You've got your weekday healthy-eating routine down pat. But once the weekend hits, all of your usual good habits seem to fly out the window, and those extra treats thwart your weight loss. We've all been there.
"Fridays and weekends somehow cue our 'treat yourself' mode," says Shana Spence, RDN. After five days of work or school and being strict with a diet and exercise plan, it's totally normal to want to relax a little. Weekends are also when we engage in more socializing, which often involves rich foods and alcohol. And research shows that people tend to eat more they're with others compared to when they dine alone, per an August 2019 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
While overeating on the weekend once in a while probably won't mess with your weight goals too much, it's another story if you overdo it all the time. "If a woman eats 1,500 calories a day during the week and eats 2,500 calories on Saturday and Sunday, that certainly may slow down or halt weight loss," says Monika Jacobson, RDN. Even worse, your weekend habits can carry over into the workweek, Spence adds.
Indeed, this kind of "eating jet lag" can ultimately lead to a higher BMI, according to a December 2019 study in Nutrients. Researchers looked at the habits of over 1,000 people and found that an irregular eating schedule during the weekend was linked to a higher BMI regardless of a person's quality of diet or level of physical activity.
Fortunately, there are ways you can stay on track and enjoy your weekend, too. Try these smart strategies to help you let loose a bit without completely wrecking your diet.
1. Plan Your Splurges
When you're anticipating a fun weekend, get into the habit of planning for just a few treats that you really, really want, like stuffed french toast for brunch or an ice cream cone at the park.
"It's usually OK to fit a more indulgent meal into the weekend or to have a dessert or two," Jacobson says. Planning out your splurges can help you avoid a calorie catastrophe. And you'll enjoy your treats even more when you have them to look forward to.
2. Keep Your Portions in Check
Even if you limit your splurges to one or two awesome treats, it's still easy to eat too much of them. "Portion sizes are an important part of healthy eating," Spence says.
If you're indulging at home, serve yourself a single helping on a plate or in a bowl instead of eating from the package or container and try not to nosh in front of the TV. Dining out? Restaurants are notorious for offering gigantic portions, but there are still ways to keep your calorie count in check: Order an appetizer as your entrée, split an entrée with your dining companion or have half of your meal wrapped up before it's brought to the table, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends.
3. Have an Accountability Partner
Team up with a friend who's also trying to eat better on the weekend to check in about your food choices and keep each other motivated. There's a good chance you'll think twice about polishing off that pint of ice cream at midnight when you know you have to tell someone about it.
And research backs this up: An August 2016 review published in Patient Preference and Adherence observed that people who use buddy systems or have other forms of social support are 65 percent more likely to maintain their weight loss compared to those who go it alone.
4. Keep a Food Journal
Try writing down everything you eat or drink over the weekend, when you ate it and why. (Yup, even the handful of chips you grabbed in the kitchen or the forkful of chocolate cake you stole off your friend's plate.)
"It presents those pivotal moments to decide, Hmm, do I really want to take the time to track this food or not?" Jacobson says. That alone might be enough to steer you towards healthier choices.
But even if you still decide to indulge, you'll get a better sense where most of your extra calories are coming from and you can start to make changes.
Read more: 10 Dos and Don'ts for Using a Food Diary
5. Learn Your Triggers
Can't seem to resist the gigantic scones at your neighborhood coffee shop? Always need a big bowl of popcorn when you watch Netflix on a lazy Sunday afternoon? Keeping a food journal can also help you identify the scenarios that seem to drive you to overeat, Jacobson points out.
And once you have that knowledge, you can take steps to avoid them. For example, maybe you have breakfast before going out for coffee, so you're not tempted to get a pastry. Or choose to relax on Sunday by getting a pedicure instead of watching TV at home and snacking.
6. Be Mindful About Alcohol
Not only can the calories from wine, beer or cocktails add up fast, but booze also lowers your inhibitions and makes you more likely to overeat. That doesn't mean you need to steer clear of alcohol altogether though.
"What's important is having a plan when you know you're dining out," Spence says. She recommends limiting yourself to two drinks at any given event and having a glass of water after each one.
7. Make Your Favorites Healthier
If you tend to dig into the same not-so-healthy foods every weekend but don't want to give them up, think about how to make them better for you.
For example, try concocting your Saturday morning pancakes with oat or whole-wheat flour and topping them with fruit instead of syrup. Or try splitting the nachos with your friend come dinnertime instead of ordering a plate just for yourself. These kinds of changes might motivate you to keep making smarter choices throughout the day — which could add up to a healthier weekend overall.
8. Switch Up Your Snack Stash
Most people tend to spend more time at home on the weekends where it can be dangerously easy to nibble on whatever might be around, so make it a point to only keep good-for-you stuff on hand.
"Make sure to have fresh fruit in reach and ready to eat. And, have foods on hand like Greek yogurt, which is high in protein, and popcorn, which is high in fiber," Spence says. If those chocolate covered pretzels aren't in the pantry, you can't eat them. Easy.
9. Give Yourself Some Go-to Policies
Saturdays and Sundays tend to be more lax than weekdays, and that lack of routine can make it easier to overeat or make less healthy choices, Jacobson says. While you don't need to stick to rigid rules, having a sense of rhythm can help you eat better most of the time.
For instance, maybe you always start Saturday and Sunday off with a healthy breakfast at home to offset the splurges you'll have later in the day. Or maybe you always have a wholesome snack before dinner at a restaurant, so you're less tempted to plow through the bread basket when you get to your table.
10. Be Active
Working out doesn't just help you offset some of the extra calories you take in on the weekends. In fact, sticking to an exercise regimen might actually encourage you to make healthier choices, a January 2019 study published in the International Journal of Obesity found.
Being active helped prevent people who are overweight or obese from overeating and made it a bit easier for them to stick to their calorie-restricted diet, per a February 2020 study in Health Psychology. The study found that for every additional 10 minutes of physical activity, the risk of diet lapse decreased by 1 percent.
So if Saturday and Sunday are usually your rest days, don't feel like you have to push yourself crazy hard. Try an active recovery day, go for a yoga class, take a leisurely bike ride or meet a friend for a hike.
11. Set a Cutoff Time
Tend to stay up later on Friday and Saturday night? That can mean more time to snack and take in extra junk food calories that you don't need. The solution doesn't have to be going to bed earlier though. (Hey, you gotta catch up on Netflix some time!) Just establish a cutoff time to close up the kitchen for the evening.
If you wake up at 7 a.m.., try wrapping up your eating by 6 p.m. that night. A small September 2015 study published in Cell Metabolism observed that simply sticking to a 10- or 11-hour eating window helped subjects lose an average of about 7 pounds in 16 weeks.
12. Loosen up During the Week
Finally, rethink the idea of weekends as your only chance to enjoy your favorite foods. "My advice would be to get rid of 'cheat days' and try to eat the same every day," Spence says.
"If you have pizza on Friday, that's fine but eat it as you would on a Monday — by stopping after two slices or having it with a salad." When you know you can have your favorites any day of the week, you might be surprised to find that you're less interested in having all of the treats on Saturday or Sunday.
- International Journal of Obesity: "The Influence of 15-Week Exercise Training on Dietary Patterns Among Young Adults"
- Cell Metabolism: "A Smartphone App Reveals Erratic Diurnal Eating Patterns in Humans that Can Be Modulated for Health Benefits"
- Patient Preference and Adherence: "Weight Loss Intervention Adherence and Factors Promoting Adherence: A Meta-Analysis"
- CDC: "How to Avoid Portion Size Pitfalls to Help Manage Your Weight"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Social Facilitation of Eating"
- Nutrients: "Eating Jet Lag: A Marker of the Variability in Meal Timing and Its Association with Body Mass Index"
- Health Psychology: "Is physical activity a risk or protective factor for subsequent dietary lapses among behavioral weight loss participants?"