Cruise ships are known for their novel, sometimes daring cuisine options – but how healthy are they? According to former Carnival staff member turned writer Jay Herring, passengers gained a collective six tonnes of weight on one voyage. Abi Millar talks to Herring and Pierre-Marie Leprince, Princess’ director of guest culinary experience, about the momentum in the sector toward healthier food options.
For many guests, going on a cruise is synonymous with indulgence. With so many food options to choose from – and all of it included in the price – there is little reason not to take advantage and embark on a week-long eating spree.
After all, today’s operators pride themselves on the breadth and quality of their dining options. On a large ship, it is not uncommon to have 20 different restaurants, on top of ice cream shops, burger outlets and a buffet that’s open 24-7. Factor in alcohol, room service, cooking classes and wine tastings, and it’s little wonder that many passengers gain weight during their time at sea.
While it is hard to estimate the true damage, one 2012 survey found that more than half of cruise passengers put on around a pound a day. (If true, this would equate to eating a surplus 3,500 calories or around 6,000 calories daily.)
Weight gain anecdotes are easy to find. ‘Confession! I gained 10+ Pounds on a Cruise!’ wrote one woman on her blog, adding that her meals and snacks consisted of ‘hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, milkshakes, butter-infused steaks, potatoes with cheesy, creamy sauce, pizza and boatloads of chocolate chip cookies’.
One forum poster professed to have gained ‘15lbs on a 7 day cruise – and I ran 4 miles every morning!’, while another, who gained 20lbs, was heartened to find that ‘most of it was water retention’.
It’s a state of affairs that Jay Herring, author of The Truth About Cruise Ships, knows all too well.
“We as a species tend to overindulge when we’re on vacation, whether that’s food or shopping or booze or gambling,” he says. “We think, this is my time off, this is my release, and I’m going to eat a little more than I normally would. Then because of the way cruises are priced as an all-inclusive kind of vacation, customers think, I’ve already paid for this so by God I’m going to get my money’s worth.”
Herring, who worked on Carnival cruise ships between 2002 and 2004, wrote his tell-all book in 2012. Here, he detailed the ‘work, adventure, alcohol and sex’ that happens below deck. He also claimed that, over their time on a single cruise voyage, passengers gain a cumulative six tonnes.
While Herring’s book was published seven years ago, he doesn’t think much has changed since then.
“I don’t think the culture of overindulgence changes – if you look at the statistics, at least two thirds of people in the United States are what you would consider to be overweight or obese,” he says. “The tendency to think, it doesn’t cost any extra so I’ll just grab another plate of fries – that’s an innate quality that hasn’t changed since the book came out.”
Responsible for our own excess
Of course, this is not an ideal state of affairs from a health perspective. But Herring doesn’t think that cruise ships have a responsibility per se to look after the health of their passengers.
“They’re running a business, so they need to ask what do my passengers want to eat, what entices them, what makes them want to come cruise with my cruise line and then come back again?” he says. “I don’t think it’s on the cruise line to say ‘you should eat more vegetables’.”
The important point, which Herring concedes, is that cruise lines do offer healthy options. While a guest would be perfectly within their rights to lie around eating donuts for a week, that approach is far from obligatory. In fact, one of the main selling points of a cruise is that passengers have near unlimited choices.
“We introduced lighter options in all our Main Dining Rooms many years ago and they remain extremely popular with many passengers,” explains Chef Pierre-Marie Leprince, director of guest culinary experience at Princess Cruises. “Our new World Fresh Marketplace offers fresh, international offerings. While people often indulge on a vacation, they also want to know that they can have a healthy option available if they want it.”
Along with P&O Cruises and Holland America, Princess highlights these ‘light’ options on their menus, to give guests the know-how to pick wisely. It also caters to guests with special dietary requirements, such as gluten-free, sugar-free, vegetarian or vegan (an important consideration at a time when these demographics are growing fast).
“To serve all our passengers’ needs, it is our responsibility to provide offerings that they can enjoy,” says Leprince. “Because our breads are baked fresh onboard, we can offer gluten-free bread. We offer sugar-free desserts. There are salad options on every menu in every dining room and the Main Dining Rooms always offer both healthier/lighter and vegetarian options on every menu.”
Leprince, who was recently appointed a Master Chef of France, joined Princess in 2010 and assumed his current role in 2016. Together with the rest of the culinary team, he seeks to emulate the quality and sophistication of land-based restaurants – no easy task given the logistical challenges faced at sea. His culinary approach, called ‘Designed for Fresh’, involves bringing in specialist ingredients from the ships’ ports of call.
“Princess Cruises is one of the only cruise lines whose ships were built from the galley to the dining room with the delivery of fresh cuisine in mind,” he says. “Breads are baked 24-7, sauces are made from scratch using the finest ingredients, steaks are aged and hand cut onboard, and homemade ice cream is made every day. It’s the heart and soul of the line’s cuisine, and guests taste it in every bite.”
There is clearly no place here for lazy moralism – either against the guests with epicurean tendencies, or against the cruise lines that cater to their desires.
To talk in very broad brushstrokes, the trend throughout the industry is mostly towards culinary diversification. Today’s guests have been widely exposed to different cuisines and cooking styles, and they are seeking a broader variety of offerings than they might have done in the past. In many cases, overindulgence is less about mindless gluttony and more about partaking in ‘foodie’ culture.
“Travelers now want more authentic experiences. We allow them to dine like a local onboard, discovering the unique flavors of the places they visit,” says Leprince.
For cruise guests who do want to prioritise healthy eating, there are plenty of opportunities to do just that. To cite a slightly unusual example, the slimming company Weight Watchers has partnered with MSC Cruises to run regular wellness-themed cruises. Along with fitness classes and motivating workshops, these voyages offer ‘delicious and plan-friendly meals, drinks and snacks’. The idea is to help guests relax, while keeping their eyes on their weight-loss targets.
A number of luxury lines, including Silversea and Seabourn, offer designated wellness programming. Harnessing shoreside trends, such as yoga and integrative medicine, they provide healthy menus to match. A recent addition to the scene is Blue World Voyages, which bills itself as the world’s first cruise line dedicated entirely to an active lifestyle.
Within the scope of a mainstream voyage, it should also be relatively simple for guests to meet their healthy living objectives. Plenty of cruise ships now provide restaurants devoted to ‘clean’ eating – think Royal Caribbean’s Solarium Bistro, Queen Mary 2’s Canyon Ranch spa cuisine, or Celebrity’s Blu. Oceania rolled out a vegan menu in 2017, while Crystal Cruises has long-offered low carb menus and dishes free of trans fats.
It’s true that the average cruise ship might be what health authorities would call ‘an obesogenic environment’. With no need to prepare food themselves or worry about how much it costs, guests are constantly in temptation’s way – and they may not always avail themselves of the fitness facilities.
However, there’s a limit to how much weight can be gained in a week or two at sea. As Herring would have it the people who really need to watch themselves are not so much the passengers as the crew, who may be tempted to overindulge on a longer-term basis.
“The guy who hired me at Carnival said to me, if you drink or smoke you’ll probably do more of that on a cruise ship and that was the most accurate prediction I’ve ever heard,” he says. “In the same way that folks overindulge with food, they do the same with alcohol. And it carries over to the crew, not just the passengers.”
Despite his reservations, he sounds a note of praise for the kitchen staff, and their ability to cater to so many different dietary preferences at once. He vividly recalls the ‘organised chaos’ of the galley during dinnertime, with chefs and servers working together in an impressively orchestrated fashion.
“This is a restaurant that can serve 2000 people over the four hours, picking their food from a menu as opposed to a set selection, and it’s logistically done really well,” he says. “It’s really impressive to see.”
This article appears in the 2019 vol 2 edition of World Cruise Industry Review