Dieters who “take weekends off” rarely succeed in their attempts at fat loss. Fat loss requires that you’re in a caloric deficit over the course of a week, meaning you’ve eaten less energy than you’ve expended through life and exercise.
You might be “dieting” in the sense that you’re putting effort into your nutrition habits and potentially feeling restricted most of the time, but you’re not losing weight. This can happen because strict, low calorie weekdays are offset by high calories over the weekend. This is ineffective and also reflects a black-and-white, “on” or “off” mentality in relation to nutrition, which is deeply unhelpful for sustainable dieting.
Here’s a pattern I see frequently in clients when they first come to see me: Friday work drinks, Saturday brunch, beers and chips at the pub and takeaway dinners become the weekend norm. Alcohol, mindless eating, high-calorie food choices and a “cheat day” mentality stack on calories. Regular meal timing, lean protein selection, and fruit and veggie consumption fall by the wayside in exchange for convenience and enjoyment every weekend.
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Feeling determined but deprived during the week then giving in to every impulse Friday through Sunday create a potent mix for feeling like you’ve tried hard, but actually making zero progress.
None of this is to say you shouldn’t include social meals or deviate from your nutrition plan. You can (and probably should) continue to eat out, share meals with friends, enjoy some treats and feel free to drink alcohol during a fat loss phase. Sustainability is a core tenet of effective dieting and weight loss maintenance. Learning to swap the “on” and “off” mentality for a more moderate approach is a non-negotiable skill that I require from my clients. The following are things you can consider when it comes to managing weekends more effectively when dieting.
Consider whether you can socialize smarter. I’ve outlined a number of strategies to help you practice flexible restraint rather than complete restriction in this piece. Having an arsenal of tools to help you make better decisions in the moment can be the difference between repeating behaviors each week that help or that harm your fat loss. All the strategies outlined in that piece come back to the same concept: slowing down the time between the moment of desire and the moment of decision. Slowing down can prevent impulsive choices that you may regret later.
Calorie banking is a common method for managing calories when a high-calorie meal is coming up. This means eating fewer calories leading up to an occasion. A common method of calorie banking is skipping breakfast and lunch in favor of having more available calories for dinner. I don’t recommend calorie banking to this degree. It can backfire if you end up over-hungry and indulge more than you intended to simply due to hunger. Being too hungry will likely reduce your ability to make good decisions about your food. I also think it feeds the unhelpful idea that you should be rewarded for food restriction.
A better way to execute the calorie banking strategy is to continue to eat throughout the day, with an emphasis on protein and plants, giving you space to skim off 100-200 calories from your usual meals. For example, if you normally eat 100g of oats with full-fat milk for breakfast, you could eat 50g of oats cooked in water with two handfuls of berries and a big scoop of greek yogurt, leaving you feeling more full but for fewer calories. This can allow you to keep your calories in check and have a drink or a higher-calorie meal, without leaving you starving or expecting a free-for-all, no-consequence meal.
You could build space into your diet plan for social meals. This is known as the “slack with a cost” strategy, a term coined by Stronger by Science. Consider this strategy like budgeting. If you live week-to-week and spend all of your paycheck, you have nothing left at the end of the week. If you save some money each week you can create savings to spend on special occasions. The slack with a cost strategy works the same way. If we view your calorie budget like a paycheck, you set a “budget” of calories for each day that creates a calorie deficit for the week. To make space for “savings” within your calorie budget, each day you create an additional reserve (deficit) of 100 calories. At the end of the week you have 700 calories saved. If you don’t spend those 700 calories on food, you reach your goal faster. Win! If you do spend those 700 calories, you’ve still stayed on “budget” to hit your target deficit anyway.
One underutilized strategy (in my opinion) is to increase physical activity in social settings. Ask your friends to go for a walk, play a game of soccer or basketball, throw a ball around on the beach, or any other range of activities that don’t involve eating or drinking. It might be counterculture but it’s often refreshing and fun to do something different together. It may even be more memorable than the inside of yet another pub.
Ask yourself whether you’re rewarding yourself with food for your weekday diet efforts. Eating a nutritious and balanced diet shouldn’t be a virtuous act that deserves rewarding. If you’ve worked so hard or felt so starved that you feel you need rewarding, you may have used an unsustainable approach. It’s also not a good idea to use food as your primary reward mechanism - it may have a place in a toolkit of ways to treat yourself, but shouldn’t be the only option.
Using these strategies can help you escape the pattern of being a “weekday dieter”. Eating more calories, whether that puts you at a smaller deficit, at maintenance, or at a small surplus - is fine. The objective is to maintain a deficit throughout the course of the whole week. If you can do that, you’ll be successful in your dieting attempts.