Sunday, November 20, 2016

Cruising AIP: The Reality Check

Cruising AIP: The Reality Check
(Disclaimer: Please read this post from start to finish or not at all. I am not promoting "cheating" or eating whatever you want when following AIP. I think it's extremely important that each individual follow the elimination phase as best as possible before determining what is best for them specifically on an individual case-by-case basis and making their own personal adjustments where necessary.)

Hanging out in port in Cozumel, Mexico.
I just stepped off the cruise ship yesterday morning, and returned home last night. My coworker and I sailed a 5-day/6-night cruise in the Caribbean to Georgetown, Grand Cayman and Cozumel, Mexico for a Hairstylist Education Cruise. Genius, right?! Overall, let me assure you that this trip was a blast! My coworker and I are great friends, and we honestly made an amazing time of it, despite a lot of hiccups. But cruising for the first time since making the change to an AIP lifestyle meant there was a lot of fear and anxiety on my part from start to finish: booking the cruise, planning for the cruise, and cruising itself.

I'm a prepper. Anxiety 101 means that you prepare for the worst all the time; this has it pros and cons, but I think we can all agree that handling anxiety is a matter of figuring out balance (if you have this figured out, please share with the rest of us; we'd love to know too!). But anxious person that I am, I researched. Thank goodness for Google! I searched "eating paleo on a cruise" and "eating AIP on a cruise". I read reviews and recommendations on forums and message boards. I asked in Facebook groups and got opinions from others directly. I read the article about Cruising Paleo? It's possible! on the Paleo Mom's blog. I asked my travel agent before I booked the cruise about accommodating food allergies, and received positive feedback that my accommodations would be met. I printed out a food card listing all the OK foods and the NEVER foods. I was prepared, ready to go, and positive about the adventure.

The week or so before the cruise rolled around. I was working crazy hours trying to squeeze in clients and make extra money to prepare myself for the whole week of pay that I was about to miss while on vacation and to save up extra money so I'd be able to have an enjoyable time on the cruise itself. I have spent the last three or four years working my butt off to get established in my career, and I was ready for my first true vacation in a very long time. As I started to prepare for the last few weeks before we left, things started to get stressful. Planning meals was becoming overwhelming. I was tired from working so many hours. I was working out a lot and trying to stay active to handle a recent breakup. I had other stressors in my professional life. I was eating AIP, but I was most definitely not eating balanced nor was I eating enough food.

I made the decision to cut myself some slack. I went and bought the cleanest gluten-free bread with the least aggravating ingredients for my personal food intolerances. I bought lettuce, Primal Kitchen Mayo (thank you Publix for now carrying this on your shelves because I can't even get this at my local Whole Foods!!!), top-quality AIP-friendly deli meats, pastured bacon and eggs, and some grass-fed cheese. I ate a lot of sandwiches. Surprisingly, instead of feeling like crap, I started feeling so much better. I think letting go of the constant stress of worrying about what to eat and actually eating enough calories made a huge difference. I took Betaine HCl and digestive enzymes with each meal as an extra precaution. I survived my last week pre-cruise with good spirits and very few food issues. My friend and I packed the car and headed down to Tampa for our cruise.

On the way, I decided that with a few reintros under my belt and such a successful week of eating prior, that I was planning to eat paleo/primal to allow myself more flexibility. This meant eggs, butter, white rice, and occasional cheeses were going to an option for me. Despite all this, the food situation on the cruise was a MAJOR letdown. Not much went according to plan. I was told to discuss my food allergies with the maître d' as soon as I boarded. I approached the dining hall with my allergy list in hand, and was shown to the person directly under the maître d'. I was told to bring my list with me to dinner and talk to the Section Head Waiter. I felt like things were handled so I said ok and went off to start the cruise fun. When dinner time came around, I asked my server for the Section Head Waiter. When he arrived, he glanced at the food allergy list and told me to pick something off the menu and the server would help me make changes so that it was ordered correctly. I'm feeling a little shuffled around, but I shrug my shoulders and do what I'm told. The server glances at the food list and is just as clueless. They expect me to pick items off the menu and know what I can and can't eat. Veteran AIPers know it's just not that simple when you have no ideas what ingredients are in what.

I tried my best and ordered fish with asparagus. I repeated over and over that I was gluten-free and no seasonings besides salt. The fish came to the table covered in some type of coating. I didn't eat the fish. Frustrated and now nervous about the remainder of the cruise, I went and asked for the maître d'. He treated me the same as everyone else I had already spoken to. This was the last straw. I was tired of being nice and patient. I had to demand to see someone who prepared the food several times to get my point across and the Sous Chef was finally brought out to speak with me. He discussed the issue, and I showed him my food allergy list. He said to pick what I wanted off the menu, and tell the server to bring the request to him, and he would make sure all the meals for the rest of the cruise were taken care of personally.

For future reference, this was the wrong way to go about it. I highly suggest if you plan on cruising that you speak with the cruise company specifically BEFORE you book your cruise. Then when you get on board, I would insist on speaking to the Sous Chef or someone else who handles the food directly PRIOR to dinnertime. Ask for an appointment if you must. Insist, insist, insist, but do it before you are hungry and stressed and upset in the middle of a busy dining room where the energy and pressure is also high for the staff. Make sure all meals are planned and clarified for the week. Ask what's available at other dining venues that will meet your needs. when the formal dining hall is open. I went hungry several times during the cruise because the venues where I could find options were closed when I was available to eat there.

Even with all this, several meals arrived to my table incorrectly. One dish came out covered in tomatoes. I gave up halfway through the cruise and started eating in the buffet dining hall, which is where I was originally warned not to eat because of possible cross-contamination. I had more success asking their cook staff for the ingredients in the dishes because they actually prepared the foods. I was able to ask for real eggs cooked in butter, and at the stir fry table, I was able to assemble my own choice of veggies and meat and then ask them to skip the teriyaki sauce and use strictly sesame seed oil instead. The only downfall was that the selection of food in the buffet venue was extremely limited. I ate a lot of the same foods over and over again for every meal, but for me personally, the small risk of cross-contamination was much safer than the other dining hall full of clueless staff. I was super disappointed in the quality of the food itself. At first I thought my expectations were too high because I was so used to eating high-quality, fresh ingredients on a daily basis. But I soon learned from other cruisers that it was a very common complaint. I overheard several complaints from other cruises to the staff about how subpar the food was. We just got a bad luck of the draw with this ship and cruiseline: poor selection, poor quality, they ran out of lots of items and had broken equipment on board.

I'm not sharing this necessarily to complain, but it's important to hear so you can imagine my mindset. I finally caved in Mexico, and ate food I hadn't eaten in three and a half years. Hungry, tired from snorkeling, completely fed-up of repetitious, bland food only 3 days into the cruise, my friend and I ordered chips and guacamole. The staff at the restaurant were thrilled to share all the ingredients they used to make theirs and had no issues making a fresh batch without jalapeños so I could eat it. I dug into the corn chips and guacamole with gusto, deciding at this point that stomach discomfort from eating corn wouldn't matter at this point.

I'm happy to report that I didn't die, I didn't get sick, I didn't feel miserable. And this was when I realized that while you should always strive to eat as healthy as possible and that no, AIP isn't 80/20, but that it's not the end of the world when you make a mistake, when you have to make adjustments because things just aren't going well, that you will not undo every little single step of progress just because you took a bite of something that's not on the OK list. Does this mean I think I should eat corn whenever I want to? No. Does this mean I need to give myself an excuse to slip just because things aren't going perfectly? Not necessarily. What I'm trying to show you is in times of difficulty and poor options, sometimes you have to let go of the mental taboo and stress of not being perfect. Overstressing and over-dieting will ultimately be much worse than a few accidents along the way.

Fresh yuca fries in Georgetown, Grand Cayman.

I didn't have the best trip as far as food accommodations were concerned. My best success was yuca fries in Grand Cayman (hooray for another super helpful and friendly restaurant owner), and I was fortunate the corn chips and guacamole went well in Mexico. But I will share that I had an amazing time with my friend with lots of laughs. I created some fantastic memories swimming with sting rays in the Caymans and snorkeling in Cozumel where I got to touch a seahorse and see tons of beautiful fish. I networked and connected with very motivated and creative people in the hair industry. I was able to let go of a lot of the daily stressors and live on a relaxed schedule. I was able to reevaluate where I am at with my hair career and decide how I want to focus my professional energies on making decisions that are more in line with how I see success for myself in the next few years. I have left with the reality check that I'm never going to be perfect at eating consistently every day and following a "perfect" AIP template. Some things are better left to go with the flow and enjoyed, than stressed and perfected.

Kissing a sting ray means 7 years good luck according to folk lore in the Caymans.

Like Maya Angelou said,

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.