Cruising can be an (eating) experience of a lifetime

I went on a cruise - to Alaska. It wasn't my first trip up there, but I realized again how deeply in love I am with this part of the world.

Of course, the wilderness experience was dramatically tamed by the comfort of being on a cruise ship. These floating cities make you feel like you're staying at an upscale resort or a mall - while you're surrounded by breathtaking wonders of the wild.

I like being pampered and spoiled as much as the next vacationer. Knowing that my every need will be catered to at a moment's notice is something I could get used to very quickly. And I can understand why so many people call it an experience of a lifetime.

The price of over-pampering

Unfortunately, there's a downside to this as well. Since almost everything you find on board is included in your pre-paid fare, you may want to get the biggest bang for your buck. My advice is: don't!

When it comes to food, cruise ships can offer what no land-based eatery can. Imagine a restaurant advertising: "All you can eat - to go!" I say: "Beware of what you wish for - because you will get it." Yes, it's easy to become accustomed to the richly-decorated buffets, the delicious meals served at all hours, the wine tastings and the cocktail parties that take place from morning to night. If that's too bothersome for you, there's always room service. And you have a perfect excuse for this perpetual indulgence: You're on vacation!

Naturally, having so much fun can't go unpunished forever. While treating yourself once in a while to something that gives you joy and pleasure is good and healthy, overindulging comes inevitably with regret. Soon you'll discover the unwelcome side-effects, especially around the waist line. If that happens to you, you're not alone. Trust me, everybody eats more on a cruise than they normally do - simply because the food is there.

And there's no way you can burn off so many extra calories. Not on a vessel. Yes, you could maintain a regular exercise routine on board and today's cruise ships offer numerous amenities in this regard. Passengers are actually encouraged to make use of the gym or run around in circles on the outdoor jogging track.

There are even weight-loss classes - imagine that! However, spending a large part of your vacation on a treadmill doesn't sound like fun. You can stay at home for that! There has to be a better way to enjoy yourself without having to suffer the consequences in the aftermath of your trip.

Since this was not my first cruise, I knew beforehand what to expect. So I made a list of dos and don'ts before boarding. Here are some guidelines that helped me to avoid the worst pitfalls:

Stick as closely as possible to your normal eating habits!

If you eat breakfast at a certain time, keep to your routine. The same goes for lunch and dinner. Eating too early or too late can affect your metabolism. If you're used to having a mid-morning snack, don't make it a second breakfast.

Choose items that you would normally eat (or do you typically have a salmon fillet before you go to work in the morning?). Don't get in the habit of filling up your tray with everything you see displayed in the buffet line. Tell the servers how much (or how little) you want of each item. The staff doesn't know what your nutritional needs are; they just want to see you happy.

Having your meals served in one of the dining rooms

Eating in a dining room is preferable to self-help buffets, especially if you have a hard time controlling yourself. The portion sizes are much smaller there and your overall dining experience can be more satisfying. Also, you will automatically eat less if you eat at a slower pace and give your stomach time to signal when it's full.

Then there's alcohol

It flows in nearly unlimited quantities on cruise ships. There's nothing against a little celebration; after all, you're on vacation. Just like with food, however, there's a tendency to consume more when it's easily available. Alcoholic beverages, in any form or strength, have lots of calories. Often, those are the ones you forget to count.

So let's raise a glass and salute the good times we had - hoping for many more to come. And let's also keep in mind that good health is an essential part of the happy memories that last us a lifetime.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a dietitian and author of "The Healthy Diner - How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun."Her book is available in bookstores and at

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