To cheat or not to cheat, that is the question:
Is it better to suffer, with the desire for things we can’t have,
Or to tackle it head on, and deal with the consequences?
Scratch that, it really depends on you and your goals. In any relationship, whether it be food or people, it is better not to cheat. “Cheating” isn’t really linked to any positive emotions. It generally causes more problems than it can possibly solve. When it comes to nutrition though, it is somewhat of a grey area, that has been affected by mass media, the popularity of weight loss cures, and other influences. There is anecdotal evidence that shows that a cheat meal can help us get through rough patches, get over plateaus, but often causes higher cravings. Can you also succeed in weight loss when you include cheat meal in your nutrition plans?
So, what are cheat meals and days, actually?
Cheat meal and Cheat days
When you are following a strict nutrition plan, having a cheat meal/day means you can eat whatever your soul desires. Cheat meals and/or days allow you to enjoy the treats you normally would not get and enjoy them guilt-free ( or almost guilt-free?). They are usually scheduled ahead of time, and often keep people motivated to stay on track pursuing a specific nutrition or fitness goal. That is the time for donuts, pizza, bread, pasta, and dessert – the items that are banned on most nutrition plans. Something carby, starchy, sweet, and oh so appealing. Even the fittest and strongest on Earth indulge in an occasional cheat day. If you want to see a scaled-up version of a completely crazy cheat day, Google search the words “The Rock cheat day”. I don’t know how it is possible to fit that much food in one body but he does it, and successfully :-O
Be careful. A cheat meal isn’t a “slip” that you can write off and recover from. This happens, and it is important to focus on your goals when this happens to reinforce positive behaviors and emotions. A cheat meal/day is specifically planned.
We will try to focus on weight loss goals for the purpose of this article because bodybuilders are a separate category. They are not concerned with fitting in a wedding dress. They don’t worry about going to a golf tournament without buying a new pair of trendy expensive shorts. Let’s think about what cheat meals and days do to us, mortals – mostly people who want to maintain their weight or lose a few pounds. Are they necessary to stay sane and motivated? Are they going to ruin your journey towards better health?
What are the pros and cons of cheat days?
Cheat Meals: Pros
1. A cheat meal or a day will most likely be a significant excess of calories consumed
A cheat meal will include foods and ingredients that are totally prohibited. Physiologically this can be considered a good thing. It is a cathartic release that allows you and your body to let go for a moment. Your body often will feel happier with the flush of excess food, and your metabolism will likely go up, at least temporarily. Some experts justify it by the increase of thyroid hormone production, leptin (satiety hormone), and overall BMR going up. Basically, you put your body in a shock with all the yummy treats you have just consumed. Temporarily.
2. A cheat meal can help keep you sane.
If you are logging your meals in an app, counting macros and calories, and training like a champ every week, cheat meals are like a visit to a masseuse – they will make you relax. You enjoy every minute of it and forget about all the troubles. For some people it is the way to stay on track, a mental trick to keep going, a reward of a sort for all your hard efforts, and often a promise for more effort in the future. For most people dieting or being on a nutrition plan is restrictive, depriving, and at the very least a dramatic change in dietary habits. Thus a cheat meal will provide a necessary feeling of a carrot, not a stick.
3. Cheat meals help to avoid boredom and succeed with your fat loss.
Tim Ferriss, for example, swears by his Saturday cheat meals. His favorites, bear claws and chocolate croissants make him “a little sick” afterward, and then he can stick to a very plain and restrictive diet of same meals for 6 days a week. Can you eat the same stuff over and over?
Cheat Meals: Cons
1. A cheat meal often turns into a cheat day.
Well, you had a slice or two of pizza, what are you going to do with the rest? Most people will finish it up in terms of their “cheat meal”. If you think about it, it is probably an extra 1,000 calories and a ton of carbs in just one day. It is often a slippery slope when you will get a bag of chips to “top it off” since you already strayed from the path. You will order a large dessert because a little more won’t be much worse. Don’t even get me started on alcohol…I am sure there is a Carb monster living in every bottle, and it comes out and attacks you after your first drink. A cheat meal turns into a cheat day, and like a party, crasher ruins your weight loss plans.
2. The more you indulge in cheat meals, the more often they seem normal.
A cheat meal in 6 months might change to every month, and then every week. Especially if you are on a low-carb nutrition plan, you will most likely to feel the lack of energy the next day. Your insulin levels will plummet in a few hours after the consumption, and carb withdrawals begin. Your cravings for bad stuff will return more often, and typically you will have waaaaay less willpower or energy to say no to those “moments”. I call it a “carb brain”.
It is hard to deal with the “carb brain”, both mentally and physically, and most people will give in to it. It is when you have a hard morning at work, and a co-worker brings in a dozen donuts, or after a hard week friends take you out and buy your first drink, you know will lead to a second or a third. Then there is going to be yet another slip and another. Generally, the more cheat meals you have a month or year, the more you are prone to have them.
3. Often it can go from bad to worse.
If you had a glass of wine, it is one thing. Depending on your goals, it is a semi-cheat item for many. Next time you will have some bread or a pretzel, and you will forget that the glass of wine was considered a small indulgence. Because you know, everything is relative in this world. You can start making worse choices than “semi-healthy”, and slowly roll down towards “really bad for you”. It is often hard to control or notice when there are small changes as well.
The good news, it works in a positive manner too, making small changes adds up. Your goal achievement can slow down if you have cheat meals often. If your goal is to lose weight fast, this will most likely become a roadblock. Again, unless you are a seasoned pro like Tim Ferriss, your physiology will take over. It will be hard to get back on track.
If you decide you’d rather have a cheat meal once in a while, what is the best way to do it, and keep losing weight (or maintaining it if that’s your goal)?
Weight Loss and Cheat meals:
Cheat meals will slow you down. If you have a great metabolism, the truth is you might not notice any weight gain, but most people don’t. If your goal is to lose body fat and do it fast – cheat meals might not be the best option for you. But don’t you worry, there are ways to feel good about your progress and spoil yourself a bit. Here you go:
⇒ If you choose a cheat meal, go lighter: for example, if you avoid white starchy foods normally, have some white rice or sushi for your cheat meal. Choose better carbs – instead of white bread, get some quinoa or white rice.
⇒ Select the day smartly. It will be better for you in a long run if you choose to have a cheat meal on the days that are special or require a lot of effort from you. You can pick a friend’s wedding, a triathlon you are working towards, your baby shower, or situations where you know there will be more pressure to fit in socially. The general rule is the more “common” the day, the easier it is “commonly” have a cheat meal. It is a bit easier to justify the cheat day if the entire day is unusual or special.
⇒ Do not binge. Taste things, enjoy them in small quantities and savor them. Remember why you choose to eat differently, and what your goals are. If it fits your current goal – do not feel guilty about it.
⇒ Remember Good to Better choices. If you want some indulgence, have a glass or two of red wine instead of 3-4 beers. Get a flour-less cake instead of donuts. Stay gluten-free if you can, this will prevent you from feeling sick later, as well as reinforce your habit of eating well most of the time.
⇒ Stay away from alcohol. Remember, the Carb Monster scare.
Everybody is different…
Personally, I had a habit of overdoing it. I would run a marathon and indulge in anything I wanted that day. Generally, I gain weight from just looking at carbs! Since my body is mostly running on good fats, an overload of carbohydrates will put me in a sleepy food coma. The next few days would not be pretty: sickness, bloating, carb cravings, and such. Not my favorite. Having a cheat day a week does not work for me either – my weight goes up, performance goes down, and I almost feel depressed and guilty! So I stick to having a cheat meal once in a while, while 80/20 or 90/10 rules are too much for me. The cleaner I eat, the better I feel.
Curbing a craving for a cheat meal is just the matter of exercising your willpower. It really does take practice, and it is often difficult to do something more challenging. The beauty of eating primally (if you do it right): you learn how to enjoy simple, nutritious foods, and how to skip cheat meals. They are just unnecessary. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have a place when moderated.
Do you have cheat meals or days? How often? How do they affect you?
Have a healthy day,
Author: Anya Perry
Anya Perry battled boring diets, low energy, and declining health for over 10 years before she found what works. Now, she helps women achieve their dream state of health, fitness, and vitality… without the struggles, battles of miserable diets and yo-yo results. She can’t live without coffee and challenges.