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Food for Thought

Splurge on weekends, kiss your diet goodbye

LESLIE BECK

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail August 27, 2008 at 9:57 AM EDT

If you eat healthfully Monday through Friday but throw caution - and calories - to the wind on the weekend, you might not be pleased when you step on the scale Monday morning.

According to a recent study from Washington University, regularly overeating on the weekend can lead to a nine-pound weight gain by the end of the year. And it is not only holiday weekends that are to blame - it seems we consume more calories on most weekends.

It is easy for extra calories to sneak in on the weekend. Family gatherings, dinner dates and backyard barbecues can steer your healthy eating plan off course by tempting you with pre-dinner cocktails, elaborate meals and decadent desserts.

And at the end of a tough week, you might feel you've earned the right to relax - a mindset that can also extend to your healthy eating habits. After all, a little splurge here and there shouldn't sabotage your ability to manage your weight, right? Wrong.

Studies clearly show that if you're trying to shed excess pounds - or keep the scale steady - you need to maintain a certain level of discipline seven days a week.

In the Washington University study, researchers tracked food intake, exercise and body weight of 48 adults, aged 50 to 60, for one year. At the start of the study, participants were divided into three groups: the first reduced their daily calorie intake by 20 per cent, the second increased daily physical activity by 20 per cent, and the control group didn't alter their eating or exercise habits.

At the outset of the trial, the researchers determined that people enrolled in the study consistently gained weight on weekends. Some of that weight was lost during the week, but not all of it. If repeated every weekend, this pattern would have translated into a nine-pound weight gain over the course of a year.

During the one-year study, all three groups consumed significantly more calories on the weekend than on weekdays. The calorie-restricted group stopped losing weight on the weekend and the exercise group gained weight. What's more, people in the study didn't realize they consumed more on the weekends.

Previous studies have turned up similar results regarding weekend calorie consumption, reporting that adults pile on an extra 115 to 222 calories Friday through Sunday. Fat appears to be the largest contributor to the extra calories, but some studies indicate alcohol also plays a role.

Other research has determined that people who don't give themselves a day or two off to cheat are 1.5 times more likely to keep off unwanted pounds.

But think about it: once you start giving yourself a few breaks on the weekend, you're more likely to ease off on Friday and then Thursday. Eventually, the breaks accumulate and show up on the bathroom scale.

If weekend pitfalls are undermining your ability to manage your weight, perhaps it's time to rethink your eating habits. The following strategies will help you survive Friday through Sunday without expanding your waistline.

Eat breakfast

Don't let errand-packed weekends push the morning meal off your menu. Start the day with a meal that includes protein (e.g. egg whites, yogurt, soy milk) and fibre (e.g. bran cereal, oatmeal, whole grain toast) to keep you feeling satisfied until lunch and control frequent trips to the kitchen for snacks.

Plan ahead

If you find it challenging to eat regular meals on busy weekends, use a food diary to plan your menu. Write out what you're going to eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.

If you're going to be out all day, pack healthy snacks to prevent hunger. Good choices include dried fruit and nuts, energy bars or a piece of fruit. Or plan to pick up a non-fat or soy latte for a midday snack.

Watch portion sizes

It is easy for portion sizes to creep up when you're relaxing. Fill your plate with green salad, fresh vegetables and whole grains first to help curb your appetite. If you're still hungry after eating a meal, drink a glass of water or eat a piece of fruit.

To prevent overeating at social gatherings, talk it up at the table. Doing so will force to you eat more slowly and, ultimately, eat less.

Limit alcohol

A before-dinner cocktail (or two) and a few handfuls of nuts (or pieces of cheese) can easily add up to 500 calories. Alcohol also weakens your resolve to make healthy choices when you sit down to dinner.

Cutting out two drinks on the weekend will save you 200 to 300 calories. If a pre-dinner drink is part of your routine, consider having it with your meal to save calories.

Splurge sensibly

Plan to enjoy a couple of treats on the weekend and then ignore the rest. So you don't feel deprived, reward yourself with something you really enjoy. Stay away from standard fare that you can have any time - potato chips, nuts, cheese and crackers, and so on. Make the most of your extra calories.

Avoid the 'last supper'

If you blow your diet on the weekend, don't wait until Monday morning to get back on track: Start at the next meal or snack. The "last supper" mentality (e.g. I've already overeaten, so I may as well enjoy what I want now before Monday) makes it more difficult to resume your healthy eating routine.

Weigh in on Mondays

You're less likely to overeat on the weekend if you have to step on the scale on Monday morning. Consider weighing yourself twice a week - Mondays and Fridays - to increase awareness of small weight changes before they accumulate.

Stay active

Don't let exercise slide off your weekend schedule. Physical activity helps burn those extra weekend calories and can distract you from cravings.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based

dietitian at the Medcan Clinic,

is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is

lesliebeck.com.

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