Healthier Ways to Indulge on Fat Tuesday

February 9, 2016

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Today is Fat Tuesday—which, in Chicago, also means it’s Paczki Day, a traditional Polish pastry that the bakeries here and in other Polish pockets around the country can hardly keep in stock! 

Whether you’re religious or not, you may still be getting into the Mardi Gras spirit and planning to indulge with your favorite treats.

And if you’re going into it fully and don’t want to hear about diet or exercise today, go for it! Indulgences are essential to keep your mental willpower strong for the rest of the days of the week when you’re making healthy choices—and it’s possible the resulting stomachache will remind you why you don’t do it very often! 😉

But if you want to be involved in the Fat Tuesday festivities without totally destroying your nutrition for the day, here are some steps you can take to have your King Cake and eat it too, as it were. 


Plan Your Attack

What is your all-time favorite indulgence? Perhaps it’s Paczki or another decadent pastry. Perhaps you’re more like me and salty food is your weakness—fries or popcorn maybe.

Maybe your indulgence extends to an entire meal—a big plate of pasta with garlic bread, for example, or my husband’s all-time favorite, flaky, creamy chicken pot pie.

Whatever it is you love most, plan to eat it today! It’s not a normal day and that makes it the perfect time to indulge in that craving you often have and push to the side.

There’s an underlying but here, however, which I’m sure you knew was coming. Indulging in your favorite food will be so worth it, but there’s no need to write the entire day off as a failure because you’re planning one indulgence. 

Once you’ve chosen what you’re going to treat yourself with today, ignore all the other options. Perhaps someone at your office was nice enough to bring in donuts this morning. That may be tempting, but if you’ve already promised yourself a big burrito for dinner, there’s no need to touch those donuts. They weren’t part of your plan. 

Acknowledging what you’re going to indulge in gives you power over your food choices. You’re choosing to give yourself a break for a day, but also planning your day so that the indulgence is just that. 


Work it Out

It’s not quite true that you can “work off” a treat. Sure, if you eat a pastry you know is 300 calories and then run three miles, you’ve burned about the equivalent number of extra calories you consumed in your day, but there’s no magical formula. 

“Exercise does not perfectly offset indulgences,” says registered dietitian Marisa Moore, RD, president of the Georgia Dietetic Association based in Atlanta, via everydayhealth.com.

And living and dying by every calorie you take in or burn can turn into an obsession fast. Ultimately, your day should not be spent poring over calories. 

Still, there’s no denying that working out for any amount of time is great for your health.

Just make sure that you’re really getting your heart pumping. 30 minutes of vigorous exercise is much better than an hour walking 3 mph on the treadmill while you read a magazine—though it’s all relative, of course. The latter is still preferable to vegging on the couch. 


Give Yourself a Break

Ultimately, if you maintain a healthy diet the majority of the time, one Fat Tuesday indulgence is not going to derail you.

While planning out your day in terms of what you’ll eat outside of your treat and how you’ll get your body moving can give you some control over your decisions, if mentally what you really need is a day to indulge without thinking about it, you know your body’s needs better than anyone. 

The good news, too, is that if you’re an active person with a decent amount of muscle mass, your body is burning calories effectively even when at rest. Muscle mass doesn’t affect your resting metabolic rate (RMR) as much as you may have heard—it accounts for 20 to 25 percent of it, per Claude Bouchard of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center via the LA Times—but it’s still something. 

Per Bouchard, a pound of muscle burns six calories a day at rest and a pound of fat burns about two calories a day.

An occasional instance of high-calorie food intake can also spike your metabolism, per Chris Aceto of muscleandfitness.com. “The downside to creating an energy deficit is that the body often adapts to the shortfall in calories by burning fewer of them,” Aceto writes. 

I personally don’t like the term “cheat day” or “cheat meal,” because it demonizes food. If you’re maintaining a healthy, nutritious diet filled with fresh fruits and vegetables and lean protein 90 percent of the time, an occasional Paczki is not going to have a huge impact on your overall health. It will certainly spike your blood sugar and potentially upset your stomach, but if it’s a special occasion and you’re planning to indulge, ultimately you just need to live your life and not stress about food. 

While I strongly believe that food should be a source of nutrients and not an emotional reward or source of comfort, the fact is that it also plays a very important role in our culture, and sometimes you just need to have a Fat Tuesday!

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