How many times have you heard someone complain that they gained five, ten, or even fifteen pounds on a cruise? Or maybe it’s happened to you? Gaining weight, even on a short cruise, is pretty common!

Cruises are famous for having amazing, unlimited food (and desserts!), often available around-the-clock. Fruity cocktails are free-flowing, and there’s plenty of opportunity to lounge by the pool without the need to actually do anything but relax.

Sounds like heaven, right? It is – until you get home and realize that you can’t zip up your jeans. Ugh.

A 2018 survey of cruise enthusiasts found that over 55% had gained weight on a cruise. Anecdotally, most people who do gain weight on a cruise report on average a one-pound (.45 kg) increase for each day of their vacation. But that doesn’t have to be you!

Here’s how to avoid gaining weight on a cruise while still having a great time on your vacation.

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Tips to avoid weight gain on your next cruise vacation

Some of the best parts of a cruise vacation are enjoying fantastic meals, indulging in a cocktail or two, and having plenty of time to relax and do absolutely nothing. I’m not advocating a Spartan diet and a strict exercise regimen on your cruise – this is your vacation!

You can still indulge on a cruise and not gain weight, as long as you don’t overdo it. Here are some key tips to help you eat and drink sensibly on a cruise. Plus, how to make sure that you get enough activity to burn off those treats you’ve been looking forward to.

How to eat (and drink!) on a cruise and not gain weight

Healthy (but delicious) options are available on cruises

Avoid the “get your money’s worth” mindset

When you order a meal at a restaurant, do you make sure to either clean your plate or take the leftovers home? I sure do! You paid for it, so you should be able to get your money’s worth, right?

Cruise travel calls for a little bit of a mindset-shift. Most food on a cruise is included in the price of your fare. So, essentially you already paid for it. You paid for the privilege to eat as much as you want, or as little.

In theory, you could gobble up the entire buffet or have six main courses, because you paid for it. But you wouldn’t do that, right? However, you might find yourself ordering dessert after every meal, or forcing yourself to finish that fettuccine Alfredo because…you paid for it.

Here’s the thing – you’re not going to waste money by eating sensibly on a cruise. But you could pay for overeating if you have to work hard for the next few weeks (or more!) to return to your regular weight.

Choose a cruise line with healthy menus

Some cruise lines offer “spa” or healthy menus in some dining venues, like Celebrity’s AquaSpa and Eden Cafés. Royal Caribbean has the Vitality Café for breakfast and lunch, and Carnival’s Fresh Creations features a salad bar with tons of options.

Luxury cruise lines generally do healthy and lower-calorie fare very well. The Grill on Silversea Cruises lets you cook lean meats and veggies on a hot volcanic rock at your table (how cool is that?). Windstar Cruises’ alfresco Candles Grill serves up fresh fish, lean steak skewers, and veggie options on request.

But what if your cruise line doesn’t have the option of a healthy dining venue? Check the menus for symbols next to certain items. Carnival’s healthier choices are marked by a heart, and Disney Cruise Line uses the “Mickey check” symbol.

If there’s nothing marked as a “healthy option”, you can ask your server to hold ingredients in your meal. Leaving off creamy condiments and dressings or rich sauces can transform a dish into a more waistline-friendly meal.

Tip: For cruisers with strict dietary restrictions like kosher, gluten-free, or vegetarian, be sure to contact your cruise line a couple of months before sailing. Many cruise lines require advance notice so they can ensure they have the right provisions for your needs.

Keep a water bottle with you at all times

When you’re on a cruise, hydration is key. Spending time in the sun, increased activity levels, and drinking alcohol can all deplete your body’s supply of H2O.

But what does water have to do with not gaining weight on a cruise?

If you drink water before each meal (aim for 16 oz), you’ll probably feel fuller and you may not be tempted to overeat.

A Virginia Tech study showed that people who drank two cups of water before meals lost more weight than those who didn’t drink water before eating.

Tip: I like to pack a few collapsible water bottles in my carry on bag – they roll up and don’t take up much room. Then fill them up at the buffet. The water there is often filtered more than the ship’s tap water, although that’s fine to drink as well.

Avoid sugary and creamy drinks

A twelve-ounce piña colada contains 434 calories. That’s about equal to a McDonald’s Double Cheeseburger. Seriously.

If you want to avoid consuming way too many calories from drinking, stay away from sugary and creamy drinks. That goes for sweetened soft drinks as well, whether on their own or as a cocktail mixer.

Looking for some lower-calorie alcohol options? Try these:

  • Vodka soda: 65 calories (one-ounce pour of vodka)
  • Prosecco: 90 calories per 4 oz glass
  • Red wine: about 100 calories per 5 oz glass
  • White wine: about 120 calories per 5 oz glass
  • Light beer: about 100 calories per 12 oz bottle

Looking forward to lounging in the sun with a fruity frozen cocktail? Limit yourself to just one as a treat, then switch to a lighter option if you want another drink.

Don’t be afraid to order off-menu

In many restaurants on land, asking if the kitchen can radically change the ingredients in your order might get you the stink eye from your server. A simple request like, “Hold the onions, please”, or “Could you leave off the cheese sauce?” is (usually) happily accepted. But could you imagine asking for a completely different dish that’s not even listed?

Cruise ship restaurants are a bit different than most land-based eateries. Like a traditional restaurant, there’s a menu with starters, main courses, and desserts. But on a cruise ship, the cooks are usually happy to make you a different simple dish as long as they have the ingredients.

You could ask for plain grilled chicken on a bed of greens, with dressing on the side even if it’s not a “menu item”. Or choose whatever protein you like (hold the creamy sauce) with a double serving of plain steamed vegetables. Within reason, if the kitchen has it, they’ll usually make it for you.

Tip: Even if it’s not listed on the menu, you can request a simple fruit plate for a healthier dessert option.

You might also like: What New Cruisers Don’t Know About Cruise Food & Drinks

Know that you can ask for half-portions

You might know that you can order multiple appetizers, main courses and desserts in the main dining room. But did you know that you can order half-servings (or appetizer-sized portions) as well?

Consider requesting a half-portion of your favorite decadent meal, but ask for a double-serving of steamed vegetables. You’ll get to enjoy what you’re craving without overdoing the calories.

If you’re worried about your willpower to only have “one bite” of dessert, ask for a half-serving. You can’t eat what’s not there!

Enjoy a leisurely pace at meals

In the real world, we’re often so busy with everyday life that we rush through our meals. Remember that on a cruise, you have zero responsibilities!

Take the time to enjoy the conversation with your dining companions, and try eating slowly, savoring each bite. You may find yourself feeling full after eating less food.

When you eat quickly, your brain doesn’t realize your stomach is saying, “Stop! I’m full!” Rushing through your meal can make you eat much more than your body really needs, just because you still feel hungry.

“When we eat, the signals of hunger have to move from our stomach and gut to our brain. It takes the brain about 20 minutes to shut off the urge to eat.”

– Dr. Leslie Heinberg, PhD, MA at Cleveland Clinic

Try the buffet

Buffets can get a bad rap. But at a cruise ship buffet, you can choose exactly what’s going on your plate. Plus, they often have some pretty healthy options!

The buffet is where you’ll find fresh fruit and vegetables, salads (go light on the dressing, or skip it altogether), carved meats, and lean veggie protein options.

You’ll often find some fantastic dishes from around the world, including Asian specialties. Indian food tends to be exceptionally good on cruise ship buffets, and many of the options are both healthy and filling.

Fill at least half your plate with vegetables, and eat slowly so you’ll be less likely to make too many trips back to the buffet stations.

Tip: Choose a table away from the buffet to eat your meal, or sit facing away from it. You’ll be less tempted to go up for more if you’re not looking right at the food.

Limit your desserts

Even if you’re not a big dessert eater at home, you’ll likely be tempted to try some sweet treats on your cruise vacation. Cruise lines go all out with their desserts and they can be simply amazing.

But overdoing it on the sweet stuff can really derail your plan to avoid gaining weight on your cruise. If your dining companions are enthusiastic dessert eaters, you may have to deal with a bit of peer pressure (or just the temptation of watching them eat). To make things even harder, dining room waitstaff on a cruise will often push you to try the dessert – even at lunch time!

When you really want that amazing-sounding confection, just ask for a half-portion. Or, get a single scoop of ice cream or sorbet.

If you’re OK with eating artificial sweeteners, look for sugar-free dessert options on the dining room menu and at the buffet. Most cruise lines serve a range of sugar free desserts!

Not having dessert, but you’re tempted? Order an after-dinner coffee (easy on the cream and sugar) or a fruit plate (hold the drizzle of sauce). Having something to enjoy while others are digging into their sugary treats will make you feel less deprived.

Refuse the bread basket

Although a warm, crusty roll or slice of fresh-baked wheat is so tempting, it’s not doing you any favors if you’re trying to avoid gaining weight. Women’s Health Magazine actually recommends choosing dessert over the bread basket if you’re watching your waistline!

Ask your server to take the bread basket away, or place it on the other end of the table if you’re dining with a large party. If you really want that bread, take just one piece before you send the basket away – but aim to skip dessert after your meal.

Tip: Order a salad or lo-cal protein (like steamed mussels, shrimp cocktail, or ceviche) as a starter to tide you over until the main course arrives. Knowing that a small bite is on its way will make it easier to say to to bread).

Plan for your must-have indulgences

You won’t want to deprive yourself too much on vacation, even if you’re determined to not gain any weight on your cruise. Part of the fun of cruising is enjoying the food and drinks and spending at least some of the time blissfully relaxing!

So how can you balance enjoying some treats without overdoing it?

  • Plan which days you’ll have dessert with dinner. Having a relaxing day? Eat a lighter breakfast and lunch to offset the dessert. Or, pick days where you were super-active on the ship or in port.
  • Schedule specialty dining on days when you can eat lighter choices for your other meals.
  • Make sure you balance sea day relaxation with some activity around the ship.
  • Want that creamy, sugary cocktail? Choose that as a substitute for an after-dinner dessert.

A little activity can help you avoid gaining weight on a cruise

There are plenty of options for keeping active on a cruise ship

Take the stairs, not the elevator

If you’re physically able to, avoid taking the elevator on a cruise ship whenever you can. Get your blood pumping by taking the stairs, especially if you’re only going up or down a few decks.

I have a personal rule that if I’m going up or down five decks or fewer, I take the stairs. Consider making a similar rule, but tailor it to your own level of physical fitness (or how many stairs you can handle until your knees hurt!)

Cruise elevators can get pretty crowded, especially when lots of people are heading out to port in the morning, returning to the ship, and at meal times. If you don’t have too far to go, taking the stairs might even be faster than the elevator.

Book active shore excursions

Instead of choosing a bus tour or a day at an all-inclusive beach club for your shore excursions, look into more active choices. A city walking tour is a perfect choice for most fitness levels. Or, if your ship docks near the city center, explore the port on your own on foot.

Many cruise lines and tour companies also offer a range of even more active tours in most ports. Hiking, bike tours, and snorkeling excursions are popular options that will keep you moving.

Tip: Check tour companies like Viator and Get Your Guide for lots of active shore excursion options in your ports. Plus, you’ll often save money compared to the cruise line’s tours.

Pack your workout clothes

Most cruise ships feature a large, modern gym that puts the average hotel workout facility to shame. Plus, cruise gyms usually have huge windows with a gorgeous view of the ocean from the treadmills and elliptical machines.

In addition to the exercise equipment, they’ll offer group workout classes like yoga, Pilates, and Zumba.

Pack your exercise gear and schedule yourself a short workout in the mornings before breakfast. You’ll jumpstart your metabolism and be energized for your day’s adventures.

Seek out active things to do around the ship

Most cruise ships feature plenty of spaces for being active. Basketball courts, jogging and walking tracks are standard on most cruises. Some newer mega-ships have rock climbing walls, trampolines, even ice skating!

If you’d rather do something a bit less intense, look for table tennis, giant chess, and of course, the traditional cruise game shuffleboard. Some cruise lines even offer croquet or mini-golf.

Go dancing after dinner

Instead of hitting the casino or sitting in a lounge sipping wine after dinner, why not go dancing? On land, nightclubs usually only cater to a younger crowd, but it’s different on a cruise! People of all ages are welcome on the dance floor in cruise ship nightclubs.

I’ve found that DJs usually play music that appeals to a wider audience early in the evening, and they’ll progress to current club hits later at night.

If nightclubs aren’t your thing, most cruises offer dance lessons (think salsa, line dancing, or ballroom styles) during the day. Some have dance parties with the cruise director in the atrium or on the pool deck. You’ll find plenty of opportunities to dance on a cruise!

Tip: Check your daily planner for what times certain styles of music will be played in the nightclub. You won’t want to miss dancing to songs from your favorite decade or artist!

Wear a step tracker

While a step tracker itself won’t keep you from gaining weight, having a step goal each day certainly can help! I’ve worn an Apple Watch for about three years now, and I love all of its functions. There are less expensive options like a Fitbit, or you could always use a step tracker app on your phone.

Set yourself a step goal for each day, and make sure you hit your steps. If you see that you’re not even close to your goal by the afternoon, that can give you the motivation to take a few laps around the ship!

Many people aim for 10,000 steps per day, but that might be too high or too low for your fitness level or caloric intake. The Mayo Clinic recommends that you start tracking your steps for a while to find out a baseline number, before giving yourself a goal.

Have you been able to avoid gaining weight on a cruise? Let me know your best tips for eating healthy and staying active on a cruise in the comments below!

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About the Author

I’m Carrie Ann, and I’m a complete travel junkie. A former flight attendant, I can pack an amazing suitcase in minutes flat. When I’m not cruising, I’m researching my next adventure (actually, I’ve been known to research cruises while cruising).

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14 Comments

  1. Wow it is so shocking to hear that many cruisers gain 1 pound for each day of their vacation!! I didn’t even know what was possible! Thank you for sharing those awesome tips – how important!!

  2. I for one can’t wait until the ships sail again! Fortunately, I am not one of those people who gain weight on a cruise. I think the 2 reasons I don’t are: 1. I take the stairs ALWAYS. It’s not because I want the exercise. It’s because I’m too impatient to wait for the elevator lol. 2. I always order the continental breakfast to my room so that I am getting something healthy in my belly first thing. This keeps me from binge eating later because I’m so hungry.

  3. I had a bagel and bacon every morning on my cruise. And not just one slice of bacon! I would definitely eat at Carnival’s Fresh Creations if there is a lot of variety and steak skewers at Windstar’s Candles Grill sound great too. I found it easier to take just one or two bites and push the dessert away because I didn’t feel like I was spending $7 and throwing it away.

    1. Sherianne, I envy your willpower! I can’t order an entire dessert because I *will* eat the whole thing. Even if I said I’d only have a bite! I need to ask for half of one, or I’ll regret it five minutes later 😀

  4. Definitely guilty of a 6lb weight gain after a 1 week cruise! Biggest thing for me is taking the stairs always, trying to make it to the gym or one of the classes not overeating at the buffets haha!

  5. I absolutely love these tips and my take home point is that Money’s worth mindset. Most people want to get their money worth in everything! What upsets me is when people take too much food and eat just a little. With the right mindset to indulging, a cruise holiday can be so much fun.

  6. The water bottle is a key tip. I know that when I’m trying to monitor my food intake, if I drink a big glass of water about half an hour before I’m due to eat, then I’ll end up eating less, because I start feeling full a lot sooner. It’s dangerous on a cruise because you must feel like you want to get your money’s worth .. and it’s “free” … so the tendency must be to just chow down at every meal, and make the most of the buffets and snacks between meals.

  7. We love to go on cruises and it is so easy to over eat on these vacations. We try to do a lot of walking and swimming to offset all of the extra calories. I agree that limiting desserts and drinking lots of water helps!

    1. It’s SO easy to overeat on a cruise! Walking and swimming are both great ways to help burn off some of the extra treats we all love to try on vacation 😀

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