Weight on Vacation (And You're Gonna Be Fine!)
Alright Ninjas, are you ready for some science? Don’t worry, there won’t be a test or anything. And this isn’t gonna end up like high school biology where I tell you to rummage through an owl’s poop to see what it’s eaten, nor are we touching the whole dissecting a frog thing. Frogs are gross and slimy and… yuck!

Anywho, biology (and chemistry) are happening every second of the day inside your body. The food you eat influences how your body carries out its biological and chemical processes. Ever get gassy after you eat a bunch of beans? That my friend is science happening in your intestines.

There are dozens of nutrients that are crucial to your biology. For instance, your muscles and neurons are electric tissues within your body. And minerals like sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium, calcium, and phosphate, aka electrolytes, have the ability to conduct electricity (via ions) which allows your cells to communicate.

For instance, without sodium, your muscles won’t be able to contract. And without contraction, you’d never be able to walk, dance, ride a bike, swing a kettlebell, and your intestines couldn’t digest your food.

Of course, there’s a delicate balance with these electrolytes. And your body secretes hormones that help maintain electrolyte homeostasis. But my focus here is on the interaction between sodium and potassium; these two electrolytes are the main “communicators” or drivers of muscle contraction.

If your body were to operate optimally, it would maintain a higher concentration of potassium ions to a low amount of sodium ions. So if you increase your sodium intake you’d offset the intra-cellular balance of your cells. And one way to increase your sodium intake is to eat meals at restaurants.

Salty Science

The American Heart Association, in their journal Circulation, reported that restaurants and processed foods in groceries accounted for 70% of dietary sodium intake. When at home, they found that people used far less salt overall. So if you’ve been eating more home cooked meals before you go on vacation and then chow down at restaurants, you could be taking in anywhere from 3-4x (maybe more?) the amount of sodium you normally consume.

Yea, that’s gonna muck up your sodium/potassium balance for sure. Sodium causes your body to hold onto more water. Hello, bloat. But if you’ve offset the sodium/potassium balance, and let’s be honest, you’re probably not eating that many potassium-rich veggies on vacation, your body is gonna take a while to bring your sodium levels back in line.

Water weight is the most common cause of the scale increasing. And if you’ve eaten out a lot on vacation, then you can blame the extra salty foods you ordered. But sodium isn’t the only nutrient that can increase water retention. There’s a major macronutrient you eat every day that causes excess water gain: carbs.

2. Glycogen Plus Water = Thirsty Carbs

3 Reasons You Gain Weight on Vacation (And You're Gonna Be Fine!)
Mmmm, carbs. What do you think of when you think of carbs? Pizza, pasta, bread, cookies, cake — have I made you salivate yet?

For far too long, carbs have been demonized as the culprit of obesity. But carbs aren’t some demonic force hellbent on increasing your waist size. You need carbohydrates for your body to function. And even though your body can create ketones for energy, ketosis isn’t an optimal biological process.

Your body would much rather use glucose as fuel. In fact, your brain consumes roughly 120g of glucose every day (that roughly equates to about 420 calories). When you eat carbohydrates, your body converts those carbs into glucose to fuel your brain and your muscles when you’re working out.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Are the light bulbs going off yet? If you’ve been in a calorie deficit for awhile, you might have noticed that your workouts sometimes feel sluggish. This is something that happens when anyone is on a low-carb diet. But besides giving your body more glucose, increased carb intake will increase the water you store, along with refilling your muscles glycogen stores.

Your body stores excess glucose as glycogen in your muscles (about three-quarters of all your body’s glycogen stores are in your muscle) and liver. And guess what holds that glycogen there? Mother freaking water.

Decreasing your carb intake means you’ll not only lose the fuel stored in your muscles, but you’ll also lose water. So if you drastically increase the carbs you’ve been eating, you’ll see the scale tick up. But that tick up is due to refilling your muscle glycogen along with holding onto extra water.

So that French toast you ordered at brunch on vacation and then covered in maple syrup didn’t go straight to your butt or belly. But it did store some extra water and refill glycogen stores.

There is one final thing that can cause you hold onto extra fluids and tick the scale up. And it’s something that few of us ever consider.

3. Inflammation

3 Reasons You Gain Weight on Vacation (And You're Gonna Be Fine!)
Changes to your normal diet can cause you to hold onto extra water. But there are other factors that can cause weight gain via fluid retention. And one that is common but often overlooked is inflammation.

Inflammation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s how our bodies begin the healing process. And you experience “some” inflammation every time you workout — you lift weights, break down muscle(s), and your body has to repair your muscle(s) so you can come back stronger or better the next time. Outside of getting sick or an injury that causes inflammation, there are other ways your body might get inflamed and thus hold onto more fluids.

Beer Me!

Alright, don’t hate me, but one common cause of inflammation can come from alcohol. A 2017 review of multiple studies on alcohol and gut-inflammation found that there’s significant evidence that higher intake of booze can lead to massive disruptions of your gut biome.

This review showed that moderate drinking, which the US Department of Health and Human Services defines as one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men, showed no signs of deleterious effect on gut health.

But higher alcohol consumption, and this was especially true with those who had an alcohol use disorder, can lead to intestinal permeability. This increase in permeability can allow larger molecules through your intestine and into your bloodstream, and kicks your immune system into “fight mode.”

There’s a lot in that study about how alcohol affects your gut over time. They cover a ton of information about how alcohol can change your gut flora, how it can affect those with IBD, and may have some effect on whole body inflammation as well. So if that intrigues you and you wanna know more, and don’t mind reading a few studies, check it out here.

But alcohol isn’t the only thing that can cause inflammation and subsequent storage of extra fluids.

Lather Up to Reduce Inflammation

If you’re heading to somewhere warm and sunny, make sure to lather up with plenty of sunscreen. Especially if you’re a ginger like me. Sunburns, especially extreme ones, can cause inflammation. But the sun is just one aspect of the environment that can cause your body to react and kickstart inflammation.

Immunity

Have you ever traveled and while on your trip or when coming back gotten sick? Sure, being in a tube 30,000 feet in the air filled with people who could have germs you don’t know about can be a cause of getting sick. But wherever you are heading on vacation, it’s possible too that there are toxins you’re breathing in every day that can lead to getting sick or that can cause inflammation elsewhere in your body.

Mold, dust mites, smoke or smog, all of these things can affect your lungs and could cause your immune system to kick in. Even the food you eat while you’re away could affect your stomach and introduce toxins or substances you don’t normally consume that could be an irritant to your system.

Of course, some mild inflammation due to your immune system may not cause massive amounts of weight to spike, but if it’s combined with extra carbs and sodium, then you know there’s a three-prong attack happening inside your body.

Swell!

A couple final things that many of us may have noticed on long trips is swelling of your ankles or hands. Some climates can cause you to swell. Ever been to somewhere super hot and noticed your hands swell up?

Yea, heat can do that to you. You can also experience swelling and fluid retention after sitting in a plane for hours on end. Compression clothing can alleviate or prevent that, as can walking about the cabin or stretching in the toilet. But just be aware that if you hop on a scale in a hotter climate or after getting off a long plane ride, you might notice a tick up.

Take a Break: Vacay is GOOD!

3 Reasons You Gain Weight on Vacation (And You're Gonna Be Fine!)
Vacation should be a time to recharge and refill your cup. You can always choose to take a “break” from your healthy habits and enjoy yourself on vacation in regards to food. But know that by making that choice, you may see the scale go up a bit.

It’ll come down once you get back to your normal routine. So you don’t need to do a cleanse or anything drastic. Get back to your normal. Maybe that normal means eating plenty of veggies and lean protein for a week. Or maybe it means taking those extra carbs and using them to get back in the swing of things at MFF. Breaking vacation mode can be hard.

But remember: you’re always one meal, or one class, away from being back on track.

And if you haven’t found the right track for you to get on, there’s a magical place you can visit. It’s kind of like a vacation from everyday life (at least for an hour). Getting there is simple. All you have to do is come by the Mark Fisher Fitness Enchanted Ninja Clubhouse of Glory and Dreams.


Ready to get back in the swing of things with your fitness after some much-deserved time off? Your first 5 classes at Mark Fisher Fitness are only $49!

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Robbie Farlow is the King of the Gingers, Protector of the North, and an uber nerd who loves all things Star Wars, video games, Marvel, and 90s music. Oh, and tacos and whiskey. He’s an online fitness coach who helps men and women make their 30s better than their 20s. And he writes about all things nerd, lifting weights, emo music, and more at Side Quest Fitness. When he isn’t writing, you’ll find him playing video games, deadlifting, munching on tacos, snuggling on the couch with his wife, and drinking good whiskey.

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