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11 Tricks to Staying Healthy on a Cruise (While Still Having an Amazing Time)

Unlimited buffets with gorgeous food, cocktails, and lazing by the pool: Your cruise could result in waistline expansion. Check out these cruise-smart tips from dietitians and exercise experts.

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Take a gym class

Gyms, fitness classes, active excursions, stairs and strolls. It’s easy to be active on a cruise ship these days. Janis Isaman is the owner of Calgary-based fitness studio, My Body Couture, and she admits that the onboard gym is a bore. Isaman challenges you to try out a new fitness class. Onboard ship fitness instructors realize most guests are new and won’t be in more than 1-2 classes, so tailor the class accordingly.

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Try an active excursion

Alix Turoff, dietitian and personal trainer, recommends choosing an “active” excursion. “If you are getting off the ship for the day, book something that will get you moving, such as hiking, rock climbing and swimming with sea life.” Excursions are available for all levels of fitness. Dietitian and experienced cruiser, Carolyn O’Neil admits her favorite excursion was kayaking with salmon in Sitka, Alaska. O’Neil shares, “I paddled for hours spotting bald eagles and climbing in and out of the kayak at various scenic spots.”

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Bring your step counter

All of those steps add up! Use a phone app or pedmeter to track your mileage. (And you don’t have to spend big money on a fitness tracker—here’s why.) Aim for 10,000 steps during the day—walk the decks, explore the ports, and stroll in the afternoons. O’Neil states that she climbs stairs constantly on ships—”the funny thing, on a big cruise ship it’s hard to remember where everything is going on because there’s so much. I often race up to Deck 10 only to find out the event I’m looking for is on Deck 2. Then I must run back to my cabin on Deck 7 because I forgot my sweater or something. So, phew! I just earned another cocktail!” Dietitian Amy Gorin advises, “End your night with a walk around the cruise ship. You can look at those beautiful stars!”

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Start with a smart breakfast

Sure, there are abundant healthy choices in the beautiful buffets. But be smart! Avoid the temptation to eat continuously from morning to noon to evening to late-night. For breakfast, Turoff encourages the egg and fresh fruit stations. Whole-grain oats, Greek yogurt, and fresh fruit are healthy starts for your day. “Don’t give yourself the excuse to eat things you don’t really want just because it’s free or included. You will ‘pay the price’ in other ways,” reminds Turoff.

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Buffet line strategies

One positive point to the buffet scene—you can survey the offerings, prioritize what you want, and make decisions before you even grab your plate, states dietitian Judy Barbe. “Sit at a table where you aren’t facing the buffet,” recommends dietitian Mary Purdy, “as your brain will inevitably tap into its own human nature to want to head back for more!” O’Neil shares that some cruise lines provide smaller plates and bowls, helping you to avoid overfilling a platter-sized plate. Healthy choices are always available, including fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, yogurts, grilled seafood, shellfish and lean proteins. Most cruises focus on local cuisine, so you’ll find fresh salmon on Alaskan trips, and tropical fruits with jerk chicken in the Caribbean. Take the opportunity to try vegetables you’ve never seen before or unique salads with creative ingredients. You may find a new favorite!

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Dining room wisdom

Prefer a pre-set meal or a more upscale dining experience? Delicious and exciting flavors await! Go in with a strategy to enjoy and savor dinner, without overdoing it. Barbe reminds that it’s not a requirement to order every course—cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, salad, entrée, and dessert. Which do you want more—a cocktail, an hors d’oeuvre, or a dessert? And, speaking of prioritizing, Gorin recommends saving dessert for when you really want it or when it’s a unique and creative dish. “You know what cheesecake and ice cream taste like!”

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Take your time

Practice mindful eating. Dietitian Lauren Harris-Pincus advises, “remember that you don’t need to finish the whole portion. Stick to the three-bite rule for desserts and other higher-calorie foods. It’s not like a regular restaurant where you pay for each dish individually so you feel the urge to finish it.”

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Recruit a waiter

“Your wait staff is your friend,” reminds O’Neil. Often times you’ll have the same waiter each evening. Ask them questions about food preparation, portion sizes, and substitutions. Service on ships is extremely professional and indulging, and they want to please customers. They’ll help you identify the lighter dishes to enjoy, and will likely remember your favorite beverage and salad dressing the next night too.

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Go easy on the liquid fun

Turoff warns, “Be careful of very caloric cocktails. Don’t be afraid to ask for a cocktail to be made without sugar or simple syrup. One of my favorite “tropical” skinny cocktails is coconut rum, club soda, a splash of pineapple juice and a fresh orange slice.” If beer is your drink of choice, remember that you can drink beer almost anywhere.

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Food safety

With documented outbreaks of norovirus and E.coli on cruise ships, it’s critical to consider food safety while cruising. Cruise lines take food safety very seriously nowadays. For example, you won’t find the captain shaking every passenger’s hand, and you’ll find hand sanitizer at the entrance to every eating area. O’Neil states that passengers are not permitted to fill their own plates at the buffet line for the first couple of days. Instead, they’re served according to their choices by the foodservice staff. This cuts down on potential contamination with multiple hands in the serving area. Here are some more tips to keep illness at bay while cruising.

Want to boost your resistance ahead of the cruise? Dietitian Lindsey Toth Bristol recommends supplementing with probiotics to improve your gut’s natural immunity. And, definitely, WASH your hands! Often. It’s the optimal way to avoid food-borne illnesses.

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Healthy cruise trips

There’s a wide variety of cruise flavors out there—here are some little-known cruise lines you won’t wan’t to miss. And if you’d rather limit the temptations, consider cruising with a line specializing in healthier food options. Holistic Holiday at Sea offers plant-based or vegan Caribbean cruises, complete with a variety of speakers, cooking classes, and yoga workshops. Weight Watchers Cruises offers an experience with like-minded shipmates focusing on healthier dining options, activities galore, and opportunities to learn lifestyle modifications.

Jennifer Bowers, PhD, RD
Jennifer is a doctoral-level Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) with nearly 25 years of experience. The majority of her career has focused in health care, disease prevention and nutrition education for all ages - from middle school to graduate school students.  She owns a private practice focusing on freelance writing and extracurricular nutrition clubs for children. When she's not working, Dr. Bowers enjoys swimming, running, hiking, biking, camping, cooking, and reading.