Dieting can be really tough, especially when there is so much conflicting information out there – eat this, not that; do that, not this. The topic of cheat meals – or even cheat days – is no exception, and the debate it engenders can get a little heated. After all, both food and health are passionate subjects. What’s it all about, though? Is it really possible to have one meal a week, where you eat whatever you want, and still maintain – or even lose – weight? Cheat meal advocates say yes, and they say they’ve got the science to back them up.
A Psychological Boost
One of the biggest benefits of cheating, advocates claim, is actually a psychological one rather than a physical one. Everyone knows how tough it can be to stick to a strict regime, and the idea is that a cheat meal will allow you to relax your regime once a week, helping you to stick to it the rest of the time. It provides that added incentive to be ‘good’, because you know that you’re earning a splurge on the weekend. That’s a dangerous road though, and only works for some. It can, potentially, lead to that famous slippery slope. Joe Vennare, creator of The Hybrid Athlete, warns that “some people can’t make the switch from healthy to unhealthy. Once they get a taste of sweets, they binge and can’t go back. It throws off their entire diet plan, serving as a setback instead of a small break from the rules”.
The Biology of Starving
It’s not all about the mind though. In fact, cheat meal advocates claim to have science to back them up – and it’s all about starving. Jason Maxwell, a coach at Breaking Muscle, explains that “over time, your body realizes it is taking in fewer calories than it is burning. In turn, it will try to balance calories-in versus calories-out by becoming more efficient and your metabolism drops”. It’s all about leptin, a hormone that regulates energy intake and fat storage. If you drastically reduce your calorie intake for a prolonged period of time, your leptin levels drop, leading your body to believe it is being starved and as a result, stores fat rather than burning it – and increases your hunger signals. By occasionally eating higher calories, such as during a cheat meal, your leptin levels increase and that will affect your appetite and help you boost your metabolism.
Or at least, that’s the idea. Anti-cheat-mealers say that it’s not as simple as that. In fact, some argue against the existence of starvation mode at all, except in more extreme cases such as bodybuilders or of course, cases of genuine starvation. Instead of being a benefit, they argue, a cheat meal prevents your body from fully adapting to a healthy lifestyle, it feeds your sugar addiction, leads to excess binging, and means that you’re never allowing your body to overcome the negative effects of the junk food. In which case, your cheat meal really is a cheat; wishful thinking that you can eat what you want and still lose weight.
A Negative Relationship
It’s not, then, as clear-cut as either side of the debate will lead you to believe. It is possible to occasionally cheat and still lose weight, but the fact that someone would want to do that may be indicative of a negative relationship with food. It may be a sign that their diet is simply too restrictive, or that perhaps they are caving in to a sugar addiction that they are never allowing their body to get over, leading to cravings and crashes the rest of the week. After all, the brain is hard-wired to love sugar as a form of energy and like cocaine, it requires bigger and bigger doses to get its ‘hit’. Binging on junk food, even once week, can also damage gut bacteria, suppress your immune system, and lead you to feel tired, bloated, and achy during those times when you are supposed to be on top form.
A Balanced Approach
Is it possible to have balance between these two arguments then? It’s worth remembering that everybody is different – what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another, but there are some tips to help cheat meals work for you. Enjoying a ‘treat’ rather than having a ‘cheat’ will certainly help psychologically by taking away any negative connotations of being bad or naughty. As long as you stick to your diet 90% of the time, you’ve earned the occasional ‘splurge’, but don’t allow your emotions to control it – plan it into your calorie budget and plan it around special events or occasions, such as a birthday meal in a restaurant or a Saturday night out at the bar.
When you do decide to treat yourself, make your cheat meal a healthy one and increase your calorie intake by allowing yourself a few extra carbs or protein rather than binging on junk food or sugar-laden processed foods. On a similar note, have just one treat or meal and remember your portion control rather than splurging all day, potentially ruining a whole week’s worth a good work. And finally, of course, enjoy your treat – be mindful of your indulgence and savor it slowly, then make sure you get right back on the wagon as soon as you’re done!
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 Jason Maxwell, 2017, How to Rock a Cheat Day (Without Feeling Bad or Getting Fat) [online], available at: https://breakingmuscle.com/healthy-eating/how-to-rock-a-cheat-day-without-feeling-bad-or-getting-fat, accessed 08.26.2017
 Bethany Lalonde, op. cit.
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