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How to unwind without undoing your diet.

Happy hour after work on Friday. Dinner out at your favorite restaurant on Saturday. A home-cooked feast on Sunday.

Before you know it, a weekend of unwinding can turn into a calorie-fest that undermines a week's worth of healthy eating -- and, come Monday morning, sends the needle on your scale creeping upward.

"Individual eating habits tend to change dramatically over the weekend," says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. "You tend to see people consuming more alcoholic beverages and more calorie-dense foods. It's a real easy recipe to gain weight."

But avoiding the weekend weight-gain trap doesn't have to mean your favorite Friday-through-Sunday treats are off-limits, experts say. Below, they offer some tips for enjoying your days off while avoiding the weekend food frenzy.

The Weekend Trap

Research has shown just how much damage weekend overeating can do to our diets.

"There is a large and significant difference in energy intake on the three-day weekend versus the four-day weekday, particularly for young adults," says Barry Popkin, PhD, co-author of a study on weekend weight gain.

The study, published in the August 2003 issue of Obesity Research, found that Americans 19 to 50 years old take in 115 more calories per day on the weekend (defined as Friday through Sunday) than on the other days of the week. Over the course of a year, that adds up to 17,940 extra calories -- or about 5 pounds.

And, as you might have guessed, it's not healthy foods that we're eating more of during the weekend. That 115-calorie-a-day difference comes mostly from alcohol and fat, says Popkin, a professor of nutrition in the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina.

Even so, those extra calories don't have to turn into fat, the experts say. The key is burning more calories than you consume. That means finding active ways to relax -- like brisk walking, playing tennis, even gardening -- instead of vegging out in front of the TV.

"People tend to think of the weekend as their time to relax and recover from the hectic workweek," says Bryant. "What they should do is really try to make an effort to become more active in their daily pursuits over the weekend days. Look for as many opportunities to move as possible, so you can increase physical activity to offset the extra calories you consume."

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