Paradox at Sea: My Week on a Weight-Loss Cruise

Me, a buffet, and 600 Weight Watchers.

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(Image credit: Monica Park)

How does that make you feel?" is a very popular question aboard the Weight Watchers Rejuvenation Vacation at Sea. I hear it asked regarding late-night snacks, an ancient Chinese workout, and the concept of "goal" weight. Over the course of a week cruising the Caribbean with 600 members of Weight Watchers, it becomes clear that I'm in the middle of the ocean with a group of people—and a billion-dollar company—in the midst of a self-actualization process. There are mini pumpkin-pecan tartlets, low-intensity yoga classes, and tears.

Island-hopping with Weight Watchers means your tablemates will encourage you to skip the butter on your whole-wheat toast. It means you'll decide (surprisingly) to take the stairs instead of the elevator to the pool. It means you'll learn the brand-approved serving size for a glass of wine. And it means on-board activities will consider your feelings.

Weight Watchers members dropped at least $995 for a week of tracking the points in their piña colada by the pool.

"Diet is a four-letter word," says Ryan Nathan, Weight Watchers' VP of products, licensing, and e-commerce. Millennials—a market the 54-year-old company, with its average 48-year-old member age, is trying hard to crack—do not want to diet. But they do want to relax and soul-search and eat food they've already paid for that they know won't make them feel bad in their bikini. "The cruise is a perfect fit because in one environment, you can do cooking, you can do yoga, and you can do food," Nathan says. Members dropped at least $995 for a week of exactly that: tracking the points in their piña colada by the pool on Swiss-Italian cruise line MSC's luxury ship Divina.

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The pool deck on the MSC Divina

(Image credit: Courtesy of Weight Watchers)

Christened by Sophia Loren in 2012, the cruise liner is so big that when I mention to the woman on the deck chair next to me that I'm part of the Weight Watchers group, she has no idea what I'm talking about. (The boat holds 3,502 guests, so WW members made up just 17 percent of everybody on board.) There's a Balinese spa that offers botox and Turkish baths. There's a 1,600 seat-theater where I play a game of Bingo before a Parisian-themed variety show. There's an Eataly.

The idea of a weight-loss cruise does seem like a paradox (or a joke). As any cruiser will tell you, the whole point is the 24-hour buffet. (The second point is the free room service.) It is such a given that you'll gain weight on a cruise that it's become a cliché. Between the abundance of frozen alcoholic beverages and the restaurants on every floor, it's possible—nay, encouraged—for typical cruisers to spend the entire vacation snack-in-hand.

Nevertheless, as oxymoronic as a Weight Watchers cruise may seem, the two have a major tenant in common: Both overwhelm you with so many options that you forget to feel restricted. Who can remember they're technically trapped in the middle of the ocean when there's a Michael Jackson-themed variety show, a mocktail social, and a hot-stone massage? As for Weight Watchers, its calling card is the zero-limitations policy: You get a custom number of SmartPoints to spend per day—all foods are assigned SmartPoints values and tracked through the WW app—calculated based on your age, height, weight, and sex. I have 30 points to work with, and, if I so choose, I can spend them on nothing but three medium orders of fries for 10 points each. (One afternoon I did grab a box of fries, hid it in my purse because I wasn't sure whether or not you were allowed to take food out of the buffet, and ate it in my room like a small animal.)

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The Weight Watchers buffet is located in the back of the Calumet Cafeteria, which means you can only get to it after passing the regular buffet, overflowing with trays of pizza, four types of pasta (each drowning in a different creamy/points-accruing sauce), perpetual waffle fries, and enough desserts to fill their own bakery counter. Nancy, a friendly 50-something cruiser from Long Island who's been a Weight Watcher for 29 years, finds the location of the WW buffet "demeaning." (I believe it serves to discourage regular cruisers from eating all of our 1-point sliced turkey.)

Our food looks simpler than the indulgences under the previous quarter-mile of heating lamps. It's all a bit sigh-inducing, but it's also what healthy eating looks like: 5-point bunless veggie burgers, 0-point chargrilled tomatoes, and 5-point mini chocolate cherry cheesecake that, to be fair, cruisers love so much the company shares the recipe.

"God bless the omelet guy. He knows when he sees me to dump the oil out of the pan, wipe it out, and do egg whites only," Nancy tells me. She says that taking a cruise labeled Weight Watchers has made her more mindful (she's chosen to spend much of her points on wine). "I turned 55 this year, I'm a single mom, and I said, 'No one does anything for me. I'm doing this for myself.' I'm up to my highest [weight], but I came on the cruise to reset and refocus."

During one of the three onboard WW meetings that I attend, leader Lisa Zoelch—beloved for her discoball microphone and generosity with her gold star "Bravo" stickers—asks how people have "navigated" the buffet. She offers a few tips: scan the entire buffet first, only make one trip, and don't pile on so much food that everything on your plate touches. For moments when you do grab the second dessert, she recommends the 3-bite rule (take just three bites, in case that wasn't self-evident). I could have used this rule with my poolside snack, which I only realized post-gobbling-down-two-scoops-of-gelato cost me almost half my points for the day.

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The Weight Watchers buffet on board

(Image credit: Courtesy of Weight Watchers)

Breakfast is a seated group affair. My first morning aboard, I plop down at an empty table with a book like the only child that I am and proceed to deeply confuse waiters with my solo presence. (All week, I'm accosted with cries of "Alone? Alone?" I do not recommend a cruise for anyone newly single.) Friends who knew about this assignment looked up and down my slim-enough-for-anyone-except-my-mother frame beforehand and warned me, "Everyone is going to hate you." But within minutes I'm joined by two pairs of cruisers and almost immediately seven-year member Marie and I are commiserating over how hard it is to leave pets at home. Any fawning is more for my youth than my appearance. (And it's not as though I'm a complete outsider: I once lost 15 pounds on the program after a particularly delicious semester of empanadas and rib-eyes in Argentina.) Marie tells me she ate two slices of pizza and a cheeseburger from the buffet the day before but plans to follow program the rest of the week.

The sirloin I, perhaps rudely, order off the regular menu to accompany my zero-point soup is both delicious and twice the size of the one on the WW menu.

Dinner—ordered off a menu of painstakingly curated recipes and an accompanying list of SmartPoints—typically consists of a five-course meal for around 10 points total. On one night, guests enjoy a Tandoori-Roasted Cauliflower Soup (0 points), Chipotle-Lime Shrimp with Corn and Poblanos (5 points), Oven-Roasted Ratatouille (0 points), Greek Salad (2 points) and Light Chocolate Ice Cream (2 points). That the staff controls portion size is a relief for anyone all too familiar with a kitchen scale.

But cruises are an ask-and-you-shall receive affair, and members quickly learn they can also request a regular MSC menu and calculate the points themselves. The sirloin I, perhaps rudely, order off the regular menu to accompany my zero-point soup at dinner is both delicious and twice the size of the filet on the WW menu. For a deep carnivore like me, those extra 3 points are worth it.

The Weight Watchers team uses onboard members as a sort of captive focus group, which makes sense when I see the fervor around "Chi Flow," an adaptation of the Chinese martial art of qigong. WW is currently piloting the exercise class in Minnesota and California, and offers it to members on the cruise. "ANY body can do Chi Flow," coaxes the program brochure. "So leave your stress behind and experience a new sense of vitality!" Thirty-odd members show up to the 7 a.m. class dressed less in fitness apparel than in bathing-suit-and-cover-up ensembles for our upcoming day in Cozumel. After a guided meditation, we engage in what I'll call standing yogic stretching, done with a refreshing lack of self-consciousness. We flail our arms to knock on the door of life. We move from right to left to encourage our trees to grow. We do a modified wave to plant our seeds. Over an hour-long class, I don't make skeptical eye contact with a member once…and I tried.

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Weight Watchers meeting leader Lisa Zoelch (and her famous discoball microphone)

(Image credit: Courtesy of Weight Watchers)

The brand is about to make a mint on Chi Flow. Where they're being offered on-land, classes cost $7 per session or $20 for a pack of four, a truly blissful number for anyone who's ever paid $35 for a single boutique fitness class. It also opens the door for Weight Watchers to expand into offerings like branded fitness gear or subscription videos.

Not a single attendee of my class—admittedly a self-selecting group who loves Weight Watchers enough to not only come on a week-long cruise but to wake up at sunrise for a branded workout—had a negative word to say about the hour we spent moving like a river. "I had tears in my eyes at the end," one comments during the post-class "sharing circle." Another came to the realization that she "wants freedom." But the real praise comes from a Cleveland group leader, who's on the cruise with a few of her members: "I felt like I was enjoying my body." It's a perfect quote for a commercial voice-over, perhaps because it's also the core of what any self-improvement program should be about.

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Chi Flow isn't burning any calories, and leader Karmi Mattson tells me that's the point. "This comes from an encouraging, safe space," she says. In fact, members get upset when classes are too rigorous. Kiersten Mooney, founder of Green Monkey Yoga, also taught classes on board. I catch her second class, at the start of which she tells us will focus on ease, since she's "heard through the rumor mill" that her first session was too difficult. We spend the hour in a long meditation and a series of forward folds and downward dogs. I break a sweat, but then again the class did take place on the pool deck.

The shore excursions, meanwhile, pose a bit of a problem for me. Specific Weight Watchers outings aren't planned (you have to be strong enough to choose the fruit plate instead of the fried conch without any handholding), and as someone with a healthy, rational fear of the water that no one else seems to share, the existing options are limiting. We dock in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, George Town, Cayman Islands, Cozumel, Mexico, and Nassau, Bahamas, and most of the guided tours involve snorkeling, water slides, or another form of death-defying water sport. Even the excursion I end up choosing in Cozumel—a day at what I can only describe as a nature-themed amusement park—turns out to have a lazy river component in which guests strap on a life vest and float alongside strangers' bacteria through a "tropical paradise."

Back on the safety of the ship, I weigh my after-dinner options: watch Suicide Squad at the pool, listen to an ABBA tribute in the piano bar, or attend a WW-sponsored lecture entitled "Understanding the Opposite Sex: A Look at His and Her Brains." I choose the lecture. Jessica Porter, author of something called The MILF Diet, borrows heavily from neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine's books The Male Brain and The Female Brain to blame any relationship issues on our caveman minds. "No man wants me to sit and talk about my feelings," Porter instructs the room of mostly women. "He wants me to shake my boobs." When one of the few men in the room raises his hand to answer one of Porter's questions, she gives him the compliment that he "must have gone to husband school." She did acknowledge the existence of gray areas in gender and sexuality at the top of the lecture, if only to ignore them for the next 75 minutes. The tone is at odds with the more enlightened "wellness" programming I've gotten used to—we Weight Watchers cruisers deserve better advice than hold your tongue and shimmy.

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The zero-point squash soup on the cruise\'s Weight Watchers lunch menu

(Image credit: Courtesy of Weight Watchers)

It's after this lecture and a harrowing natural beauty lesson from a WW-hired specialist who advises us to boil cinnamon in water to cure athlete's foot that I'm poised to truly appreciate Weight Watchers "Focus." The crown jewel of the brand's wellness programming, Focus is described in the cruise guide as an "empowering" seasonal workshop series that "goes beyond food and fitness to give you fresh insights, inspiration, and tools to support your wellbeing AND your weight loss journey."

God bless the omelet guy. He knows when he sees me to dump the oil out of the pan, wipe it out, and do egg whites only.

Over 75 minutes, about 20 of us make our way through a workbook called "Choosing Path, Spring Renewal: Focus on Life." It's borderline-nauseatingly earnest: "As April showers give way to May flowers, our stalks become sturdier, allowing us to grow into our confident selves." With the image of ourselves as May flowers in mind, we start with a guided meditation, doing what I recognize as tapping the chakras, although the term isn't mentioned. Then everyone answers the ubiquitous "how are you feeling?" with one word: committed, thankful, curious, happy, hopeful. (My session is taking place after the Gala Night dinner, which brings an absurd formality to the practice of discussing your goals and fears with strangers, although it is fun to watch a man in a tuxedo slap himself silly.)

In silence, we work through a Choosing Path freewriting exercise, Choosing Path Worksheet, and Choosing Path Practice Sheet. We use an emotional multiple-choice test called the "Me-Meter" to analyze our bodies, lives, hearts, and minds. Then it's time to share. "I want to stop sabotaging myself," says one member. Karmi—the same woman who helped us plant our seeds in Chi Flow—doesn't let her bask in the release of that realization. "What would that look like?" she pushes. "What are you noticing?"

Focus launched in select cities in May, though it's still being developed. The workbook evokes Therapy 101: Identify your feelings, notice your thoughts. Everyone can stand to gain from introspection, which the largely suburban, white, middle-aged participants may not have tried without a little corporate goading. I learn that a few members were brought to tears in an earlier session. It's exciting to imagine someone like my mother—or my actual mother, who's been a Weight Watchers member for decades and would never go to therapy—stumbling into one of these sessions and leaving as a newly centered person.

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Pilates on the pool deck

(Image credit: Courtesy of Weight Watchers)

But the workshop's surprising depth is also a bit worrying: What if a member used this safe space to share suicidal thoughts? What happens if someone opens up about spousal abuse? "The coaches are trained to let emotional members know it's okay, notice it, and ask them 'how does that make you feel?'" Cindy Sada, the WW senior director of global innovation, assures me. She trades in my group therapy comparison for an even less regulated field: life coaching. "The philosophy is life-coaching skills, mindfulness meditation, and energy work," she says. "Life coaching is guiding you from the present to the future, where therapy is digging into the past."

The benefit of undertaking all of this introspection on a cruise is that when you're not crying or getting weighed, you can be in the Bahamas. Sada tells me that the location may have made Focus more difficult—it's harder to tap into what's missing in your life when you're watching the sunset over the Caribbean Sea. But when you do figure out what's missing, I can assure you, Weight Watchers wants to help you find it.

Throughout the week, I return to Nancy's plan to treat herself yet remain mindful. For people who find it challenging to take a vacation, eat a dessert, or meditate, the idea of a Weight Watchers trip may have more of a special intrigue. Yes, you're in the Caribbean, but you're still working on something. Regardless of what the scale reports, members leave knowing they put in effort—even if that effort started and ended with their ticket purchase. I was so wrapped up in everything I'd done and encountered that week that I forgot to weigh-in before we disembarked in Miami. Please feel free to assume I lost weight; I'll do the same.

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