Let’s follow up on my article a couple of weeks ago about how to say “no, thank you” at social and family gatherings, particularly those like Thanksgiving that are centered around food and drink.
As mentioned in that article, many of us might not need or want to say “no, thank you” on occasions such as these.
Thanksgiving isn’t the only time we might want to ease off on our “healthy” habits, either.
There are other holidays.
There are weddings.
There are date nights.
There are social activities with friends.
Many of us might want to participate in some of the food and drink that play a part in making such occasions so enjoyable.
After all, health is not just physical, and many of us don’t have any medical reason (e.g. allergies or intolerances) to abstain during these kinds of occasions.
A friend of mine even pointed this out in a comment on my Facebook share of that article.
“Eat and drink whatever you want on thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and day. 5 days a year won’t ruin your life.”
In many cases, he’s right.
If your primary consideration for keeping your eating, sleeping, and other healthy habits in line is your body composition, then occasional indulgences absolutely can fit in your routine if you’d like them to.
If, however, these occasional deviations become “not so occasional”, or “this one time” isn’t “this one time”, they can end up having a bigger impact that we’d anticipated.
Quantifying the effects of occasional deviations
For simplicity’s sake, we’ll use energy balance as our metric for how our food choices on these occasions affect our body composition.
Of course, it’s true that our eating habits affect us in many more ways than energy balance.
It’s also true that energy balance is complex, and that energy intake and expenditure aren’t independent variables.
However, for the purpose of this post, referring to the effects of food on our body composition in terms of calories will have to suffice.
So, let’s look at just how much of an effect five days of indulgence might have on our body composition.
Actually, let’s go ahead and throw our birthday into the mix, for a total of six days.
Now, let’s imagine that on each of these six days, we say “screw it” and go all out.
We end up storing over 3000 kcals of body fat on each of these six days.
I pick 3000 extra kcals because it’s a fairly substantial amount, but still pretty doable.
This might look something like a large entrée (BBQ cheese fries, anyone?), a dessert, and five beers (your boy doesn’t drink Bud Light).
Now, chances are, even if we were to eat over 3000 kcals above the amount required to maintain our body weight on a single day, there’s a good chance we won’t store it all as fat.
But let’s just assume that we eat enough to store 3000 kcals of extra energy as fat.
If we’re otherwise eating minimally processed food, managing our stress, sleeping well, and have addressed any emotional ties to food, many of us will experience a decrease in appetite and uptick in thermogenesis and physical activity to compensate (at least in part) for this acute influx of energy.
Some of us might even be back to baseline within a week or so with little to no effort.
However, for those of us who like to track our food intake and use our estimated energy intake to steer our eating decisions, we can take a closer look at what these deviations look like.
If on each of these six days we store 3000 kcals of excess energy on our bodies, we’d have to in some way account for a total of 18,000 kcals to remain weight stable.
Over the course of a year, 18,000 kcals is equivalent to just a hair over 50 kcals/day.
Over the course of six months, that’s about 100 kcals/day.
Over the course of three months, we’re looking at 200 kcals/day.
Over the course of a month and half, we’re talking 400 kcals/day – well within what might be considered a reasonable caloric deficit for fat loss.
And that’s if we wanted to account for all six of those days within one single time frame.
Looking at it a different way, if we assume that you need approximately 2000 kcals/day to maintain your weight, these 18,000 kcals accounts for only about 2.5% of your total caloric intake over the course of a year.
For those of us with higher energy needs, which isn’t an unreasonable possibility, those 18,000 kcals represent an even lower portion of our overall energetic intake.
I’m not pointing this out to suggest that you need to count calories in order to “compensate” or “account” in some way for these deviations.
Personally, I’m a bigger fan of getting better in tune with hunger signals as a means for maintaining body composition.
What I am pointing out, however, is just how insignificant six days can be in the context of otherwise consistently eating in alignment with your goals.
That is, those six days don’t really amount to much if we are consistently nailing your habits those other 359 days of the year.
So, if that’s the case, then why do so many of us feel like we do have to pay so much attention on days like these?
Because often we’re not exactly nailing our habits all 359 other days of the year.
When “occasional” isn’t so occasional
Maybe it’s a monthly poker night.
Maybe it’s a monthly happy hour.
There are weddings, date nights, and all those times when we want or “deserve” a treat.
These all add up, and the more often we take the opportunity to indulge, the more diligent we’re going to have to be in order to minimize these indulgences’ effects on our waistlines.
What if, on top of these six days per year, we add in another day per month?
This means we’re looking at 18 days out of the year on which we’re having these deviations.
Still might not sound like much, but, instead of 18,000 kcals, we’re looking at 54,000 kcals.
Now we’re looking at a difference of 155 kcals/day over the course of a year.
Now we’re looking at a difference of 311 kcals/day over the course of six months.
Now we’re looking at a difference of 622 kcals/day over the course of three months.
Over a month and a half?
Well, that’s a rather unrealistic 1245 kcals/day.
While accounting for this magnitude and frequency of deviations might still be doable, we’re now looking at an entirely different situation than the original six “occasional” deviations.
Now we’re looking at having to nearly constantly eat less that we need, day in and day out.
Just to maintain weight.
Just to maintain a number on the scale.
Now we might be looking at chronic dieting.
Now we might be looking at yo-yo weight loss.
Depending on the emotions involved, we might even be looking at a binge/restrict cycle (and you might want to talk to somebody).
Again, I’m not breaking down the calorie counts to suggest that you need to count calories.
That may or may not be an appropriate approach for you, and that decision is beyond the scope of this post.
My point in breaking things down this way is to quantify as simply as I can the impact that these deviations might have on our body composition.
They add up.
When moderation isn’t so moderate
What if you’re not one of these “balls to the wall” kinds of people?
What if you’re not the type of person to have days of significant indulgence?
What if, instead, you just like the weekly treat?
This has the potential to be even more pernicious.
Three beers, at 250 kcals each, every week, equates to 39,000 kcals over the course of a year.
One larger-than-normal meal, at 1000 extra kcals, each week, equates to 52000 kcals over the course of a year.
Even these kinds of deviations, if not paid attention to, could easily be enough to make you spin your wheels, or even gain fat, if you’re not vigilant about what you’re eating the rest of the time.
Now, of course, you could certainly count your calories, track your weight, and account for these indulgences with no long-term ill effect.
If this is what you want to do, more power to you.
I don’t mean that in a sarcastic way.
That’s a perfectly fine approach for many people.
Lots of folks, though, just don’t want to put that much effort into their eating habits.
Lots of folks are looking for a way to maintain a lean, strong, healthy physique without having to stress over food.
For those folks, it pays to pay attention to these kinds of deviations, and determine what impact they might be having on their progress.
What purpose do these deviations serve?
It would be negligent of me not to suggest that you might also ask yourself what these deviations mean to you.
Do they serve as means for celebration with friends and family?
If so, there’s a good chance completely in alignment with your efforts to live a healthy, satisfying life.
However, it’s not uncommon for these deviations to be indicative of deeper underlying problems unrelated to food.
Do they serve as “rewards” or “breaks” because your normal habits are intolerable?
Do they serve as something to look forward to in an otherwise unsatisfying life?
Do they serve as ways of coping with negative emotions like guilt, shame, or loneliness?
Do they serve as anchors of control in a life in which you’re unhappy with your circumstances?
Do they serve to hold you back from your goals because deep down you feel unworthy of success?
If one of these is the case, you might want to take a step back and ask how you might address the real issue with something other than food.
There’s much value in assessing just what role these deviations are playing.
What value do they provide?
There is no right or wrong answer.
The answer, however, might help you determine just what role they play in your life.
Let’s wrap this thing up with discussing the key takeaways.
1) If you’re otherwise consistently nailing your eating habits, a few deviations here and there really won’t make that big of a difference in the grand scheme of things.
2) Deviations add up, and if we feel like we’re not making the progress we want to, we might want to take an honest look at our habits to determine if we’re actually being as consistent as we think we are.
3) Deviations serve lots of purposes, and figuring out what purpose they serve is a key step in figuring out what role they might play in our efforts.
If you’re pretty comfortable with where you’re at in terms of body composition and have a handle on your hunger signals and/or what and how much to eat to reach your goals, you might be able to handle more deviations.
If you’re not comfortable with where you’re at in terms of body composition and don’t quite have a handle on your hunger signals and/or what and how much to eat to reach your goals, you might not be in a place to handle as many deviations.
Regardless, you might keep in mind just how much or how little these deviations mean in the context of your overall habits, and remember that what you eat is entirely up to you.
There is no right or wrong answer.
There is no “one size fits all” approach.
The only approach you need to pay any attention to is the one that works for you – deviations or not.
It’s critical we be honest with ourselves.
You’ve got this.