Tips on not gaining weight on a cruise

By Lew Toulmin
This item appears on page 62 of the June 2009 issue.

by Lew Toulmin

When I am on vacation, I can easily gain one or even two pounds a day if I am not careful. And being careful while on a cruise vacation is impossible, right? Well, not really. There are ways to avoid gaining weight, but they all require a little planning, analysis and willpower.

Be a critical eater

Food on cruise ships is one of the major attractions, but most ships cannot produce fabulous food all the time. Recognize this and use it to your advantage.

My wife, Susan, and I rate all the food we eat away from home on a scale of A (for great) through F (terrible), with a special high grade of “Oh, my God!” (OMG). We only give two or three OMGs per year — less than a quarter of one percent of the restaurant dishes we consume. This high grade is reserved for those very few dishes that we will never forget.

So what we do on a cruise is rate a dish as soon as we taste it. If it is an A, we eat it all. For a B, we eat half of it. If a C or below, we eat virtually none of it and have salad instead. Only if it is a true Oh, my God! do we even think of getting seconds.

We remind ourselves regularly that a real OMG must have instant, stupendous taste, wonderful presentation and great imagination. Usually, an OMG has great simplicity, too. Most modern chefs try to overcomplicate the great classic dishes of the past or offer “new twists” or “deconstructions” that do not taste as good as the originals.

By being more critical and really savoring the greatest dishes, you can avoid stuffing yourself with ordinary food.

Watch your food volume

It is almost impossible for most people, myself included, to maintain weight around the glorious buffets that cruise ships lay out. There is just too much food to sample, and it is tempting to eat it all.

So when you first go through the buffet line, load up on vegetables and salads, with only a moderate amount of dressing. Eat that, drink one or two glasses of water and then see how you feel. It is likely that you will feel almost full and will not be tempted to eat lots of heavy meats and desserts.

When you go to the ship’s sit-down, à la carte restaurant, feel free to order only an appetizer, salad and dessert. I find that, for some reason, many appetizers are better than most entrées, plus the servings are never as huge as those of the entrées.

Also, think about ordering special dishes that are not on the menu. On many ships, the chefs are happy to fix something different. A good idea is to order a special dish that is favored by the ship’s crew. When we are on a ship with a large number of Filipino crew, we invariably order Filipino chicken adobo. The crew is always pleased to share a bit of their culture with us, and we are happy to get an authentic and freshly made lo-cal dish.

Whether at the buffet or the restaurant, don’t forget that almost every modern cruise ship offers “light” selections that are designed to help you meet your weight goals.

Another possibility — try being vegetarian every third day. You may actually feel better.

Visit that gym

Like most people, the only way I can really lose weight is to watch what I eat and exercise at least an hour a day. To maintain my weight, I need to exercise at least 30 to 45 minutes per day.

So before your next cruise, resolve to try all the gym facilities and sample all the gym classes that are offered on board. Most large cruise ships have wonderful gyms that cost nothing and usually are not busy, especially early in the morning, just before lunch and late in the day.

Pick out some new gym skills that you have been wanting to try, like Pilates, low-impact aerobics, water aerobics, tai chi, tai bo, Qigong, yoga, group cycling, core muscle fitness or weight training. Most large cruise ships will offer these types of classes for free, although there may be modest charges for some specialized classes like Pilates.

Don’t forget balance, upper body strength and stretching. During my workouts, I always spend a couple of minutes improving my balance by standing on a BOSU (an inflated rubber half-sphere, with the flat base down on the floor), first on two feet and then one foot.

I have found that an “arm bike” is excellent for aerobic exercise and for strengthening the muscles around my shoulders. This device is like a bicycle but is operated by the hands and arms while sitting.

Consult the ship’s exercise staff about safe ways to stretch out those newly invigorated muscles, and start slow and easy on any new exercises. Of course, you should also consult your doctor on shore before you try anything new at sea.

Outside the gym, the latest cruise ships may also offer exotic options like a climbing wall, a FlowRider onboard surfing system or a Wii Fit system. This latter system simulates many sports, including baseball, bowling, yoga and dance, but is done electronically. Your body does actually move as if you are doing the sport, so you do get an actual exercise, not an electronic one!

Dance, dance, dance and walk, walk, walk

Ships offer many opportunities to exercise — and avoid the dining room — by dancing. Many ships offer dance classes, and most have gentlemen hosts who will help dance the night away.

A great way to exercise is to walk. Most ships have a specified walking track around the perimeter of the ship and will have signs posted on how many laps make a mile.

Another great place to walk is on shore excursions. Instead of taking an expensive shore excursion by bus from the ship, just get off the ship and walk around the harbor. If the port area is unattractive, take a taxi to an interesting park or scenic part of town, preferably with a nice steep hill, and walk away your calories.

Finally, monitor your progress or lack thereof. Weigh yourself before you leave for the cruise, and weigh yourself every day while cruising. If you see your weight creeping up, cut back on the eating, the calories and the sugar, and exercise some more.

And, in case you do gain a few pounds on the cruise, have a realistic but strict plan in place to lose that weight in the couple of weeks after you return.

Happy cruising and happy eating!