9 secrets to staying healthy on cruises

Working on-board a cruise ship, our writer learned how to avoid buffet bingeing and other curses of cruising. Here are her tips for staying healthy

9 secrets to staying healthy on cruises

Source: Best Health Magazine, January/February 2009

With all those swimming pools and cha-cha lessons, it’s easy to stay fit and healthy while you’re on a cruise, right? Wrong. I recently spent a year working on a ship as a comedian and no sooner did the ship’s horn blow than I was at the buffet, eating like I was trying to top a personal best. And while reports of Norwalk-type viruses on cruise ships grab headlines, going overboard on your eating and drinking is even more common. So how do you avoid this and other cruising pitfalls? Here’s expert advice—and the survival strategies I learned—on how to keep your waistline in check and stay healthy.

1. Start small

All-you-can-eat burgers, pasta stations and self-serve ice cream, oh my! I found that it was easy to get swept away by the sea of choices, especially since buffets are often the only choice for breakfast and lunch. My strategy was to cling to a Weight Watchers tip I’d picked up when doing their program years before: Choose a side plate instead of the larger dinner one when at the buffet. The smaller size forces you to exercise portion control and literally takes a load off your plate.

2. Rate your food

I asked Rosie Schwartz, a Toronto-based registered dietitian and the author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide, for her advice. She suggests that another way to limit portion sizes and the amount you consume is to approach buffets like a child who hates having different foods touching each other on her plate. “Serve yourself only three or four selections at a time,” she says. “And whenever you eat something fattening, think of yourself as a judge in a tasting contest using a scale of one to 10. Take a bite, but only finish the foods that are 10s. People eat less that way but enjoy it so much more.”

3. Know when enough is enough

Be sure to pay attention to how you feel: Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Another trick to try: “If a portion that you have been served is too large, use your knife to mark your battle zones,” advises Schwartz. “Push aside what you don’t want to eat.” Also employ a ritual that signals you’re done eating: Put your knife and fork on the plate and push it away, or ask your server to remove your plate so you won’t be tempted to nibble.

4. Hit the gym in the evening

Thankfully, ships offer a variety of outlets (from rock walls to running tracks) for working off those fruity drinks (which can pack a 300- to 400-calorie punch each!). The gym was one of my favourite places in the evening, which is when we typically pulled out of port, because the large windows provided the best views of the place we were leaving. If you do your workout in the early evening and then eat at the last dinner seating, you’ll be less tempted to hit the midnight buffet.

5. Get back to your routine

If you do put on a few pounds while away, spend the first week home eating regular-sized meals and fill your “stretched stomach” with hot, low-fat items like soup broth. “Tame your hunger but don’t give in to it, and the weight drops fast,” says Schwartz.

Don’t end up in sick bay

The problem with any enclosed space is that germs can spread faster than my thighs did after my first few weeks of eating buffet-style. Early on in my cruise career, I contracted a gastrointestinal illness that the crew referred to as a “Code Brown.” I quickly learned there are ways to keep from getting sick. Here’s how:

  • Be proactive: The more common ailments are influenza, colds, Norwalk virus (“stomach flu”) and hepatitis A. These are spread by contaminated food or drink, or by contact with someone who is infected. To lower your risk, Dr. Rudy Zimmer of the Odyssey Travel & Tropical Medicine Clinic in Calgary advises that you wash your hands often while on-board; as well, before leaving home, get a flu shot and ensure that you are fully immunized against the hepatitis A virus.
  • Don’t assume you’re safe ashore: After a lovely excursion in Egypt, I came back to the ship with a cramp-inducing souvenir that had me quarantined for 24 hours. “Cruising gives the perception that it’s a safe way to travel to unsafe areas,” says Zimmer. Because ships are cleaned regularly and appear sanitary, travellers often think they’re safe at ports along the way as well. Pack mini-bottles of hand sanitizer in your luggage for off the ship and on, Zimmer suggests.
  • Get immunized: Travelling abroad, whether by cruise ship or not, may put you in the path of diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. Talk to your doctor about getting vaccinations and whether you belong to a high-risk group. For more information visit Travel Health, a website done by the Public Health Agency of Canada.
  • Do the bump: On cruise ships, a good rule of thumb is to try to avoid doing things like shaking hands and touching hand-rails. Many of the crew members I worked with greeted one another with Howie Mandel-type fist bumps instead. And that’s certainly more fun than making rubber gloves mandatory on cruise ships.

This article was originally titled "Cruise Control," in the January/February 2009 issue of Best Health Magazine. Subscribe today and never miss an issue!