When we look at health, there is more than just physical health. There is emotional, intellectual, economic, psychological and also social health. If you are currently following or just starting a new way of healthy eating and being physically active it’s important that you are filling the bucket of social health as well, especially if that’s something you truly value.
It’s important to find a balance that works for you - some people really nail their weekday nutrition but let their hair down a little too much on the weekend and then wonder why they aren’t seeing progress. When we look at energy balance it is important to focus on averages over time - 7 days typically. If you nail your calories Mon-Thurs but Friday-Sun are blowouts, you could be knocking yourself out of a deficit and into a surplus, stunting your lean muscle development, or experiencing diet fatigue from trying so hard during the week and not getting results.
Here are a few tips for you to try. Keep in mind that not every strategy will work for everyone. These are just some options to add to your tool belt.
Keep a focus of protein, plants and wholefoods
When you’re ordering off the menu look for the food sources that are still aligned with your goals. Identify the things of most importance – my recommendation is always protein, which has the greatest positive influence on satisfying your hunger and keeping you feeling full.
Ensure there is a base of protein and plants before you add carb or fat dense foods. And, as always, try to avoid processed foods as much as possible. If, for example, treating yourself to brunch with friends – try going with a vegetarian big breakfast, which will feature more vegetables rather than a traditional big brekky which is loaded with processed meats like bacon and sausages.
Get creative with your catch-ups
Catching up with your friends and family doesn’t always have to revolve around food and drinks. Try getting outdoors or doing something active with them instead! You could do something as simple as going for a walk, a swim at the beach or a bike ride together. You could even try something new together like indoor rock climbing, joining a team sport or becoming work-out partners.
If you absolutely must have food and drinks as part of your catch-up, try and have something quick and small instead of a sit-down meal. Instead of a full English brekky, go for a walk and grab a takeaway coffee.
Budget in some extra calories
There is no such thing as “good and bad calories”, though the best option is always to eat nutrient-rich wholefoods rather than “hollow calories” in junk foods. Use your calories wisely to make sure they are effectively fuelling your body with the energy and nutrients it needs!
When it comes to energy balance for weight maintenance or fat loss, we look at averages over time rather than each day individually. For example, if your target calories are 2000 per day, multiply that by seven and your weekly calories are 14000. Realistically, you could opt for three days at 1800, leaving 600 calories leftover for use on a Saturday - and you’d still be on your calories target. This can be a slippery slope for some, but it is a useful and viable strategy for others.
Provided you have a positive relationship with food, you could create a bit of a calorie buffer by reducing some carbs and fats in meals before and/or after a meal out. Try and weigh up what is most important to you – an extra sushi roll for a work lunch today, or sharing a cheese platter with friends on a Friday night? For example: if you’re going out for some ice cream that night, you might just have some yogurt and fruit for breakfast instead of adding cereal and peanut butter.
Pre-eat some protein and fibre
Once again, protein and plants are the kings and queens of satiety (helping you feel fuller for longer). This can prevent you from going into a social and tempting setting like a hungry dog that’s just been let off its leash. By having a filling snack like a protein shake before going out, you will be less tempted to binge on calorie-dense junk foods.
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Be mindful of alcohol and liquid calories
Liquid calories can really stack up, especially when they are alcoholic. Not only that but alcohol also reduces inhibitions and actually stimulates appetite, meaning by the end of a big night you are more likely to say “to hell!” with your diet and march straight to the kebab shop.
By all means, enjoy a beverage (in moderation), but just be mindful of how it affects your hunger, your self-control and potentially your choices when it comes to food. With alcohol, also think about your minimum enjoyable dose or your magic number (the amount you can drink, enjoy yourself and still feel in control of making good choices).
If indulging in a drink, be smart about your choice of beverage. Where it might seem obvious to avoid sugary premixed drinks and cocktails, your standard favourites of beer and wine can also be quiet killers of progress.
On average, a large glass of wine or a schooner of beer contain around 162 calories. Instead, a clear spirit such as vodka mixed with soda water and fresh lime comes in at as little as 60 calories.
Be aware of sneaky calories
When you eat out a restaurant, you have no control over added ingredients like oil, salt, and butter in your food. All these are used to make your dish super tasty because that’s the chef’s job - to make you enjoy the food so much that you come back for more!
Unfortunately, some of the most rewarding ingredients to eat also tend to be really high in fat, sugar and sodium. Always account for extra calories (especially from oils) even if opting for a “healthy” protein and plant-based meal. There are always more calories in a meal you’ve bought out compared to a similar meal you’ve prepared yourself – hidden in things like salad dressings, fried foods and added fats.
Reconsider your appetite
The serving sizes in restaurants tend to be far bigger than we actually need in order to satisfy the customers perception of value. Imagine the 250g steak at your local pub, a greasy Pad Thai and especially your go-to pasta dish at your family’s favourite Italian place. How many of those can you actually finish? Often when eating out we force ourselves to eat the point of discomfort because we paid for it! Or, we are concerned about waste.
Try to reformat the way your order your meals. Think realistically about how much you need to eat, and try to go for a “healthier” option where possible. Ask a friend if they’d like to share, order an entree as your main, or eat half the dish and take the rest home for tomorrow.
When deciding what you’d like to order, try to visualise your meal on the plate. A handy way to remember a recommended serving size is to stick to
A palm-sized source of protein
Two handfuls vegetables, salad or fruit
One cupped handful of carbohydrates
A thumb sized portion of healthy fat
Some easy-to-order meal suggestions that follow this general format are
Pub meal: steak or salmon with a side of salad or veggies
Burger: don’t order the extra chips, stick to one patty
Café brekky: eggs, avocado, extra veg (spinach, tomatoes) with a side of ham or salad – skip the hash browns and extra bread
Mexican: opt for a burrito bowl rather than a wrap, don’t order extra guac and go easy on the cheese and sour cream
A few final key points
Remember that social health is important. You don’t need to restrict yourself and only eat out of Tupperware containers if you’re trying to eat a bit healthier and lose a bit of weight.
Eating out doesn’t have to be a write-off. You can look at the menu online before you arrive and take some time before you decide what to eat. See if you can pick some protein and plants whilst factoring in meal enjoyment and extra calories that chef might sneak in to make the food taste good.
One meal won’t undo your hard work, but you also don’t need a cheat day. Look at consistency and averages over time. Blowing out on the weekends can affect your energy balance so finding a way to manage your social eating can help you move towards your goals whilst living a happy, social and healthy life.