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Special to msnbc.com
updated 4/11/2008 4:33:58 PM ET 2008-04-11T20:33:58

The weekend: It’s the 48 hours we look forward to all week with grand expectations. These two short days can create an obstacle between you and your health goals, or they can become part of one of the best strategies for reaching them.

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We say, “It’s the weekend, so I’ll treat myself.” Unfortunately, two-and-a-half days of excess can easily undo the benefits of eating healthfully the rest of the week. While an occasional indulgence is certainly okay, refrain from grabbing everything you see. Instead, choose a few selections that really give you pleasure and let other options pass.

While many dieters are wary of a “big splurge” like a cup of ice cream or a slice of pizza, an extra 400 or 500 calories – occasionally – won’t throw your weight loss efforts off course. Those who avoid what they really crave, however, often end up eating an extra 100-calories here and there, which, a dozen times throughout a weekend, can really add up. Dietitians often note that clients who don’t overly restrict themselves during the week, don’t head into the weekend feeling deprived and can better handle temptation.

Weekends are also a time when many of us consume greater amounts of alcohol. Those additional calories can add up quickly. One strategy: Choose lower-calorie choices like wine rather than mixed drinks with high-calorie mixers or double amounts of alcohol. Drinks that you sip slowly also make it easier to limit the amount you drink.

Also, be wary of portion size when drinking alcohol. One standard drink is a 5-ounce glass of wine, 12 ounces of beer or a 1.5-ounce shot of 80-proof liquor such as whiskey or vodka. Health experts recommend keeping it to no more than one standard drink per day for women and no more than two standard drinks per day for men. In addition, saving up a whole week's alcohol quota for a weekend splurge is not recommended, both for the large load of calories added and for the negative health and social impact.

Maybe it’s time to re-think our definition of a “treat.” Instead of high-calorie food that offers little nutritional value, why not embrace the opportunity to try new foods? Sample an unfamiliar but tantalizing tropical fruit for a snack or dessert, or relax with a specialty tea? Better still, learn non-food ways to treat yourself like seeing a movie, exploring a new hiking trail or buying a bouquet of fresh flowers.

The weekend offers a great opportunity to get more active and enjoy the benefits that physical activity offers for weight control and disease prevention. Too often we pass up these opportunities because of mental or physical exhaustion and over-scheduled days. Instead of five hours channel-surfing, substitute a one-hour nap followed by a long walk or other activity. It’s fine to set aside a couple of hours to read or watch TV, but then get moving. Exercise is an established mood-lifter and energizer. You’ll be surprised to find your sluggish attitude melt away within minutes of getting active.

You can also use your time over the weekend to make healthful living during the workweek that much easier. Set aside half an hour over the weekend to plan workable menus for the coming week. Stock up on the groceries you’ll need for the week and avoid the stress of last minute shopping. Cook an extra meal or two and freeze them for use during the week. Pre-portion small bags of trail mix, nuts or other healthy snacks for the week ahead.

Weekends should be a time to relax and de-stress. Being active with family and friends, enjoying food that is delicious and nutritious, and getting ready for a healthful week ahead can turn our weekends into one of our best strategies for healthy living.

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