Cheat or not to cheat?…that is the question.
Day in day out I work with people trying to lose body fat. The first things we discuss is their nutrition. I would explain topics such as; blood sugar management, metabolism, macro-nutrients, food timings and how to structure a healthy eating plan. One of the first questions I’m posed with is “when can I have a cheat meal?”.
For me cheat meals are divided into two categories. Those who are attempting to get super lean for competition purposes and those who need a break from the rigors of dieting.
Let’s start with the competition people first. The theory behind a ‘cheat meal’ is that you schedule a meal into your strict diet to help break fat loss plateaus. There is evidence to suggest that after a prolonged period of intense dieting and calorie restriction that your fat loss progress may slow or halt due to a few factors. Firstly, as your body fat drops you produce less Leptin. Leptin is a hormone that is secreted by your fat cells which is part of the process of releasing body-fat to be used as energy. Therefore, less body-fat equals less Leptin. Secondly, after a period of calorie restriction your metabolism may have dropped to adapt to a lower calorie intake, therefore, less fat is being burned day to day. Thirdly, your thyroid function may have slowed which effects proper metabolic processes. Lastly, your muscle glycogen is so low that your training ability has lessened significantly. Those are the physical reasons.
There are also psychological reasons or breaking the monotony of the same foods and something to look forward to and enjoy so you feel a little more normal.
My recommendations on this come from personal experience with incorporating cheat meals into my own diet process. First, it is not a free for all to eat everything in the room. This will certainly make you feel awful and will lead to fat gain. The myths that you wake up 2kg lighter after eating 3 pizzas is just that, a myth. You should choose a meal in place of a normal meal made up of the foods you like but not to excess. I’d suggest just go to a restaurant and order a starter, a main and some dessert. This way you’ll exercise some restraint. Trust me it can be tough. Next you shouldn’t even bother doing this until your are sufficiently lean and have genuinely hit a wall. If you’re still 10kg overweight, don’t bother, you’re just kidding yourself. Many protagonists of low carb dieting do this every week for an excuse to binge, for me, this is just not healthy. I keep carbs as high as possible for as long as possible.
If this is done correctly, and with a little restraint, you will enjoy the benefits with very little downside. It can lift you from the ‘fog’ and let you push on even harder. You will be heavier the next day due to glycogen storing in your muscles as well as water and probably extra salt. However, it should be short lived and you should return to your previous weight in a day or two, or the boost in metabolism actually kick-starts fat loss again and you’re a little lighter.
If you’re a normal person trying to lose fat, then cheat meals have no place in your diet. You don’t give a recovering alcoholic just a few drinks each week. I suggest that 34 out of your 35 meals a week are on point with your coaches recommendations. You could allow for one meal that’s roughly in line with your caloric needs for that week but the food stuffs deviate slightly I.e you have a Sunday roast lunch with the family, not masses, just enough to feel like you’ve not been ‘on a diet’.
This is not a science as far as I can see as most approaches are haphazard at best. It would take a few attempts to see what works for you. If you’re in the normal fat loss bracket I honestly would work on your ability to eat regularly and consistently for an extended period. Try to understand your food and enjoy eating healthily which will negate the need or desire to ‘cheat’. You need to learn that you can have some foods that are treats every now and again but have them with restraint. If you train regularly and eat well and aren’t hugely overweight you can have some ice-cream or pizza every now and again and it will not effect you negatively. If you’re well overweight, just try to stay on point and work hard until you’ve earned your treat.
For bodybuilders and the such like, wait till you’re in a fog and need lifting out. Anything more will just negate your deficit for that week and will hinder your fat loss results. Enjoy a meal and don’t binge, you’ll regret it later.
Ali ‘Fat Al’ Stewart
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