Two of my clients recently reported shock at losing weight on their cruise vacations. Lorraine, a 53-year-old public health specialist in Washington, D.C., came home from a cruise and was surprised to find she had lost two pounds. Rick, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in D.C., lost six pounds during his 10-day cruise.
Both remarked that they had indulged in ice cream, desserts, pasta, bread, and other foods that they didn't usually eat. Yet, they dropped weight on vacation, despite struggling to lose pounds at home. As soon as they returned, the pounds began piling on, and they came to me desperate to return to the seemingly magical weight-loss mode they had fallen into during vacation.
I agreed that it was confusing. Both claimed they weren't trying to diet and had eaten without restriction. Lorraine didn't exercise any more than usual and had proof: Her pedometer, which measures her daily steps, showed the same readings she recorded at home. Rick may have walked more than usual—he didn't wear his pedometer—but that alone doesn't explain a six-pound loss, especially given his decadent eating.
Most of us are accustomed to accidentally gaining weight on cruises, not losing it. Tasty, fattening food is available all day long. During every meal, you'll have a few hors d'oeuvres, then an entree, and who can resist dessert? Even midnight buffets. It's not uncommon to gain even a pound a day while on a cruise or vacation.
So, how did these cruises turn into weight-loss adventures? And how can you replicate the conditions that worked for my clients—without getting seasick in the process?
As Lorraine and Rick described their experiences, some patterns quickly emerged:
- They ate whatever they wanted, from desserts to bread to pasta.
- They didn't exercise, though they walked a lot during stops in ports (about 12,000 steps a day).
- Every meal featured buffets, stocked with a wide array of fruits and vegetables.
My analysis? The variety and volume of fresh, healthy food helped to properly nourish my clients.
Studies indicate that variety, more than any other factor, influences how much we eat. The more diverse food options we encounter, the more we eat without even realizing it. The desire for dietary variety is important for health and helped humans to evolve. People who ate lots of different types of food each day were—and still are—more likely to obtain all the essential nutrients. Based on this theory, a buffet would lead to a higher calorie intake and weight gain. But Rick and Lorraine's cruise buffets had an unusually large and varied number of beautifully prepared fruits and vegetable dishes, from fresh chopped fruit to salads and cold vegetable soups. While exposure to a variety of fattening foods causes weight gain, access to a variety of fruits and veggies promotes weight loss. Though they didn't consciously realize it at the time, both Rick and Lorraine ate more fruits and veggies before, during, and between meals.
Some foods are less energy dense than others—that is, they have fewer calories per gram—so filling your plate with more of those means you'll be eating fewer calories without actually eating less food. Low-density foods, which are low in calories but high-volume, help you feel full and satisfied while dropping pounds. Fruits and veggies are ideal, since they'll fill you up without breaking your calorie bank; they're correlated with a lower body weight. Eating high-volume, low-calorie foods affects how satisfied we feel in a number of ways. It causes stomach stretching and slows stomach emptying, stimulating the nerves and hormones that signal feelings of fullness. There's also a visual component—seeing a large volume of food increases our ability to feel satisfied by it. Studies also suggest that when we eat large meals that last a long time, our satisfaction declines and we lose interest in finishing them.
Still wondering how Rick and Lorraine ate whatever they wanted, including desserts, and managed to lose weight? My analysis is that the fruits and veggies were so plentiful and took up so much room in their stomachs, they both ate less of everything else. Plus, they felt that they had eaten to their hearts' content.
You too can get on "cruise control" at home and enjoy eating the right number of calories, feeling satisfied and even losing weight without trying. Rick and Lorraine's cruise experiences are perfect examples of how this can happen. To replicate their results, consider having a buffet of fruit and veggie dishes in your home and office—morning, noon, and night. Pre-prepare a large variety of these, so they're easily accessible and grabable. And since exercise counts too, put on a pedometer and aim for the recommended 10,000 steps a day. (About 2,000 steps is one mile. The average office worker gets about 4,000 steps daily.)
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Katherine Tallmadge, MA, RD, LD, is the author of Diet Simple: 195 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations, and President of Personalized Nutrition, where she custom-designs holistic nutrition and weight loss programs for individuals and companies. Through counseling, writing, speaking engagements, and regular appearances in the national media, Katherine employs her passion to help people transform their health and their lives.