There's a new type of Sunday-night dread, and it has nothing to do with returning to work the next day. It happens--cue the Jaws music--when you step on the scale after a weekend of indulgence, only to discover you've gained three pounds in two days.
Been there? You're not alone. A study in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing found that adults scarf down, on average, 419 extra calories each weekend.
"We have more social events that include food and drinks, we're less structured about our mealtimes, and we give ourselves leeway to eat more," says Kathy McManus, director of the department of nutrition at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
That said, who wants to spend their downtime counting every single calorie? Here's the compromise: Use this advice to strategically navigate common diet dilemmas so you can loosen up this weekend without needing to loosen your belt.
Weekend Wrecker: Happy Hour
"Between the drinks and bar food, you could put away 1,000 calories at happy hour," says Susan Bowerman, assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. "Alcohol stimulates your appetite and lowers your inhibitions, so you end up grabbing whatever is around--usually a minefield of chicken wings and nachos."
Decide how many drinks you'll have ahead of time, and save a bottle cap, lime wedge, or swizzle stick from each. Studies have found that people tend to consume less when they have a physical reminder of how much they've already had. Anything served in a bottle will help you avoid bartender overpours, but it's still advisable to familiarize yourself with proper portions (five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer) by measuring them at home, says Bowerman. Most wines and light beers have about 100 to 125 calories per serving; if you want something stronger, try a Manhattan (130 calories), mojito (150), or vodka tonic (170).
As for food, there's a good reason not to belly up to the bar: You'll be less tempted by the bowls of free nuts and chips--and the smell of greasy appetizers as they come out of the kitchen--when you sit at a table or booth in the back. If you have to order something, your best options, says McManus, are shrimp cocktail (153 calories for 12 shrimp with a quarter cup of cocktail sauce), steamed mussels (around 150 calories for 12), or a shared light-cheese pizza.
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No alarm clock, no stressful commute, and often, no morning meal--leading to a gorgefest around noon. "If you don't eat until brunch, you'll be starving and think you can eat the equivalent of two meals," says Bowerman. "Breakfast tends to be the lowest-calorie meal of the day, so skipping 300 calories and tacking on an extra 600 later certainly isn't going to help you drop pounds."
No matter what time you crawl out of bed, chow down!
"Eating helps rev your metabolism, which starts your calorie burn," says Bowerman.
When you do, throw back some coffee too. Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant, so a cup of joe can increase your calorie burn and torch more than 100 calories a day. (Not a java fan? Brewed green tea also works.) Then finish your brunch on a sweet note: Researchers from Tel Aviv University recently found that chasing a big breakfast with a small dessert--yes, dessert!--may even help dieters lose more weight and keep it off, possibly by lowering levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin, which may help ward off future cravings.
Weekend Wrecker: Holiday Mentality
"Routine helps because your stomach gets used to being fed at certain times," says McManus, "and you're more likely to stick to your chosen foods because it's easier." On days off, a break in routine can be a pitfall.
"We tend to treat weekends like holidays, but the problem is they come 52 times a year, not just once," says Bowerman.
Sticking to your Monday-to-Friday routine--say, eating every two to three hours--is a sensible solution, but will you really do it? If you know the answer is no, it's better to acknowledge that from the start and pencil in a "cheat" meal during this time chunk. A planned cheat meal can help prevent a complete blowout. The reasoning: When you know where you're going to spend your extra calories, you won't waste them on other foods that aren't as tasty (e.g., cake that's so-so but not delicious).
On days when you know you'll be away from home for hours, ensure you snack well by carrying healthy options in your purse or car: some nuts, baby carrots, whole-grain crackers, an apple, or a three-ounce pop-top can of tuna with a fork.
Weekend Wrecker: Movie Night
Ryan Gosling's abs are mesmerizing, no doubt, but if you want a belly just as eye-grabbing, don't get too distracted: "When you're focused on a screen, you're not focused on what you're eating," says Bowerman. "Before you know it, you just ate 14 cups of popcorn for hundreds of calories." That's no exaggeration: According to a new Consumer Reports study, the largest-size plain popcorn can have 1,269 calories and 81 grams of fat! And that ginormous soda? Almost 700 calories. Talk about "big" screen.
At the concession stand, choose the smallest serving size available--preferably a kid's size. Research conducted at the University of Illinois found that people tend to eat much more from large containers. With popcorn, ask your server to go easy on the buttery topping; that alone can add 130 calories to a small and 260 to a large. Got a sweet tooth? Split a box of Raisinets for less than 200 calories per person. Better still: Sneak in a healthy snack. (Isn't that what purses are for?) Try an ounce of almonds (about 166 calories for 24 nuts), low-fat string cheese and one cup of grapes (140 calories), or a bottle of zero-calorie flavored water.
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A 2010 study by the USDA's Economic Research Service found that dinner eaten out adds 144 calories to your daily intake. And it should come as no surprise that the National Restaurant Association found weekends to be the most popular days for dining out.
Order a salad (dressing on the side) or any kind of broth-(not cream-) based soup to start your meal. Both will fill you up for fewer calories, so you'll end up eating less of your main dish and saving calories overall, says McManus. It may not seem like a lot, but if you also ate lunch out that's another 158 calories--plus, any away-from-home snacks tack on about 107 calories each. It adds up. Prefer takeout? Keep a stack of menus from places that offer healthier options (like a sushi bar). Your body will thank you!
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