Staying Slim at Sea

Some years ago, the cruise industry asked travelers who had not taken a cruise if they had anything against the idea of cruising. The main reason these people cited for staying off ships was their fear of gaining weight, given cruising's reputation for gustatory excess.

But today, there's no reason in the world you have to gain five, 10, or 15 pounds on a cruise.

Most female passengers haven't looked like the skinny bikini-clad chicks who appear in cruise line commercials since the days of prom dresses. Their escorts? Certainly not the buff guys we see on TV, since the husband discovered beer, popcorn (with butter) and Sunday afternoon football.

You heard it here first: Instead of being an occasion of weight gain, a cruise presents a great opportunity to knock off a bit of that excess poundage, or at least stay even. Don't panic -- I'm not about to suggest that you spend two or three hours a day in the purgatory known as the "spa/fitness center," which is little more than an assembly of high-tech instruments of physical torture.

Before we discuss how to lose weight, let's think about going the other way.

There's the Sir Edmund Hilary approach: "It is there, so I must eat it;" or the corollary, "I paid for it, I must eat it."

The truth is, most of us are not accustomed to having great food available 24 hours a day, and are afforded few opportunities to participate in the sin of gluttony. So the trick is not try not to stray too far from your usual routine.

If you usually nosh a bagel and slurp down a cup of coffee for breakfast, leave the Eggs Benedict alone. (Well, except for maybe once.) If your lunch is usually soup and salad, you really don't want to load up on those elaborate casseroles, thick slices of roast beef and ham, and utterly tempting desserts.

For most of us, "tea" means a little white bag that you toss in a cup with boiling water, not a plateful of cunning little sandwiches and seductive desserts.

How many of us have five-course dinners at home every night? If you're not married to a professional dessert chef, a midnight buffet of sixty-two kinds of chocolate creations is an unlikely part of life.

Then there's the cocktailing. Liquor has calories -- lots of them. Many of those who sail in summer, or to warmer climes in the winter, would never consider drinking anything but diet cola with their rum -- but once they're onboard, they latch on to the refreshing "tonic" drinks. Tonic has more calories than regular cola. The limes don't count. Meanwhile, the "foo foo" drinks (always adorned with umbrellas) look pretty, taste great, and pack a serious calorie punch - whether they have liquor in them or not - belied by their benign appearance.

Now that we know the diet danger zones (i.e., almost everywhere), here's the combat plan:

  • Drink plenty of water. Long airline flights, diet and lifestyle changes contribute to dehydration, which results in water retention and bloating, making you feel as though you have gained weight. The water on cruise ships is completely potable and probably safer than the water that comes out of your spout at home.
  • Order a double carafe of coffee from room service first morning out and hide the carafe. Use it to keep cold water available at all times.
  • If you don't take an over-the-counter or prescription diuretic, cucumbers and melons are excellent for releasing excess fluids should you "puff up".
  • Walk, don't run. On most cruises you will have the opportunity to walk a mile or so with an extremely perky young person around breakfast time each day. Regular participation will usually result in a natty T-shirt certifying that you're some sort of health nut.
  • Avoid salty foods (bar snacks) at all costs.
  • Whenever possible, take the stairs rather than the elevators. Walking up is better for you than walking down.
  • Plan your meals, especially dinner, carefully. Don't order anything that you could enjoy at a shoreside restaurant in a better presentation than onboard. Most ships post the evening's menu somewhere around lunchtime. Read the dinner menu before deciding on lunch.
  • Take a close took at the "Light and Healthy" or "Lean and Mean" menu choices.
  • Walk the line. Before loading up your plate at any buffet, walk behind the plate-loading patrons - peek politely over their shoulders or between them -- and decide which items you want. Don't start loading your plate and keep on loading.
  • Pool deck lunches are death to even the most carefully planned diets. Ah. The smell of those "Lido Burgers." And you do want fries with that?
  • Some of the best food offerings at sea are the appetizers because they're usually the first thing made in the morning and the chef's staff can devote more time to them. The servings are usually small and, often, quite delicious - food you're not likely to have at home. Cruises are a time to be adventurous.
  • Take more time talking to your tablemates than stuffing your face. Consider the breadbasket to be a decor item. Eat slowly.
  • Only eat half of the entree if, indeed, you do choose an entree. (I usually have two appetizers, light soup, a salad, and dessert.) Practice in the bathroom mirror at home how to respond to the waiter who says, "But you deed not like eet?". "I'm just saving room for dessert," is an excellent answer.
  • Do not even THINK about having a second entree, even though they are readily available. Tasting three different desserts is not a sin.
  • Remember that you may be more active on a cruise than you are at home, especially if you are desk-bound. In European or other exotic ports you may not even realize how much you're walking; in warm-water destinations, swim and float.
  • If you're a second-seating type, order some fruit and cheese from room service to "take the edge off" so you're not starving when you make it to the table.
  • Nibble. A little bit here, a little bit there will keep the stomach happy. Just choose your nibbles carefully.
  • Carry zip-top bags with you. When you see a display of healthy food such as fruit or vegetables, snag some to take back to your cabin. It is considered un-cool to load the baggies at the buffet. Put the produce on your plate and fill the plastic discretely at your table.
  • If you're spending the day ashore, gather healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, and yogurt from breakfast and pack it into the little insulated lunch pack you take with you.
  • Remember that "fried" is a four-letter word (or should be).

A cruise is one of the few times in life when you really HAVE a choice. Keep it in mind.

If all else fails, carry along a few pony-tail holders. They are great waistline expansion devices.

Bon Appetit! Just not too much of it.

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