Calorie counting can be tricky, because calories can be sneaky things. Sometimes they hide in portion sizes that mislead us. Other times they're lurking in beverages that we gulp down without thinking. Now, a new study shows that unexpected calories can be a consequence not only of what we're eating and drinking, but also what day it is. And for dieters who aren't counting calories carefully on the weekend, a week of healthy eating can be wrecked before Monday morning.
A pair of marketing professors from the University of Pittsburgh and Quinnipiac University in Connecticut examined data collected in 1998 and 1999 by a market-research firm on the eating habits of roughly 600 men and women. Each participant kept track of the foods eaten by everyone in their household over a two-week period. The professors analyzed the data and found that people tended to eat more on weekends than they did during the week — particularly at breakfast, when they likely had more time to eat than on weekdays.
What it means
If you're trying to maintain a healthy weight, weekend calories may be wrecking your diet without your realizing it. "Many dieters feels as though they're dieting all the time but not losing weight, when, in fact, they're creating a calorie deficit Monday through Friday but filling it — and more — during the weekend," says dietitian and exercise physiologist Kim Gorman, MS, RD, Weight Management Program director at the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado at Denver. Often the problem, says Gorman, is that weekends can lack structure; at the very least, they signify a change in routine. And lack of routine can be especially tricky for those who are consciously trying to break unhealthy eating patterns and establish a new, healthier eating routine.
Here's how to treat the weekend like a Wednesday, at least as far as your eating habits are concerned.
1. Wake up at the same time on the weekends as you do during the week.
That way, your eating times and conditions will be the same as well — and it will be easier to stick to the healthy eating pattern you established during the week. (Bonus: This is also classic advice for anyone who has trouble getting enough sleep, since it also helps synchronize your sleeping patterns.) Can't give up those weekend sleep-ins? Be extra diligent about the rest of these tips.
2. Eat breakfast.
And, yes, that's breakfast, not brunch. Even if your morning agenda is just to lie around reading the paper, have a morning meal first. Research has proven that people who eat breakfast routinely eat healthier (and lighter) throughout the day than those who don't, says Gorman. Just be sure you're not eating a bigger breakfast than you do during the week.
3. Weigh in before and after.
"A great way to gain insight as to what's going on during the weekend is to weigh in on the Friday morning and then again on Monday morning," suggests Gorman. Numbers never lie.
4. Keep a log.
"Evidence shows that self-monitoring — whether it's routine weigh-ins or daily food logging — absolutely works as a tool for weight loss and weight maintenance," says Gorman, who notes that there's a wealth of free online food-tracking sites such as sparkpeople.com and slimfast.com that computer-savvy dieters might like. If it seems like a lot of data entry, "I recommend people identify the most difficult times to maintain their diets during the week and track only those days," Gorman says.
5. Be a teetotaler — or nearly one.
Alcohol packs piles of empty calories. Make yourself happy on Sunday by sipping mostly good old H2O at happy hour on Friday.
6. Work out on the weekend.
This may be your most powerful tool. "The majority of people in the National Weight Control Registry — a group of more than 5,000 people who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for one year or more — don't continue to log food on a daily basis," explains Gorman. "What they do is use high levels of physical activity — 60 to 90 minutes a day — to maintain their weight loss." If you feel you consistently blow your diet on weekends, mimic their success by scheduling lengthy Saturday- and Sunday-morning workouts to balance any extra calorie gain with extra calorie burn.