Social Gatherings During Weight Management

Summer is almost upon us! The Pacific Northwest at this time of year is a wonderful place to be! With graduations, weddings, BBQs, boating, and just being outside, you are likely to encounter more frequent social gatherings which feature food as part of the experience. A question I get frequently is how to navigate social events while on a weight management plan. Historically, the winter is thought of as a time when people gain weight. But, over the last six years of administering this program, I have found that the summer can actually be more challenging as there are so many more social events. Perhaps, here in the PNW, we hunker down in the winter, and come out to play in the summer! And, while summer 2021 may be different than past summers due to the Covid pandemic, I think it is different than 2020 since some people are fully vaccinated and new CDC guideline regarding masking outdoors and small gatherings amongst people who are fully vaccinated have been released.

My goal with today's blog is to offer three specific strategies for social situations with food: one for the weight loss phase, one for weight maintenance if you do not have diabetes or food triggers, and one if you do. Learn all three, and use the one that feels right to you! I hope that you will then feel you have options and can hold yourself accountable to being prepared and empowered to continue your health journey while still participating and enjoying life's moments! You will likely individualize and tailor them for yourself. These may just be starting points.

Strategy 1: Opting Out

During the first 4-12 weeks of the very low calorie diet (VLCD) portion of the program, opting out of the food aspect of the social event is a choice that will maintain nutritional ketosis and the highest chance of maintaining the pace of weight loss that may result in the shortest duration of the weight loss phase and the lowest end weight. Removing food can also give new perspectives on its role and change relationships with food. In this strategy, you remain on your prescribed meal replacements at the prescribed times, and do not add grocery food to your program. Sometimes people do this by having their smoothie before the event, or brining it in a shaker bottle, or mixing it up there, or stay for three hours and then leave when it is time for the next meal. They may or may not share with friend or family what they are doing. If they do, it tends to work best to phrase it that you are on a program prescribed by their doctor for their health rather than being on a diet. In situations that are not plated or sit down meals, it is interesting that it can be a lot less noticeable than you might think that you are not eating the same things as everyone else. If there is a buffet or potluck type situation and you are mingling, people may assume you already have eaten. I remember one patient who relayed to me that she sat in the break room at work for months without eating any food without anyone ever seeming to notice or say anything. At these events, be sure to make a plan to be busy with other aspects of socializing, like taking photos, or playing with the kids, or playing badminton, or being on clean-up duty, etc. Be sure to have a plan for after the event so that you do not eat unplanned food in private. Celebrate your committment to your health goals and the other ways in which you connected with friends and family with conversation. Take a bar in the car in case it is time to eat and have something you like to do waiting for you at home. You will see the results of your committment. When you go to the social event the next time, you will be confident that you can commune in many ways, and partake in the food aspect as well, using one of the other two strategies below, and your health will be improved.

If this strategy is not a good fit for you for whatever reason, even during the weight loss phase, do not let it prevent you from completing your weight loss phase and do not let it cause any negative feelings. Remember, everyone is travelling their own journey and these are generalized statements that do not apply to everyone. Anyone can still modify the VLCD weight loss phase during the first 4-12 weeks using one of the other two strategies below and still have long term success, it may just lengthen your program by 3-7 days. Read on to see two other strategies!

Strategy 2: Pick & Choose

In this strategy, pick and choose low fat, low carbohydrate options from the food selections available. This is the modified meal plan in the Summit Modified Low Calorie Diet on the meal plans under the "store" section on This is about 4-6 ounces of lean protein and two cups of vegetables. It may contain greens and a tablespoon of dressing or fat. This is typically called a "lean and green" meal. You can estimate the protein by the size of the palm of your hand and the thickness of a deck of cards. You can estimate the amount of vegetables by your fist. The greens may be half the plate and the fat is optional, but, if included, be about the size of your thumb. Sometimes, people get into the habit of offering to bring a dish to social gatherings, and it is something that sets them up for success with this option. This strategy is commonly used in these scenarios:

- modifying the very low calorie diet during the weight loss phase after the first 4-12 weeks for people who do not mind if their weight loss slows down a little and need to do so for tolerability

- modifying the very low calorie diet for people who do not tolerate a complete meal replacement program

- during weight maintenance phase, especially if there are frequent social gatherings, food triggers, medical conditions such as high blood pressure or high blood sugar that become uncontrolled if food or drink intake varies widely, or if you want to avoid symptoms that relate to meals that are high in fat, processed carbohydrates, or other additives such as bloating, headaches, swelling, joint pain, etc.

Strategy 3: Portion Control of Hedonic Eating

In this strategy, you eat foods that do not fall into the first two strategies, and success is defined as portion controlling and then getting back onto whatever your usual plan is. Hedonic eating is eating for pleasure. While eating foods on your plan can certainly be pleasurable, as there are many foods that taste good and are still "healthy", in this scenario, you are eating foods that are not on your usual plan, typically because they are higher in either fat, sugar, carbohydrates, processing, alcohol, or some other reason. Hedonic eating is a part of life for most people at some point, so learning to incorporate it and not adversely affect your health is important. To give you an idea of when you might use this strategy, a general expectation is that you will need to follow your plan 80% of the time to maintain a 20% weight loss if you are exercising an hour a day, and 90% of the time if you are exercising less than that. If you have food triggers, take caution with incorporating those items back into your diet, as food triggers can make it very difficult to portion control and to get back on your diet. To successfully employ this strategy, here are some tips:

- Do not skip nutrition before the event. Consume the planned meals on time so your hunger level is only about a "6" out of "10" at the event. Trying to portion control when you are too hungry is less likely to be successful.

- Put all of the food you are going to eat on one plate at one time. If there is a buffet situation or multiple courses, be careful, as studies show that if you do not see all of your food at one time, you do not appreciate how much food you are eating. Sometimes, people will skip foods that they want but then go back for them later. Instead, tell yourself you are serving yourself one plate. Preview the options and pick the foods you want the most first.

- Choose no more than 3-4 different foods at one meal. Studies show that the higher the number of different foods, the more calories people consume. For example, if there are 8 different dish options, choose your favorites to have, and tell yourself you can try the others another time.

- Eat mindfully. This is eating for pleasure! Savor the foods and think about them as you eat them! They may remind you of past experiences or memories. They may have pleasureable visual aspects, smells, textures, as well as tastes. There may be a story behind the recipe and there may be ingredients that were home grown or specially prepared.

- Autoregulate. This means to stop eating when it is no longer pleasurable. Studies show that adults tend to eat about 96% of the food they are served, even if they are served larger and larger portions. This is a learned behavior. Have you noticed how children eat? They commonly leave food on their plate. Children autoregulate food intake, until they are taught to "clean their plate." When you are eating, try thinking about when it stops being pleasureable and stop eating then, instead of when the food is gone. Some people say that they notice that food is not always as good as they thought it was going to be. If this happens, don't eat it!

- Get back on your usual plan. After eating for pleasure, get back on your usual plan. Sometimes, people feel bloated or lower energy or have a headache, and sometimes they do not. Whatever the situation, have positive thoughts about the experience, drink you water, go for a walk, and move on!

While we have lived in an obesogenic society, perhaps we have an opportunity to change. I think that awareness of the importance of food and exercise in our health has increased with the covid pandemic and also awareness of people working together for a healthier community. Perhaps this will manifest itself with healthier food options and more active social gatherings this summer. Perhaps you will be the nidus of change. A patient last week mentioned that she was invited to a pizza party, and she volunteered to bring a salad! Perhaps we will have salad parties in the future and someone will have to volunteer to bring the pizza! Food and activity are the most important determinants of your health within your control. There are many delicious, healthy foods and many fun actictivities out there. Address this scenario with the mindset of what you are adding in, not what you are taking out! Let us know how it goes on our forum. Here is a recipe for a pasta pesto salad using the pasta starter base that you can bring to your next BBQ! For over 100 recipes that fit in the plan, order a recipe book from our store with your next order here!

Take Back Your Social Life,

Valerie Sutherland, MD