Weekly Column_120 / August 16, 2012

Eat Up — It’s Your Birthday

By Charles Platkin, PhD

If you’re like millions of Americans, you’re always on a diet, except for those special occasions — like birthdays, family dinners, parties, weddings and christenings, as well as first dance recitals, New Year’s celebrations, bar/bat mitzvahs, retirement dinners or even just weekends. All of these can be excuses for high-calorie indulgence in what I like to call Extra Ordinary Eating.

According to Amy A. Gorin, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown Medical School, one of the primary predictors of weight gain or maintenance is dietary consistency. “Those who maintain the same diet regimen across the week and year are more likely to maintain their weight loss over the following year than those who diet more strictly on weekdays and/or during nonholiday periods,” Gorin says. One possible explanation for this finding is that dietary consistency is a characteristic that develops naturally over time in people who maintain their weight loss.

If you’re wondering whether Extra Ordinary Eating really has any effect on your weight, numbers don’t lie. I made up my own roster of “special days,” and the total came to about 50 per year. If I ate just 500 extra calories on those days (which is not hard to do — it’s about one piece of cake and a scoop of ice cream) that would be about 25,000 calories, or more than 7 pounds a year! Who would have thought that just “letting go” on a few “special days” could add up to so many pounds?

Here are a few tips to avoid gaining weight from all of those Extra Ordinary Eating events.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say: “I’ve already ruined my diet — so it doesn’t matter what I eat now!” I’m not sure how that myth got started, but it’s dangerous for anyone trying to lose or maintain weight. The bottom line is that an extra calorie is an extra calorie — so having a slice of birthday cake doesn’t (or shouldn’t) give you the excuse to eat two more slices. After you’ve had a bowl of ice cream, you don’t have to eat whatever is left in the container. Haven’t you ever heard of cutting your losses? Well, here it’s the opposite: You’re cutting your gains. It’s time to change that all-or-nothing mentality. It’s never too late to stop overindulging.

You might think planning what you’re going to eat beforehand takes the fun and spontaneity out of the occasion, but that’s just not so. You’re probably thinking about what you’re going to eat anyway, so why not make that thinking work for instead of against you? In fact, practicing good eating behavior at special events could actually make you feel relaxed and empowered, not frustrated or disappointed. It gives you the feeling of being in control of your environment, instead of being lured into the dark world of overindulgence. So plan out what and how much you’re going to eat at the event before you even get there — set limits and you’ll feel better. For instance, if you know there is going to be cake and ice cream and you typically have two or sometimes three servings, mentally rehearse having only one serving of each.

We tend to eat unconsciously at these events — shoving food in our mouths without thinking. Sometimes it’s not even very tasty. Be aware of what you’re eating and make sure it tastes great. If the birthday cake or apple pie is not up to par — don’t eat it. Consuming all those calories should at least be worth the price. Instead of “waste not, want not,” try to adopt a “want not, waist not” mentality. In other words, if you don’t really want it, don’t let it go to your waist.

How many times have you heard a family member or friend tell you that you’ll spoil the party if you don’t partake in the food festivities, or it’s bad luck not to have at least one slice of cake? Try to have an answer ready for diet saboteurs. Mentally rehearse a few key phrases like, “Oh, no thanks. I couldn’t eat another thing.” Or even try the truth: “I’m dieting, and eating that piece of cake will completely throw me off track.”

Another idea, when feasible, is to have alternative low-calorie food choices handy by bringing your own.

One of the reasons the Atkins and South Beach diets work in the short run is because you’re too full to eat anything else. So why not eat before the event — stuff yourself with healthy, low-calorie foods so it’s easier to say no.

If you’re prone to emotional eating and you’re going to an event you know is going to be tough (a party thrown by someone you had a falling-out with, your ex’s wedding, etc.), be honest with yourself before the event and allow your feelings of anxiety to come to the surface. Suppressing your feelings by overindulging won’t make the event any less stressful — in fact you’ll likely feel worse if you have to deal with guilt the next day.

We all have great excuses for why we should eat, such as, “It’s a birthday party” or, “After all, it is my friend’s wedding.” Next time, brainstorm and write down all the excuses for why it’s OK to overeat — then, come up with counterarguments to punch holes in your excuses. For example, your excuse buster to, “It’s my friend’s wedding — I want to enjoy myself,” could be, “I’ll enjoy the wedding much more if I dance more and eat less dessert.”

Maybe you say, “I work hard at my job. I live a busy life, and I manage to diet all week long. But once the weekend rolls around, well, I like to enjoy myself. I’m not going to diet on the weekend.” Sound familiar? A study appearing in “Obesity Research” looked at this phenomenon and reported that on weekends (i.e., Friday through Sunday), we tend to eat an additional 115 calories per day, primarily from fat and alcohol. That’s an extra 345 calories per week — enough to add up to an additional 5 pounds a year. Keep that in mind when you’re thinking about splurging this weekend.

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