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Weekly patterns, diet quality and energy balance

Abstract: Human behaviour is made up of many repeated patterns and habitual behaviours. Our day to day lives are punctuated by work, education, domestic chores, sleep and food. Changes in daily patterns such as not working in paid employment or attending school on the weekend contribute significantly to changes in dietary patterns of food consumption, patterns of physical activity and ultimately energy balance. The aim of this paper is to adopt a life-course perspective and explore the changes in dietary quality and physical activity patterns across the week from young children to elderly adults with a focus on Western cultures. Research literature indicates that the dietary quality is somewhat poorer on the weekends, characterised by higher fat intakes, higher alcohol intakes and consequently higher energy intakes. This increase in energy intake is not necessarily offset by an increase in activity, rather an increase in sedentary behaviours. Some research has observed an increase of more than 100 cal per day over the weekend in American adults. Over the course of one year, this can result in a significant increase in body mass. Some of the interventions in tackling obesity and diet related behaviours must focus on the changes in the weekend behaviour of consumers in terms of both food and activity. These efforts should also focus on increasing consumer awareness of the long term consequences of the short lived weekend excess as well as putting in place practical measures and interventions that are evidence based and targeted to consumer needs.

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Alex’s Notes: We all operate on this arbitrary and repetitive time-scale called “the week.” I often wondered what would happen if it were six or eight days instead of seven, but regardless, the week is further divided into the “weekday” and “weekend.” Eating routines, work schedules, family commitments, and recreational activities all fall victim to this schedule. With this in mind, it is interesting to note that 50% of the typical day is spent sleeping (35%) or working (19%). Eating and drinking only amounted to 6% of the 24-hour day. When broken down by weekday/weekend categories, we see that work time decreases by 67%, while both sleep and eating times increase. Therefore, weekly changes in our environment and obligations (such as removing the structured work environment) easily allows for more access to food and relaxation.

No doubt, it has been shown that adults consume significantly higher amounts of energy on the weekends, mainly in the form of fat and alcohol. That study also found that children tended to remain stable in energy intake, but consumed less protein in favor of fat. It has also been shown that meal sizes and the time spent eating are significantly greater on the weekends. In the Irish, time spent eating out at restaurants increased, with an emphasis towards the consumption of French fries or “chips” as Europeans call them. Social engagement is a likely explanation for all the above, as people tend to eat upwards of 60% more when dining with others compared to alone.

And what about the other side of the equation – physical activity? Despite having more “free-time” on the weekends, what is consistent across populations is an increase of sedentariness. This is especially surprising when you consider that most jobs require sitting in front of a computer for eight hours. One would think that that would be hard to beat. Then again, there is the television, and ironically, screen time, mainly in the form of TV viewing also seems to increase food consumption albeit through a slightly different mechanism such as distraction. One study showed that eating while watching TV resulted in an increased energy intake by 14%.

The unfortunate truth is that most people transition to less healthy behaviors over the weekend, and there is no questioning that this plays some role in the growing obesity problem. A good first step would be to start aiming health messages at decreasing time spent being sedentary over the weekend, which would not only increase caloric expenditure, but also reduce food intake via the elimination or reduction of mindless eating. A possible second step would be to use innovative ways to promote the taste and convenience of healthier food options instead of focusing solely on the health benefits.

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