How to Stay Healthy at Football Tailgates: HC's Pick It or Skip It Guide

Ah, football season. We meet again. We can’t say we’ve missed actually watching the games and pretending we know what’s going on (it’s easy, just cheer when everyone else does and shout out general buzz words like “c’mon!”), but we certainly have missed the wondrous festivities that occur before the games. We're talking about pre-games and tailgates, of course, both of which are comprised of five Bs’: burgers, beer, booze, belligerency and more beer. But alas, as fun as all this tailgating action is in the moment, these five B’s sadly result in one dreaded son of B: belly bulge.

Luckily, this does not necessarily have to be the case this football season. With this Pick It & Skip It Guide, you can battle the bulge while still enjoying all the tailgates. Sounds like a touchdown to me — that is a football term, right?

Pre-Tailgate Plan

The best way to stay healthy at tailgates is to eat a balanced meal beforehand (think fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean proteins) so that you don’t have to fill up on the junk that’s there.

“Absolutely eat a good breakfast with lots of protein and healthy fats–like a veggie omelet,” Behavior Modification Clinician and Certified Nutrition Specialist Susan Holmberg says. She emphasizes protein and healthy fats specifically because they release a hormone that signals satiety, regulating your appetite and thus preventing sugar and carbohydrate cravings that come with being underfed.

“Make sure to eat a meal containing proteins, fats and (‘free’) veggies or even a cup of any kind of legume about a half an hour before you go so that it ‘kicks in’ and you are not hungry when you get there,” she says. “I can only speak for myself, but if I leap on the food immediately, I sort of set the tone for the entire event!”

“Another strategy in general is to hold off eating at all as long as you can so that you don't end up eating for such a long time and sometimes some of the options are simply gone by then,” Holmberg says. “I have found that it is easier to hold off than to guarantee you can stop once you start–especially once you put alcohol in the mix.”

Though the following swaps will help you save calories, typical tailgate fare is far from healthy. So if you can minimize your intake of it by arriving with a satisfied stomach, you’ll be better off. Plus, you already know it’s not good to drink on an empty stomach so eating a nutritious meal before you start will put you on the right track. Now let’s see what to skip and what to pick!

Drinks

Skip it: Ice Luges, Beer Bongs and Handle Pulls

Pick it: Red Solo cup

Guzzling alcohol that’s cascading down an ice sculpture or flowing freely from any sort of tube or bottle (like beer bongs, funnels or taking swigs straight from a communal handle) may be quintessentially “college” — but it’s certainly not healthy (or safe).

First off, it is impossible to keep tabs on how much alcohol you’re downing when you consume it this way. You’ll therefore be much more likely to over-consume, which will take a toll on your health, your belly and your chances of actually making it to the game. To make matters worse, we all know from health and sex-ed classes that by putting your lips directly on something that countless other football fanatics are drinking from too, you’re putting yourself at risk for getting sick. Mono, the flu, common colds and cold sores—which all spread faster than gossip on college campuses—can be transmitted through sharing drinks. Yuck!

So rather than sabotage your health by falling victim to flashy drinking mechanisms, grab a classic Red Solo cup instead. You can use the lines on the cup to keep track of how much you’re drinking (see the picture below… who knew?!) and make sure that you’re the only one sipping from it. Don’t forget to alternate between drinking water and alcohol so that you keep your intake in check and stay hydrated. Your immune system and waistline will thank you.

Skip it: Jungle Juice

Pick it: Light beer or your own mixed drink

As with drinking straight from a bottle, it’s impossible to know how much alcohol you’re actually consuming when drinking jungle juice or any other kind of punch. These mixed concoctions usually taste so sweet and fruity, that you underestimate how strong they are and thus drink more and more, again leading to dangerous and unhealthy over-consumption. The calories will add up not only from this over-consumption, but also from all the sugar that these juices are packed with—they’re sweet for a reason!

“Mixers (like Tequila Sunrise mix) are often as high as 40 calories an ounce, more than triple the calories of soda,” Holmberg says. Let’s do the math: a cup of punch that contains three shots of alcohol, a half cup of mixer and a half cup of soda would come out to be around…400 calories per drink! Any sort of pre-mixed drink at a party is likely filled with these high-calorie mixers, or sodas and juices, so steer clear.

As for choosing what to drink instead, Holmberg explains that this depends on “whether you are looking to have a glass in your hand at all times and want to prolong how long it takes you to get a buzz, or are really interested in the quickest buzz in the ‘cheapest’ (least caloric) possible way. For the former, I suggest lite beers or wine spritzers alternated with sparkling water, or something like that. For the latter, straight liquor without mixers will do the job cheapest.”

As opposed to jungle juice, Holmberg’s suggested drinks allow you to control how much alcohol you’re consuming and what you’re mixing with it. Rather than sugar-laden sodas and juices, opt for low calorie or calorie-free drinks such as seltzers, naturally flavored waters, or unsweetened iced teas. If you’re going to go for juice, choose fresh fruit juices (like orange juice) over stuff like fruit punches or cocktails, so you’ll at least get a dose of vitamins and less added sugar. Since many tailgates or pre-parties may be lacking in healthy drink options, plan ahead by bringing your own!

Eats

Skip it: Hamburger

Pick it: Hot dog

Alright, we hate to be the bearer of bad news, but neither of these tailgate staples is the best choice for your health, due to their high doses of saturated fat and sodium content. In terms of calories however, a hot dog (including the bun) is usually just under 300 calories, while a hamburger can contain as much as 620 calories and more saturated fat, according to The Huffington Post. If you want to cut back on calories, hold the bun (which is a refined carb and therefore packs sugar but lacks fiber and won’t fill you up) and instead wrap your meat of choice in lettuce.

Skip it: Mayo

Pick it: Mustard

Depending on the brand, one measly tablespoon of mayonnaise can pack anywhere from 35-110 calories and up to 10 grams of fat (which is about how much fat is in an entire Krispy Kreme donut!). Regular yellow mustard, on the other hand, has about 10-15 calories per tablespoon and no fat. So when you’re deciding what to layer on your burger or dog, go for the mustard, or at least use the mayo very sparingly.

Skip it: Chicken Wings & Tenders

Pick it: Kabobs & Grilled Chicken

As a general rule: if it’s fried, breaded or absolutely smothered in sauce, try to skip it. Chicken wings and chicken tenders—game day favorites—sadly both fall under this category. Frying chicken adds on calories and unhealthy fats from the oil, and chicken wings do the same via the skin and sauce. Here are some shocking stats to keep in mind when those wings are tempting you: 10 hot wings from Pizza Hut have 600 calories and one order of Buffalo wings from Applebees has 1,724 calories—about as many calories as you should have in an entire day!

If the tailgate you’re at has kabobs, grilled chicken or any other main dish that’s not fried or drowning in sauce, pick that instead. You’ll save tons of calories—and a few napkins, too.

Skip it: Nachos

Pick it: Pretzels

From the chips to the high-calorie and high-fat toppings they’re swimming in, a plate of nachos typically contains hundreds of calories. To satisfy a salty craving, reach for pretzels instead. According to Livestrong.com, while pretzels do have a substantial amount of salt, they have fewer calories and less fat than most brands of chips.

Holmberg points out, however, that while pretzels are “clearly less of a calorie commitment” they “will never fill you up in the long run and it is easy to pick at them all day and never really acknowledge how much you really ate.” So make sure to portion control—if the bag is out, check the nutrition label to see the serving size, which is usually about a handful, and try to stick to one or two servings.

At the stadium, a soft pretzel would likewise be a better pick than loaded nachos or even popcorn, which come doused in unhealthy toppings (cheese, butter and salt–oh my!). Moreover, a pretzel comes in a more reasonable serving for a snack, whereas nachos and popcorn tend to come in huge bags or tubs, making you more likely to mindlessly overeat while watching the game. Your best bet: dust some of the salt off the pretzel and split it with a friend!

Skip it: Ranch & Creamy, Cheesy Dips

Pick it: Salsa & Bean Dip

Like mayo, ranch dressing and other rich dips such as nacho cheese or sour cream are loaded with calories and fat—especially saturated fat, which you definitely don’t want.

According to MyFitnessPal.com, two tablespoons of ranch dressing can have 140 calories and 14 grams of fat. Reach for the salsa instead, which is made of fresh tomatoes, and you’ll get an extra boost of vitamins and antioxidants. Bean dip can be a healthier choice than creamy dips too, especially if it’s homemade and not from a jar, because of the protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals that beans contain. So rather than dunking your chips (or better yet, veggies if they’re available!) into empty-calorie dips that won’t fill you up but will fill you with fat, go skinny dipping with salsas and bean dips.

There are only a few home games per season, so if you do end up splurging at the tailgates it’s not the end of the world—you can work it off during basketball season. But by making the easy swaps in this guide, you’ll be headed in the right direction in the battle of the bulge. Go team!

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About The Author

Sammie is a student at the University of Michigan where she is pursuing a BBA. A foodie since birth, she enjoys cooking, eating, smelling, looking at, photographing, reading about, and playing with any and all types of food. Her idolization of culinary delights is complemented by her active spirit- she enjoys running, swimming, barre classes, and even spontaneous bursts of interpretative dance if the mood strikes her. She has completed two triathlons and a half-marathon and plans to tackle more races in the future. She also dreams of traveling the globe, saving the world, and marrying James and/or Dave Franco.