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Monday, September 18, 2006

Mission improbable: Lose weight on a cruise

By Jane Wooldridge
McClatchy Newspapers

Can you really lose weight on a cruise? I'm on a mission to find out the truth on weight loss.

For the past several years, cruise lines have been touting the "wellness" factor on board. Shuffleboard has been replaced by yoga classes, fitness lectures, expanded gyms with all the latest gear-head contraptions. Spas have added cellulite reduction therapies and detoxification treatments. Acupuncture abounds.

Gone too are the calorie binges of the nightly Boffo-buffet; instead, many lines have limited themselves to a once-a-week late-night extravaganza. Salad bars and fruit have commandeered serious space on lunch buffets, and sit-down menus now feature "healthy" selections.

But don't kid yourself. There are still tables stacked with eclairs, brownies and cookies. Escargot doing the backstroke in butter. Frozen pina coladas infused with sugar.

Hence the dilemma: Can a regular burger-loving, exercise-avoidant person put a dent in those last five pounds while spending a week on a cruise ship - and enjoy it?

I'm determined to try. My motivation: Almost nothing in my closet fits. We're talking not about the last five pounds I "need" to lose, but the last five pounds that have plumped my thighs to the seam-bursting limits. A new wardrobe is out of the question: Not only is it financially unappealing, but once you give in to size creep, well ... next you know, you're a candidate for "The Biggest Loser."

My strategy: I'll take the stairs instead of snagging elevators. I'll go daily to the gym. I'll sign up for super-active shore excursions. I'll drink gallons of water, avoid sodas, forgo cocktails and my beloved pinot noir. I'll do my best to resist desserts and for me, the super-temptations of pasta, bread, potatoes, pizza ...

Here goes:

Day One: I board about 2:30, head immediately for the Windjammer Cafe to grab the lunch I've missed land-side. The buffet is filled with salad items I like: fresh greens, green peppers, broccoli, raisins, grated cheese, bacon (hey, you gotta have some fun), plus some lo-cal dressings. I supplement it with a slice of fish from the hot buffet and down a couple of glasses of water.

Next stop: Check out the gym.

I march up to a fat-deprived fitness instructor named Jen. "I need help," I say, describing my wardrobe dilemma. We agree to meet the next day for a $33 consultation. I hook the week's schedule for fitness classes and seminars, sign up for yoga the next morning and arrange a one-on-one boxing lesson for later in the week, then run down the stairs to grab a camera and run back up for sail-away festivities.

Before dinner I do 20 minutes on the treadmill, another 20 on various weight and floor exercises.

My first sit-down meal, I go with what the cruise line has deemed a "healthy selection," herbed grilled chicken breast that tastes decent but is pretty dry and a glass of water. The sugar-free cream-filled swan pastry makes up for it.

No hint of how many calories I've consumed. The ship's head chef tells me that while Royal Caribbean offers several "healthy" options at each meal, it doesn't keep with a strict set of standards (such as no butter) or a set number of calories. Guests can request specific preparation, such as no salt or butter. Those with serious dietary concerns for health or religious reasons should advise the cruise line several weeks in advance of sailing, the chef said, so the ship staff can be prepared to meet needs.

Other cruise lines, including Carnival and NCL, have also incorporated healthier meals aboard and can accommodate special diets with advance notice.

Day Two starts with a yoga class ($10 extra) that provides good exercise but isn't too advanced. I stick around for a free fitness lecture.

Here, a taut-abbed Rob explains that my body needs 40 percent carbs, 30 percent proteins and 30 percent "good" fats. That if I eat the right mix of calories five or six times a day, I'm more likely to lose weight than if I go with the old two or three times a day plan because the less often you eat, the more your body stores fat against famine. And I must rid myself of steroids from processed foods, diet sodas and other crimes against my body - because the real cause of my weight gain is toxins that have glommed onto the cells around my fat like a stalker obsessed.

The whole bit about storing toxins is new to me, and I'm keen on the idea of ridding myself of them - but I don't know how. To get this crucial bit of information, I'll have to book a private fitness consultation with Rob, who advises that the initial meeting is $33, and the follow-up workout and fitness plan is another $83. Since I'm already booked to meet with Jen, I figure I'll find out then.

And I do. At my consultation, Jen hooks me to a monitor, which spits out the unflattering information that 28.2 percent of my body is fat, accounting for a depressing 38.4 pounds. My target weight loss for optimum fat ratio: 10.9 pounds.

Jen supplements this diagnosis by drawing a diagram of my body, which includes the removal system (lymph nodes, colon, digestive tract), those offending fat cells wrapped in toxins, which have resulted in cellulite and weight gain. Ugh.

Jen deems my current exercise and eating program better than most; my neighbors drag me out to walk two miles five days a week, and I work out with a friend once a week. I know what I "should" eat, even if I sometimes ignore it. (I'm munching the end of a Baby Ruth bar as I write this.)

We talk a bit about eating. Like Rob, she tells me five or six times a day. Proportions: A fist of carbs, a palm of lean meat or fish. The pizza slice I cadged at lunch does not qualify as an appropriate carb, I learn.

The real key, she tells me, is ... detoxification. This translates into a three-month program of supplement pills designed to rid my system of years of toxic build-up that has wrapped itself around my fat cells. The goal: Purging three to five times per day - or in the adolescent vernacular of the males in my household, "poop a lot." The tab is $360.

This level of investment requires further research, and I defer my decision. Means I'd have to invest in a truckload of TP, too.

Meanwhile, I know exercise is key. I'm willing to try it all. Most days I hit the treadmill or bike for 20 minutes, then lift weights. Sometimes I go for a class: Pilates one day ($10); my boxing lesson another ($89).

Turns out I love the boxing: loads of abdominal benefits plus there's that aggression release. But Royal Caribbean - the ship on which I'm sailing, and the only ship at sea with a boxing ring - requires supervision in the form of a one-on-one or a boxing class that never fits my schedule. So it's the one lesson for me.

Meanwhile, I'm still running up and down stairs. There's the added benefit of regularly hauling myself some 250 yards up and down each corridor, as my cabin is far forward and this ship is huge.

As for shore excursions - take your bus tour if you must. One day I've sweated out nearly a gallon of water in a human-sized brick kiln on a Maya Steamlodge tour designed for - there it is again - detoxification. On another I've snorkeled, and on yet another I've hiked through the hills, then zipped across the jungle on a steel cable like Jane of the Jungle.

And I'm doing fairly well in terms of food consumption. Day Three, and I've generally stuck with omelets and fruit for breakfast, salad for lunch, some healthy fish or chicken item (mostly dry) at dinner. My only cheats so far: one tiny slice of pizza and two sugar-free desserts. Pretty admirable, considering that the two couples at my dining table have succumbed to double orders of escargot, duck and filet mignon.

Just to be sure I've left no possibility untried, I also sign up for acupuncture designed to curb my cravings and reduce my stress level.

First my acupuncturist, James, discusses my lifestyle habits and tells me - surprise! - that I need to detox. Though he works for the same company as the detox-supplement hawking fitness instructor, he doesn't push the pills. After all, I'm already forking out $150 per session to become a human pincushion.

It's my first acupuncture session, and it's a lot more pleasant than I expected. Just a quick twinge when each needle goes in, and then I'm in a darkened room zoning out. Who wouldn't de-stress?

An hour later I feel no different, but I sign up for a second appointment two days hence. Paul, a Californian with whom I shared space in the acupuncture room, said he felt immediate relief from a motorcycle injury that had brought him endless pain for over a year, so I have hope.

On Day Four, I give in. A slice of pizza is simply irresistible, as is a cone of the soft-serve low-fat yogurt available on the pool deck. Defiant, I take the elevator - not once, but twice. I even have a half-glass of pinot noir at dinner.

But the next day I'm back at it: Pilates, boxing, lettuce - the whole works.
Seven days, dozens of hikes along the 744-foot corridor, hundreds of stairs, a rabbit's fantasy worth of lettuce. And I've lost exactly: One pound.

OK, more like a half pound. The LCD readout on the scale keeps wavering.
Granted, I'm at a certain age where losing weight is more of a challenge than it was a decade ago. And at least I'm not among those who have come back from cruising with an extra 10 pounds aboard - and not in the suitcase.

Still, I'm pretty bummed. All that sacrifice - all those untasted margaritas, pina coladas and martinis - and I've lost one lousy pound.

As it turns out, though, I've started down a better path. For the next several weeks I keep up my exercise routine, avoid the cheese aisle at the supermarket, grab a salad most days for lunch. (OK, I "did" give in to that Baby Ruth bar.)

In the spirit of detoxification, I switch my morning cereal to All Bran. And stocking up on grains and plant-based foods is a good thing, says Sheah Rarback, a dietitian at University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine.

As for the other advice I had gotten on board, Rarback says much of what works depends on the individual. Whether you go for small multiple meals or the standard three squares, it's the total number of calories you eat and burn that determines whether you gain or lose. When it comes to detoxification through fasting or other means, it's often a matter of psychology more than physiology, she says. And while minimizing toxins and increasing grains and plant-based foods is recommended, "you can't lose weight just through pooping a lot."

For me, it all adds up to that old maxim about moderation. Exercise right, avoid the carbs. And the Baby Ruth bars.

In the past decade, all U.S.-based cruise lines have moved toward fish, chicken and healthy meal options; many include sugar-free desserts. Passengers with special dietary requirements should advise their booking agent when they purchase their cruise.

Each of the three mega lines offers a salad bar at lunch and healthy choices on every dinner menu.

Here's a rundown:

_Carnival: Menus include ``Spa Carnival'' options that note calories and fat content.
_NCL: Cooking Light offerings are lower fat and carb but are not aimed at specific calorie targets. Calorie counts and fat content are not noted on menus but are available on request.
_Royal Caribbean: ``Royal Lifestyle'' and vegetarian selections are designated on menus but are not aimed at specific calorie or fat targets; calorie counts are not listed.
Jane Wooldridge:

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