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The Connection Between Travel and Eating Disorders

Eating disorder recovery can make the wonders of traveling or vacationing a little more complex; Here’s how to navigate that!

In June 2011, when I was 22, I graduated college and moved to Seville, Spain.

In yet another gallant attempt to save myself from the eating disorder I’d had since age 16, it was ultimately the choice, in a long line of failed choices, that helped me get the help I needed a year later.

My story is a classic tale of running away to the next best thing. “If I change countries, I’ll get better.” “If I get that job, I’ll stop having an eating disorder.” “If that person comes back into my life, my eating disorder will go away.”

Those were the safe, limiting beliefs I carried around for a lot of years, so it makes sense that I ended up in the small Spanish city at age 22, fresh-eyed, with one large maroon wheely bag, and speaking not a word of Spanish.

I wanted all the experience had to offer. Truly, I did. I love to travel and Spain was always top of the list. The people. The language. The beaches. The weather. I wanted the jolt to my adrenaline daily. I thought that if I was distracted by the challenge of learning a language, or the confusion of figuring out how to get around or shop for food, that my eating disorder would resolve on its own −a quick fix to a long-term wound.

Of course, I see now that I was misguided. It was impossible to rid myself of an eating disorder simply by moving around. While in Spain, not only did I dig my heels into the eating disorder lifestyle; I craved it.

What I thought I would experience as ease with new discoveries swiftly felt out of control in the confusion of the life I’d thrown my young self into. I turned with greater intensity to my eating disorder behavior to survive, to feel normal or protected.

There were many moments of joy and elation during my year in Spain − I fell in love, met wonderful people, discovered new foods – but I was still waltzing around with a monkey on my back at every cafe and night spot. It was dragging me down, a constant distraction from being truly present. My motivations were centered on burning calories and exercising.

I can’t erase the past but, being human and sentimental, I sometimes think about how different life might have been had I not had the eating disorder. Then I ask myself, what difference does it make to ponder what can’t be changed? All I can do is live a life in which the eating disorder isn’t the main attraction. And that brings me to the present day.

Flash forward 10 years later: I’m in recovery after finally getting the help I needed the year after moving back from Spain.

Throughout my recovery I’ve traveled more than the average person. I’ve traveled for a week or two here or there. But my biggest dream was always to do the van life thing.

To me, van life encapsulates the utter freedom of spirit and acceptance of a lifestyle more minimal and less planted. Maybe because my eating disorder had me so planted and rooted, I see van life as symbolic freedom.

Therefore, a year ago, a decade after I left Spain, I sold most of my things in Boulder, Colorado, and set sail on the road again − this time, in the van I finally bought.

For the past year, I’ve rolled around the United States, sleeping at rest stops, eating at random restaurants on the side of the road, and exploring mountains, beaches, swamps, forests, whatever is out there in the country to witness and watch and appreciate.

In turn, it led me to Medellin, Colombia, where I’m currently stationed (without the van, which is sitting at my grandparents farm).

When I embarked on this “Eat Pray Love” sequel, 10 years after my first round of extended travel, I was really interested in seeing how I’d cope with the food changes again. Colombia, known for arepas and beans and rice . . . I had no idea what to expect. What do they use as their cooking oils? How are ingredients prepared? I stumbled into the Colombian culture the same way I stumbled into Spanish culture: with eyes wide open.

Only this time, I’ve been on the recovery path for 8 years and it has been fascinating to see how different my entire focus and priority are while traveling this time around.

What a gift it is to not immediately be looking for the gym. To not know calories of any of the foods. To taste a new food without the need to work it off.

This time around, the experience is full of magnetism and vibrancy. I can show up to everything I do and make friends I don’t cancel on for the gym.

The clinicians at ERC Pathlight understand that as the world opens up, so do the nuances of traveling while in recovery. Many of us haven’t been traveling as much as we used to, if at all. Many of us have had to postpone trips or study-abroad opportunities.

We asked ERC Pathlight dietitian Kathryn Johnson for suggestions on how to prepare if you’re one of the many people headed for travel or study abroad this summer while balancing recovery from an eating disorder. Here are a few helpful ideas:

  • Practice eating at a restaurant in advance of a social occasion, or practice cooking some of the foods if you can’t find a restaurant, so that you can see what it will look like to fit into a meal or snack. As Kathryn Johnson puts it, no one wants to move somewhere cool and eat only granola bars. I believe that.
  • Starting about a week before travel, adjust your bedtime by 30 minutes to 1 hour each night to avoid jet lag as much as possible. You want to be able to keep a meal/snack schedule without crashing! And talk to your team and plan prior to going over. It's incredibly hard if you start off your travels by missing meals and snacks.
  • It's possible that your meal plan should be increased if you are going someplace where you will be walking a lot more than is normal for you. Can you practice increasing both your walking and your meal plan prior to leaving?
  • Have fun! Life is for living.

Are you a study abroad? Or perhaps a van lifer like me? If you have additional tips you’d like to share, feel free to reach out!

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