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."
While physical activity may be the obvious answer, experts say there are other tricks that can help you overcome the habit of weekend overindulgence:
- Start your day out right. "Eat a healthy breakfast on the weekend, when you have more time," says Susan Moores, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "You usually eat less during the day if you start with a healthy breakfast, and you get some good nutrition."
- Don't go hungry to "save up" for a big dinner out. "Saving yourself backfires -- you usually end up eating way more than you would have if you ate normally throughout the day," says Moores. "Have a little bite to eat before you go out to take the edge off your hunger, and then simply enjoy good food when you go out."
- Savor the experience of dining out. "Allow yourself to enjoy good food and savor it, rather than overindulge in it," says Moores. "People forget what the whole eating experience is about -- sitting with friends, enjoying your time together, and relaxing."
- Eat slowly. "It takes 15-20 minutes for your brain to signal your stomach that it's full, so take your time," Moores explains. "Whether you're at a party or eating out on the weekend, remember to slow down when you're eating."
- Start with soup. "Take your time when you order at a restaurant, and start with soup," says Moores. "Then, have the waiter come back so you can order an entrée -- you'll order much less than if you ordered all at once."
- Halve your restaurant entrees. "Splitting an entree with a friend is a great way to make a significant cut in calories on the weekend," says Moores.
- Don't skip dessert; share it. "Make it special," says Moores. "Choose something that is really delightful to you and split it with a friend. Keep an eye out for portion sizes, and if the dessert you want is huge, ask the waiter to slice it thin or split it with the table -- but I'm all for dessert."
- Avoid overdoing it with alcohol. "If you can cut out one or two drinks per day on the weekend, that will save you 100 to 150-plus calories," says Moores. And, she explains, people who drink more tend to eat more as well. So drink alcohol with caution, if at all.
- Remember your waistline. "Wear a tighter pair of pants when you go out on the weekend," says Moores. "Wear something that's not uncomfortable but that reminds you there are limits to what you should eat."
- Find a substitute for soda. "Use water to satisfy thirst, rather than soda, which many people drink more of on the weekends," says Bryant. "Not only are they consuming a tremendous amount of calories, but soda is high in fructose, which stimulates the appetite."
Beyond that, the experts say, the best way to keep the weekends from torpedoing your diet is to take a commonsense approach to nutrition -- every day of the week.
"I think most people are better off from a health standpoint to eat sensibly each day," says Bryant. "Consume a variety of foods, don't skip meals, eat individual-sized portions, and whenever possible, substitute a favorite high-fat food or high-sugar food with a healthy alternative."