Have you ever saved up your calories for an indulgent dinner out? It's a common strategy. Whether it's a wedding, an office party, or a date night in a decadent restaurant, intuition tells you that if you simply lay off the calories during the day, you'll have more wiggle room at night. Inevitably though, along with that extra wiggle room comes more hunger.
Remember, hunger always wins out. There's no doubt that if you save up your calories for dinner, by the time dinner finally comes around, your body's drive to survive will have taken over and you can kiss thoughtful restraint goodbye.
So why not consider a new strategy, "pre-eating"? The setup is simple. Along with your daytime meals and snacks, have an additional 150 to 200 calories just before you head out the door. The rationale is simple too. The less hungry you are when you show up, the greater your ability to navigate the night out's social pressures to eat, menus, and/or other indulgent, festive choices.
To help illustrate the point, let's run through some simple and fairly typical night-out calorie math:
Scenario: You've cut back all day long knowing you're going to one of your favorite restaurants with the gang for dinner. When you arrive, you're ravenous, and so before you've even picked up the menu you're dipping into the warm, fresh bread basket, combining a small dinner roll with some heavenly butter or olive oil (150 calories). When the waiter offers a pre-dinner drink, you of course order a glass of wine (125 calories) and then settle in to enjoy the menu. Given how "good" you've been all day long (and how hungry you are now), you select a tantalizing appetizer and opt for a somewhat indulgent entree (the healthier sounding one didn't really speak to your hunger-fueled desires). You make short work of the appetizer when it arrives (300 to 900 calories), and you nearly finish your main course (1,200 to 1,500 calories). When the waiter asks if you'd like more wine, you readily agree (125 calories). Then comes dessert. Bolstered in part by your daytime restraint, and in part because the mere thought of chocolate makes your mouth water, you decide to share one (300 to 600 calories).
What's the damage? Somewhere between 2,200 and 3,400 calories—up to two days' worth for some folks. And let's not forget that while you may have cut back during the day, you undoubtedly still ate something, likely on the order of 600 calories, bringing your grand total up to between 2,800 and 4,000 calories.
Now let's say you "pre-eat" before heading out. During your day, you have all of your usual meals and snacks (1,000 calories worth), but just before dinner, you eat a protein bar (150 calories). Consequently, when you sit down to eat, you simply aren't hungry. So you skip the bread and the appetizer, order the healthier main (the indulgent option doesn't scream your name when you're full) and only eat half of it (400 to 600 calories). You order wine with dinner—but not a pre-meal glass—(125 calories) and you still share a dessert (300 to 600 calories). Your total for the meal: 825 to 1,325 calories; for the day: 1,975 to 2,475 calories. Sure, that may still be a calorie surplus. But pre-eating can help keep you—not your hunger—in the driver's seat.
Pre-eating may be counterintuitive, but it's surprisingly powerful. If you find yourself struggling when you eat out after having skimped on daytime calories, why not give pre-eating a try? Spending a few hundred daytime calories (say, on that protein bar) to save a few thousand nighttime ones—why, that's some healthy math.
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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and is also easily reachable on Twitter. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work will be published by Simon & Schuster's Free Press in April 2013.