Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Carnivore’s Guide to Cardiology: The Disney Diet Plan

The problem: How to maintain heart healthy choices on a Disney World vacation.

The solution: 

Short Answer – Salmon and a Stitchload of walking.

Longer answer – Keep reading.

When packing for this trip I noticed the number on the scale when I weighed myself with a full suitcase was one I had seen before with just me.  Having the amount of “less me” there was graphically illustrated by a large leather bag, while fairly creepy, also inspired me to ensure I didn’t start repacking myself on this trip, so to speak.

Exercise was not really a concern.  Walking is near constant on our Disney trips.  We get to the parks when they open (or before for breakfast reservations and Extra Magic Hours) and leave when they close. If a park closes early we go from it to a different park, show elsewhere, dinner at another hotel, or stay active at our hotel. The only exercise problem I have on a Disney vacation is getting back into a normal routine after returning when my ability to even stand is questionable.

Eating healthy…now that one’s a challenge.

I’m a huge fan of Disney food. As soon as I know we’re going, I’m on the phone with some overly happy and helpful Floridian, booking table service meals throughout the stay.  I really had to come up with a method of not only keeping myself from falling off the wagon, but from setting the wagon on fire and frying my meals over it. I was already bringing cheerios for breakfast in the room most mornings, and several bags of Snyder’s unsalted fat free pretzels (which are now delivered to our home by the truckload), but I needed more of a plan than that. This leads to the first element:

Planning is a key part of a Disney trip anyway for the amount of stuff we usually do there.  I was already using a spreadsheet to document park hours, parade times, and reserved meals, so a little extra wasn’t a stretch. (Disney trip planning is one of the only instances where I’m this organized…trying to accomplish everything we do in Disney World using my usual “surf the wave of chaos” method of functioning would probably kill me.)  Luckily, here in the future, there is help. 

The menu for every Disney restaurant is available online and regularly updated. This let me know what I could eat at the required character meals. For example, there were two grilled salmon dishes listed in Cinderella’s Castle, leaving me free to pick one when I arrived.  Naturally, I chose the seared tuna. (Ok, so they’re not always fully updated, but at least you get an idea.)  It was also helpful at identifying places that it wouldn’t be worth visiting.  While the Nine Dragons Chinese restaurant in EPCOT is still excellent, it no longer serves anything I can eat.  On the positive side, the cool Asiany shirts in the gift shop near Nine Dragons that I always liked but was overly fluffy for are now a viable and spiffy option.

The menus aren’t only available for table service, but counter service places as well. This was good for having a general idea of what was available when we were on the go.  Most times we could find something for all of us, but the extra research helped to find nearby options too. For example, Pizzafari in Animal Kingdom is great for the kids, but was pretty much a no-man’s land for me.  With a little menu and map work however, I knew the roasted chicken (with removable skin) of the Flame Tree Barbecue was a short stroll away across Discovery Island. (I am now noticing how insanely over planned this probably sounds to normal people.  Score one for self realization.)

With everything planned, I still had to eat on the dining plan, which leads to the second element:


The Disney Dining Plan is pretty straight forward.  Unless it’s a buffet or family style, you get one beverage, one entrée and one desert, everywhere, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.  By lunatic levels of preliminary research I could guarantee grilled chicken, fish or non-bacon and cheese filled salad for an entrée.  The other two is where the health gymnastics came in.  With caffeine off my list, and the only diet soda being Coke in almost all places, you’d expect I drank mostly water.  (And I probably should have to avoid the insane mental breakdowns that occur when I get dehydrated, but never mind that now.)  However, most places have juice or PowerAde Zero in bottles marked as “snacks” on the plan. They can also be chosen as drinks.  The desserts are a little trickier as they tend to be limited.  Most places have either a fat free or sugar free selection, so I was in the clear about half the time.  Again, it takes some detective work, but many places also have fruit or yogurt on the menu (often as the kids’ selections, which you can substitute sometimes, depending on the weather, the position of Venus, what color underwear you have on…not really sure what the pattern was to be honest.)  There are also enough healthy snacks on the plan or at least fat free ones. (With caffeine gone, some days I was running purely on Goofy’s Character Gummies and a lean mixture of PowerAde and Sprite Zero in my refillable mug.)

This knowledge in place should make it easy to avoid all fatty snacks in Disney World, with one small issue. The sheer quality and quantity of awesome desserts makes that practically impossible. Hence the third element:


I let myself have one non-fat free (or fat-full if you prefer) dessert a week.  It ranges from a single Girl Scout cookie, to pie alamode with a cupcake in it, depending on how healthy/hungry/stressed I feel.  I also allow bonuses for family celebrations ( birthdays etc.).  I skipped my dessert the week before we went, the trip passed over a weekend, and my wife’s birthday hit while we were there.  That combination gave four available REAL desserts during the stay. (See kids, math and planning can be your friends.)

I learned pretty quickly the planning part goes out the window when it came to those four.  The disposable “Mousse in a cup” from the previously mentioned Flame Tree wasn’t anywhere on my list. They had no healthy options and I figured other people would share it.  Back at Pizzafari everyone else (who also picked that dessert) was telling me, “You have to taste this.” So my choice became taste everyone else’s and pretend I didn’t just eat the equivalent of three desserts, or eat the damn thing myself, hence: one down.

Number two was close to plan. The Dine in Theater has excellent deserts, but I went with a fruit salad.  Before you applaud, the reason is that the Oreo Milkshakes they serve are even better than the desserts and are also a Mickey approved meal plan beverage.

Three was perfectly on plan.  My wife’s birthday princess lunch in EPCOT’s Norway pavilion had a dessert sample tray with mounds of goodness. So I helped myself to a mound, and enjoyed the goodness.

From when we knew we were going, I planned to have a sundae in the Magic Kingdom’s Plaza restaurant. They are by far the best in all the parks.  However, following my grilled chicken and strawberry salad, at dessert time I chose a diet root beer float with fat free ice cream. This is because I had will power, I had resolve, I had stamina…and more importantly, I had a GIANT Mickey shaped chocolate chip cookie with chocolate coated ears on the way up Main Street that morning. Saw a peanut butter one listed on the Disney Blog two months before we went, so all that research paid off after all.
A thing of beauty...

Oh yeah, and I also had a Mickey Ice Cream bar the last day, because, in the immortal words of my Dad, “Leave me alone, I’m on vacation.” Which brings us to the final element:


This is the roughest part, especially at the buffets. Piles and piles of really good stuff stare up at you, like edible puppies, begging you to bring them all home. Additionally, you’re usually sprinting to the delectables between character visits, limiting search time. My solution was to fill up on the healthy stuff first. Dinner was a heaping plate of salmon and green beans before having a taste of the other temptations. Another buffet handled similarly was the appetizer selection at Norway. Salmon again was the protein of choice with excellent asparagus along with it. My daughter, in a big girl moment, asked if I wanted anything when she went back, and brought me a second monster size portion of asparagus. Even after eating all of it, I only broke wind once very slightly. Considering a single stalk usually generates multiple blasts capable of atomizing mid sized vehicles, this is proof of how pervasive and potent the Disney magic is.

The Garden Grill is even more dangerous as they bring the all you can eat to your table (as having a buffet in a rotating character filled room would incur more accidents than even Disney lawyers could handle).  Therefore, first I focused on the fish and freshly growns (Veggie - fruit fruit, cha cha cha!), before tasting a tiny sample of everything else. Really, everything else, if your arteries can handle it, I highly recommend sitting in the Garden Grill and stuffing your face till you pass out. 

Breakfast buffets were done in the same way. That meant before enjoying a small piece of bacon and half a biscuit, I had a giant plate of oatmeal. Granted I put fruit loops in the oatmeal, but that wasn’t a moment of weakness, I just wanted it to look as festively decorated as the rest of Disney World.  Some not totally healthy choices were grits (I live in New Jersey, when else am I going to get decent grits?) and a couple Mickey Waffles (You have to eat those, it’s a law.  Otherwise they strap you down behind the Ferris Wheel in the Small World until you relent.)

It was all about give and take.  At our hotel for example, I chose to wait the seven minutes required for the grilled fish sandwich every time. (Exactly seven minutes, every time. The mystical number to appeal to the tilapia gods, or something.) And while waiting for my “hold the mayo with a pasta salad on the side” sandwich, I would eat two of my daughter’s French fries. When the alternative was saying, “Screw the wait and gimme a burger and fried chicken!” stolen fries are a health conscious option.  In a similar manner choosing the sautéed in garlic and olive oil shrimp pasta when I was sick of undressed grilled chicken sandwiches was an extremely heart healthy choice, considering I was moments away from slamming my face down in a Beef n’ Blue “salad”.

That was my plan.  I’m no nutritionist, but for the first time on this, my eighth long trip to Disney World, I weighed exactly the same when I came home as when I left.  I’m also skinny enough to wear white; which means I don’t look ridiculous in my Buzz Lightyear uniform shirt. Well, not chubby and ridiculous anyway.  To Cardiac Health…and Beyond!

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