After receiving some news releases telling sports fans how many calories are in buffalo wings and advising them to "eat like an athlete" on Super Bowl Sunday, I was mildly fed up. Yes, I know Americans are already fat. Sure, I realize that cut-up veggies and hummus are a more nutritious option than nachos and sour cream dip. And clearly, sitting on the sofa making rude comments about the commercials won't burn as many calories as a quick outdoor jog during halftime. But I did the math: Even if you put away 1,000 or 2,000 extra calories on top of your normal intake, you can probably compensate for that with diet and exercise in the following week. What's the big deal about an occasional day of eating yourself into oblivion?
Not so surprisingly, nutritionists, when I posed this question to them, had other ideas. Here's why they say that a pigskin pigout is not such a great idea.
1. The definition of "special occasion" tends to expand. It can be a slippery slope; first you decide you can eat whatever you want on Thanksgiving, then you give yourself license on Christmas and Super Bowl Sunday, and the next thing you know you're going crazy when it's "someone's birthday at the office," says Tara Gidus, a nutrition performance coach and an American Dietetic Association spokesperson. "If you're doing it on a regular basis, you will see a lasting effect in terms of weight," she says.
2. The next day might be ugly. If you eat relatively well most of the time, a one-day grease-, beer- and salt-fest isn't likely to sit well with your stomach, says Heather Bauer, founder of Nu-Train, a nutrition counseling center in New York City. That means bloating and stomach upset. Moreover, she says, some people crave the foods they ate the day before, which sets them up for another day of overindulging . . . and another. . . .
3. It might give you misleading feedback. It takes a few days for the scale to reflect a meal—for good and for bad. That means you could eat healthfully all week and see the scale not budge . . . then see it read a pound lower the day after a big feast. "You think, 'I lose weight when I eat like crap,' " Bauer says. And that might make you wonder if you shouldn't eat like that more often.
4. It's easier and better for you to just plan smaller indulgences. "Keep it to one meal," suggests Bauer. Rather than eating constantly, pregame to post-, put together a portion-controlled meal of your favorites. If you're snacking, limit yourself to one napkin or small cocktail plate an hour, again with calories in mind, she says.
5. You can easily make healthy substitutions. You'd be surprised how many calories you can avoid by making just a few menu changes. And people may not even notice the difference, says dietitian Sari Greaves, also an ADA spokesperson. Instead of a seven-layer dip and regular chips, get the low-fat or baked chips and dip them in salsa. Cut up small pieces of low-fat cheese and skip the crackers. Mix a few nuts with a handful of whole-grain cereal and munch on that rather than straight nuts. (U.S. News writers offered healthier alternatives to Final Four munchies last year, as well as 10 easy recipe swaps that take advantage of foods with high water content.)
To be honest, I didn't really expect any nutritionist to give the A-OK to an all-out football eating-fest, but I did find one! Alan Aragon, a nutritionist in Thousand Oaks, Calif., says many of his clients prefer to macro-manage their eating—that is, to worry about their calorie balance over a week or so rather than within a day. For them, he has a few different strategies: Work out twice as much as you usually do that day; accept that you're going to eat what you want and will have to work off an extra pound or two of fat and water over the next couple of weeks; drastically cut back on what you eat before the game or the day after the game; or some combination of eating very little before and after the game and working out more. "They'd rather be human beings at the party than skimp and pick at carrots and broccoli," says Aragon. (For his other clients, he recommends portion control and lots of fruits, veggies, and water.)
Aragon's ideas may not be in line with what other experts said (although there is a school of thought that says fasting can be an effective weight-loss tool and can offer other health benefits), but everyone agreed that one day of "bad" eating will not a life ruin. Do what works for you and enjoy the game.