There’s a tradeoff between fitness and socializing, but you can have it both ways.
If we’re being honest, most of us aren’t into fitness for our health.
Sure, if you’re obese maybe your doctor told you to lose weight. But for the rest of us, fitness is really about looking good.
We want sixpack abs. We want a chiseled jaw. We want broad shoulders, a tight butt and a slim waist.
In short, we’re in this for the social benefits. We’re in it to look sexy, to get more dates. To look cool and win the admiration of our peers.
And that leads us to the great tragedy of fitness: our social lives have an unfortunate habit of derailing our diets and keeping us out of the gym.
There’s the game day pizza. The late night burritos. The after-work cocktails. The birthday cake.
And of course, the beer. So much beer.
The fact of the matter is, social activity tends to revolve around eating and drinking. You can go out less, you can drink less when you do go out, you can order the salad, but you can’t avoid this conflict altogether.
If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll mess up your macros and end up skinny fat.
Thankfully, you don’t have to choose between having an active social life and getting into amazing shape. You can’t binge on pizza and beer several times a week, true- but with a little moderation and forethought, you can get away with a little bit of drinking and junk food, without totally derailing your diet. Here’s how.
Overcompensate when eating alone
Say it’s Friday, and you have a dinner with friends coming up later that night. Even if you don’t know exactly what you’ll be eating, you can make a few educated guesses about the nutritional content of that meal
You can almost guarantee that whatever you have for dinner will be higher in both carbs and total calories than a typical meal you’d eat at home. In all likelihood, it will also have more fat, less protein, and fewer vitamins and minerals.
The solution here is simple: make your non-social meals the opposite of that.
If you know you’re having dinner with friends, for instance, make every other meal that day high in protein and vegetables, low in fat, and almost completely devoid of carbs.
Additionally, keep the overall portion size small.
As examples: a following this strategy, a good breakfast might consist of a protein shake or a few turkey sausages, plus some spinach or carrots and celery. A good lunch might be a chicken salad, sans dressing.
Schedule cheat meals in anticipation of social events
Most people can afford to have one or two cheat meals a week.
If you know you tend to cheat when eating with friends, you should never, ever waste your cheat meal allotment when eating by yourself. Instead, save your cheat meals for those Friday and Saturday nights, or whenever you know you have a social dinner planned.
To further limit the damage, fast for several hours before those meals in order to partially deplete your glycogen stores- limiting the number of calories that spill over into fat stores.
There may also be some rare occasions when you plan on having not just a single cheat meal, but an entire cheat day. Perhaps you’re going to a big outdoor music festival, or Disneyland. In that case, you’ll want to schedule that as a refeed day.
To prepare for a refeed day, perform a glycogen depletion workout the day before- keep your heart rate up for half an hour, and don’t carb up afterward.
The day after your refeed day, you can take advantage of the metabolic boost to burn more fat by fasting- more on that later.
Refeed days need to be used sparingly- no more than once every week or two if you’re under 10% body fat if you’re a man, or 20% if you’re a woman. If you’re over that, limit them to once every 2-4 weeks.
Practice intermittent fasting
Intermittent fasting is another great way to give yourself a little more leeway with your social meals. Since fasting reduces the number of meals you eat per week, it allows you to eat more calories per meal without ruining your diet.
There are two intermittent fasting protocols that are particularly effective for keeping your social life from ruining your diet.
First off, there’s 16/8 fasting (14/10 for women), aka Leangains. In this protocol, you limit your eating to an 8-hour window each day, ideally timing your workouts for the beginning of that eating window.
Leangains is a great protocol for developing your body composition– in other words, getting ripped. Since it potentially cuts your number of meals per day in half, this style allows each meal to have a much higher calorie content, and can also make it easier to eat at a deficit on days when your social life isn’t pulling you off course.
Second, we have the Eat-Stop-Eat method, wherein you fast for 24 hours once or twice a week, without trying to “make up” those calories on other days. While Eat-Stop-Eat is great for fat loss and insulin sensitivity on its own, it really shines when used as part of a feast/fast schedule.
A feast/fast schedule is simple: you have a cheat day, with a 24-hour fast either the day before, the day after, or both.
When you fast the day before a cheat day, you lose fat that day- but additionally, you deplete your glycogen stores, thus greatly limiting the fat gain from the cheat day, since your cheat day calories will replenish those glycogen stores before they spill over into fat.
When you fast after a cheat day, you can also accelerate fat loss. In this case, it works because your cheat day spikes fat-burning hormones like T4, T3, and leptin- and you can take full advantage of that boost by dedicating the following day to fat loss.
Neither of these protocols are an excuse to just cheat all the time- you still need to limit yourself to one cheat day, or two cheat meals, per week- less if you’re not very lean yet.
That said, either of these protocols, or both combined, can make it a lot easier to enjoy meals with friends without paying for it on the scale.
Pre-emptively fill up on healthy foods- the crowding out principle
There are three important things you should know about how food makes you feel full.
First off, how full food makes you depends partly on how many calories it has, partly on what it’s made off, and partly on the volume of the food.
Fat and protein are more filling than carbs. Vegetables are very filling, for how few calories they have.
In other words, a hundred calories of meat and vegetables is far more filling than a hundred calories of cereal.
Second, there’s a delay between when you eat food, and when it makes you feel full. This delay can be anywhere from ten to thirty minutes. If you have a history of being overweight, it’s probably closer to 30 minutes for you.
Third, if you’re even a little bit dehydrated, your body can easily mistake that feeling for hunger. The “thirst” and “hunger” wires in our brains can get crossed very, very easily.
Adding all three of these factors up, we can see a simple principle for blunting hunger and preventing over-eating: fill up on water and more filling foods before each meal. There are a few ways to do this.
First off, if you’re headed out to a social meal, have a small, filling snack before leaving home. A hundred calories of beef jerky and a few carrot sticks would be ideal for this purpose.
Second, as soon as you sit down for the meal, have at least one glass of water. Fill up on water so thirst doesn’t trick you into overeating.
Third, and most counterintuitively, have an appetizer before the main course.
Yeah, I know it seems like the thing to do is skip appetizers and just have your entree. But we’re not talking about nachos here- the appetizer you’re looking for is a vegetable dish with very few calories- something like a side salad, fried zucchini, or vegetable tray.
By combining all three of these rules, you can use healthy food- and water- to crowd junk food out of your diet. By the time cheat foods are placed in front of you, limiting your intake won’t feel like a struggle. You simply won’t be hungry enough to overeat.
Get light physical activity after cheat meals
Eating a few hundred extra calories wouldn’t be a problem, if only you could guarantee that those calories would go to your muscles instead of fat stores.
Fortunately, there is a way to do this- it involves a little-known protein called glucose transporter type four (GLUT-4).
GLUT-4 causes your muscles to take up glucose, without recourse to insulin. GLUT-4 receptors are activated by muscle contractions.
In other words, working your muscles causes them to absorb glucose, keeping it away from your fat cells. And if you’ve just eaten a meal, this will also blunt the insulin response from that meal.
To take advantage of GLUT-4, just do some light bodyweight exercises after you have a cheat meal- or any meal containing a significant amount of carbohydrate, for that matter. This can be as simple as excusing yourself to go to the restroom, and doing a couple minutes of air squats and wall push-ups in one of the stalls.
Of course, this isn’t a cheat code that gives you a blank check to overeat. This only works until your muscles completely fill up their glycogen stores. Once your tanks are full, any excess is going to fat, no matter what you do.
At the end of the day, you still have to not overeat.
GLUT-4 activation is a nice little hack that lets you eat a few hundred calories over maintenance without getting fat- but only once or twice a week. Use it, but don’t rely on it.
Follow the (relatively) healthy approach to drinking
Most people’s idea of “responsible” drinking involves drinking on a full stomach so they don’t get too drunk, too fast. It also entails drinking late at night- because if you start early, you might have a drinking problem.
There are a couple of problems here. First off, drinking on a full stomach does blunt the effect of the alcohol- but then you just compensate by drinking more. After all, you’re drinking alcohol because you want to get buzzed (or more).
More alcohol means more calories, more liver damage, a longer wait before you’re sober again, and more of a hangover the next day.
Second, drinking causes most of its negative health effects when you sleep. If you sleep with alcohol in your system you’ll get both less deep sleep and less REM sleep. The next day, you’ll have no energy, be unable to focus, and you’ll have the testosterone levels of an elderly eunuch.
So you want to drink less alcohol- incidentally consuming fewer liquid calories in the process- and you want to end your drinking early, which also means starting it earlier.
First things first: if you’re going to be drinking, have your first drink on an empty stomach. That first drink will hit you harder, and you’ll respond by easing up on your drinking for the rest of the night. If you’re at a bar, you’ll also some yourself some money.
Second, pick drinks that don’t have a bunch of added calories. No beer, no sugary mixed drinks. Your best options are either dry wines, or unsweetened liquors wither straight up, or mixed with club soda, diet soda, or lemon/lime juice.
Third, stop drinking at least two hours before bed. If you’re going to be out until 2 AM, plan on getting to bed at 3- which means you need to stop drinking before 1 AM. Stopping before midnight would be even better, of course.
Fourth, eat a small amount of healthy food after you finish drinking. This food will digest while you sleep, keeping your body well-nourished, fueling cell repair and testosterone production, and preventing low blood sugar in the morning.
Finally, if you’re counting macros, remember that alcohol counts as well. A standard drink (1.5 oz shot, 5 oz glass of wine) has about 15 grams of alcohol.
A gram of alcohol has 7 calories, while a gram of carbs only has 4- so that shot of whiskey totals around 105 calories. If you’re using a macro calculator that doesn’t count alcohol, you can instead record that as 26 grams of carbs.
Use prepared scripts to disarm food pushers
Of course, this is ultimately a social problem we’re talking about, and that means the solution has to be at least partly social in nature.
There will be times when friends pressure you to break your diet. They’ll urge you to have just one slice of pizza, just a couple of beers, just a few bites of ice cream.
When this happens, you’ll need to call back on one of your most vital life skills: making excuses.
You know you’ll come under pressure to eat junk food. So when the food pushers strike, you should have a few scripted responses already prepared to deflect that pressure. Memorize the following:
I can’t- sugar gives me a headache.
I shouldn’t drink- I have to drive tonight.
I just popped some Tylenol- wouldn’t want to mix that with alcohol.
My doctor told me I need to eat more vegetables and less junk food if I don’t want to have a heart attack in the next five years.
I promised my wife I’d eat better- I really owe it to her to follow through.
It’s funny, I used to hate salad, but I’ve really come to enjoy it lately.
You know, ever since I went on this new diet, I notice I just don’t enjoy sweets like I used to.
There are a few simple principles at work here. First, you can opt out of eating junk food with special exceptions like sugar giving you a headache, or needing to stay sober.
Second, you can emphasize how vital your diet is to your health. At some point your friends will just look like jerks if they keep trying to get you to break your diet.
Third, you can describe your diet as an obligation to somebody else. If you promised your family you’d eat better, it’s no longer just about you.
Finally, you can claim (hopefully truthfully) to enjoy your healthy diet. This invalidates the main argument used by food pushers- that dieting sucks and you need to cut loose and have some fun.
Don’t sacrifice sleep
Ideally, you’d want to get 7-9 hours of sleep a night, on a totally regular schedule. In practice, this tends to conflict with a healthy social life.
There will be nights when you’ll be out late, and you won’t get to bed at your usual time. it happens. But.
Don’t make a habit of pulling all-nighters, or having a lot of nights where you only sleep three hours, and then trying to make it up by oversleeping on other nights. This just kills you– perhaps literally.
There may be some nights when you sleep as little as six hours, but avoid getting less than that more than once a month, at the absolute most. Also avoid sleeping more than ten hours a night in order to “make up” for lost sleep– instead, compensate over several nights of sleeping 9-10 hours.
Most importantly, protect a four-hour block of “core” sleep time in which you’re always sleeping. If you usually sleep from midnight to 8 AM, but occasionally stay up until 3, or get up a little earlier, or sleep in until 9 AM, then make 3-7 AM your core sleep time– always be asleep during these hours, with exceptions made less than once a month.
By protecting this core sleep block, you can give yourself a significant amount of flexibility to your sleep schedule without the awful neurological and hormonal disruptions that come from having no regular sleep cycle.
The bottom line on dieting and your social life
If you want to lose weight, you need to eat at a caloric deficit, and you need to eat enough protein.
If you consistently overeat, you’ll gain fat.
If you want to be healthy, you need to eat plenty of protein and vegetables, sleep well, and keep the sugar and alcohol in moderation.
Nothing in this article will get around these limitations. However, if you plan ahead instead of letting social meals take you by surprise, you can enjoy your social life while still eating well enough to make progress towards your fitness goals.
Stay strict with yourself when eating alone, take steps to control your appetite, cut back on alcohol, and learn to say no to food pushers. Your body will thank you for it.