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17 Fat Traps on Cruise Ships

Weight gain doesn't have to be a part of your all-inclusive cruise package!

I used to think of cruise ships as giant floating buffets, stopping once in awhile to drop you at tourist traps called "port cities." So, when my mom suggested we go on a cruise together, I was totally skeptical. Will they make me do the Macarena and dance in a Conga line? (They didn't!) Will I get sea sick? (Nope! And thanks, Dramamine!) How much weight will I gain in those five days on a cruise ship? (Surprisingly, none!)

Instead, my mom and I totally had a blast making stops throughout Mexico. We clinked margarita classes and shared the best-ever ceviche in Mazatlan, swam through a cave to a hidden beach in Puerto Vallarta, and cruised around Cabo San Lucas on paddleboards.

But a huge part of our success was because we set some waistline-minded ground rules as soon as we stepped foot on the ship. Rule #1: The elevators were completely off-limits (they were always crowded anyway); this meant that we routinely climbed 14 flights of stairs to get from our room to the ship deck. Rule #2: If we were watching a movie under the stars, we did so from the pool while treading water, instead of mindlessly shoveling buttery popcorn into our mouths. Rule #3: We worked out each night before dinner—which, for me, meant playing pick-up basketball while my mom took laps around the track on the ship.

The biggest takeaway? A cruise ship doesn't have to be a totally gluttonous experience. You just need to give yourself some ride-or-die rules like ours and then definitely steer clear of these fat traps that are lurking on the ship! Check 'em out below and then find out the 20 Ways to Bounce Back After Vacation!

Fat Trap: The Waiting Area Before You Get on the Ship

While you're waiting to embark, you could be standing in lines for several hours—and the waiting areas tend to be pretty barren on the snack front. It would be a total rookie move to step onto the ship with a growling stomach because, with the abundance of food on board, you could easily overdo it before the ship even takes sail. In fact, a May 2016 study from the University of Gothenburg found that the hormone ghrelin, which is released when you're hungry, has a negative effect on decision-making and impulse control. Pack one of these healthy snacks for weight loss in your tote or carry-on!

Fat Trap: The 'all-inclusive' Mentality


This one is unavoidable since it's standard for cruises to come with unlimited meals and snacks. To avoid this trap, though, you've got to switch up your mindset. "One psychological aspect of cruising that encourages overeating is thinking you have to get your money's worth," says Christy Brissette, owner of 80Twenty Nutrition. "That's where people start ordering multiple entrees and double desserts, simply because it's 'free.' The stress and money you'll spend trying to take the weight off after your cruise are way more costly, though!"

Fat Trap: The Bus Tours


When you get off the ship, it's a choose-your-own-adventure kind of day. Rather than a bus tour that shuttles you around a city, challenge yourself to make a more active itinerary. "For offshore excursions, skip the sedentary bus tours and opt for cycling, walking, hiking, or kayaking tours to see more of your destinations and get fitter doing it," Brissette says.

Fat Trap: The 24-hour Food Options


Be careful of those late-night slices and the dessert carts you can access around the clock! Indulging in a 2 a.m. snack attack after a night in the ship's casino could come at a cost. A study from Northwestern University in 2009 discovered that eating at irregular times (like the middle of the night when the body wants to sleep) can influence weight gain. The study, which was published in the journal Obesity, concluded that eating late at night conflicts with natural body rhythms. While we're on the topic, watch out for these 30 Nighttime Rituals That Make You Wake Up Fatter!

Fat Trap: The Muffin and Bagel Trays at Breakfast Buffets


Take a hard pass on the cereals, bagels, doughnuts, and croissants that are among the breakfast buffet offerings. Instead of those high-carb, low-fiber options, Brissette suggests hitting up the omelet bar, where you can choose eggs loaded with vegetables and fresh herbs that will keep you satisfied until lunch. "Other great and filling breakfast options include oatmeal with cinnamon and a couple tablespoons of nuts," she says. "You could also opt for Greek yogurt with fresh fruit or whole grain toast with poached eggs, nut butter, or smoked salmon."

Fat Trap: The Soda Packages

It's common for your cruise fare to include iced tea, coffee, and water. But if you want soda, you have to pay for an upgraded package. Don't do it! Sipping on soda does more than add empty calories to your diet; a November 2016 study from Tufts University found that regular consumption of sugary beverages is associated with the increased risk of prediabetes and increased insulin resistance. Drinking diet soda? That's not much better. A study published in 2015 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that diet soda drinkers have even more belly fat. And another study from the American Academy of Neurology found that drinking sweetened beverage—particularly diet drinks—is linked to an increased risk of depression.

Fat Trap: The Lounge Chairs

By all means, relax! You are on vacation, after all. But before you melt into that lounge chair, remember this: The bright sun can zap your energy. (That's because your body works hard to regulate your internal temperature. So, when you're basking in the sun, it starts working even harder.) Our advice: Before you get settled into the lounge chair, get a workout in. "Take advantage of the beautiful view while on a cruise and take brisk walks around the deck a few times per day," Caroline Apovian, MD, RD and the Director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at the Boston Medical Center. If there's a gym, she suggests strength training for 20 minutes a few times a week. For more ideas, check out these 31 Sneaky Ways to Work Out—Without Hitting the Gym.

Fat Trap: Alcohol Packages


We're officially entering the danger zone. For an extra fee, most cruise lines will let you add on an unlimited alcoholic beverages package. While checking out the fine print, we found that one cruise line will limit you to 15 drinks a day. Let's do some quick math: There are about 200 calories in a 16-ounce beer. If you were to max out on the drink limit drinking beer (we're not even factoring creamy coladas into the mix), you'd clock in at 3,000 empty calories. Whoa! Alcohol consumption is one of the main reasons people gain weight while on vacation, according to a February 2016 study from the University of Georgia's College of Family and Consumer Sciences. Adults going on a one-to-three-week vacation gained an average of one pound during their trips and the researchers found that increased caloric intake, especially from alcohol, led to the weight gain. The average consumption prior to vacation was eight drinks a week. The number went up to an average of 16 per week for study participants. If one pound doesn't sound too awfully bad, consider this: The researchers saw a large variation, with some participants gaining as much as 7 pounds. If you're going to imbibe, say cheers with one of these 16 Wines for Weight Loss.

Fat Trap: The Elevators

You're on vacation! You've got extra time! Instead of cramming into an elevator, challenge yourself to take the stairs when you're moving about the ship. A small change can have a big impact. A study from the University of Copenhagen found that study participants who were encouraged to take elevators and use a car to get around in every situation possible reduced their daily steps from 6,000 to 1,400. They were given a glucose tolerance test, which helps measure how fast the body is able to rid glucose or fat from the blood stream. After two weeks of no exercise and little activity, the participants had much higher levels of glucose and fat, which took a much longer time to be cleared from their bloodstreams.

Fat Trap: The Movie Nights

When it comes to snacks that are great for weight loss, popcorn can be your frenemy. Air popped popcorn is a low-calorie snack that contains healthy antioxidant substances known as polyphenols, which are rockstars when it comes to reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, and other diseases, says the American Chemical Society. But at its worse, popcorn is drenched in chemicals to extend its shelf life and then coated in butter. Many cruise ships host nightly movies, tossing blankets onto the lounge chairs, which is an awesome experience to watch one under the stars! But if you absolutely need to have popcorn to complete your movie-going experience, BYOP and ask the staff to pop it for you so you can avoid the over-salted and super-buttery popcorn that's passed out. Here's the Eat This, Not That! guide to the Best and Worst Microwavable Popcorns for even more insight!

Fat Trap: The Multi-course Dinners

Starting with bread baskets and ending with decadent desserts, cruise ship dinners are certainly grandiose. The menus typically allow you to choose a starter, plus soup and salad before you get to your main meal—and then dessert, of course. If you're tempted to try all the offerings, share with a friend or family member, suggests Julie Rothenberg, RD with a private practice in south Florida called JuliENERGYnutrition, LLC. "Instead of ordering two desserts at dinner, order one and share with a friend or family member. Having less food in front of you will help you be more mindful and stop eating when you are full."

Fat Trap: The Cooking Classes and Wine Tastings

When you board the ship, you'll be given a schedule that has more activity options than summer camp. If you're a foodie or wine connoisseur, flocking to a class led by a pastry chef or a sommelier might be high on your list. Be sure to mix those classes up with some more active ones, like dance lessons and yoga classes, which are also staples on cruise ships! "Most cruises have access to awesome fitness classes," says Rothenburg. Take one of those on your 'at sea day' early in the morning before the sun is strong or in the late afternoon when you need a shady break.

Fat Trap: The Warm Weather

Pro tip: Keep a water bottle with you at all times. The sun is hot, hot, hot! If you get dehydrated, your brain might mistake those thirst signals for hunger ones, causing you to overeat. "Keep drinking water," Rothenberg says. "Being outside or even drinking alcohol on the cruise ship can cause dehydration," she says. "When we are dehydrated, we sometimes mistake thirst for hunger and gravitate towards sugary foods." She also suggests drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning to help replenish the water you lost overnight.

Fat Trap: The Huge Plates


When you step up to the stacks of plates at the buffet, grab one of the smaller ones! Did you know there have been more than 50 studies that have considered whether reducing plate size can reduce overeating? In January 2016, a study published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research evaluated the pre-existing research and concluded that halving the plate size led to a 30 percent average reduction in the amount of food consumed. The lesson here: Instead of grabbing a dinner plate for breakfast, go small with an appetizer, dessert, or salad plate.

Fat Trap: The Buffet


A study from Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab found that when at an all-you-can-eat-buffet, heavier people are more likely to use larger plates, chew less between bites, and engage in other behaviors that ultimately leads to overeating. Here's how science says you can outsmart the buffet, though. Once you grab your tray and (smaller) plate, head straight to the section of the buffet that's lush with veggies and fruits. Here's why: The first food in line at a buffet is taken the most and influences what else is taken, according to a 2014 study published in Public Library of Science One. The researchers found that two-thirds of an individual's plate are loaded up with the first three items they encounter in the buffet. "Fill half your plate with vegetables," Rothenberg suggests. "Make sure you are filling up on fibrous foods to avoid filling up on calorie dense, sugary foods."

Fat Trap: The Dessert Cases


If you think that eating a filling dinner is enough to quell the temptation of dessert, think again. Around-the-clock dessert stations, stocked with gelato, cookies, and other pastries, are common on cruise ships and are a total post-meal fat trap. A 2012 study from the Endocrine Society found that the appetite-inducing hormone ghrelin increases the incentive for humans to eat dessert—even on a full stomach.

Fat Trap: Your Credit Cards


When you're on board, just about everything is included. But when you get off the ship, it's easier to swipe your credit card, especially if you're in a foreign country where you'd have to worry about exchange rates and carrying the right currency. But here's the thing: People are more likely to buy unhealthy foods when they pay with their credit or debit cards, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research. The authors say that's because there is a correlation between impulsive behavior and unhealthy food buys. Also, cash payments are psychologically more painful than card payments which can help curb impulsive purchases on that pina colada or bag of chips. But we're all for experiencing the culture and local food, too. So, skip the chain restaurants and hit up a genuine food joint—you'll probably wind up with some deliciously fresh (and possibly healthy!) meals. We suggest also keeping in mind these 15 Best and Worst Foods for Repelling Bugs if you're somewhere tropical!

Brittany Anas
Brittany Anas is a freelance travel and health writer. Read more about Brittany