Food Freedom Friday Edition 146 - Are You A Cheater?

Many diet plans regularly tout that following the same regimen for too long will slow your metabolism to a snail's pace. They continue by suggesting that in order to prevent this from happening you should enjoy a cheat day or cheat meal. This will satisfy your cravings and trick your metabolism into thinking famine is not just around the corner.

In essence, a cheat day/meal is when your personal food police go on vacation and you have license to eat whatever you want BUT only for a short pre-determined window of time. Some people have rules around how they eat on their cheat day or during their cheat meal and some prefer an “anything goes” approach.

The big question then becomes, do these ‘cheats’ work?

Like the annoying answer to most questions involving nutrition (or life for that matter) – it depends.

I have a few issues and concerns with the concept of cheating:

At the forefront is the word ‘cheat’ itself.

The word cheat implies a behaviour that is wrong or bad, similar to doing something illegal or immoral. Furthermore, if you planned to cheat is it really a cheat? Even replacing the word ‘cheat’ with ‘treat’ sounds so much better, but I still did not like the idea in general and food is nourishment and is always worth enjoying.

I am not a fan of bottling up cravings and desires and saving them for a specific day or time. I found that often what happens is one tends to go overboard. This results in feeling awful and possibly really upset in knowing that another of these times of pleasure is not coming for an entire week after that point!

You can also do some serious damage: it can become way too easy to undo an entire week’s worth of wellness-oriented behaviours in a single sitting. Even more frightening is thinking how much you can set yourself back with an entire cheat day!

Back to the original question of whether cheating is effective…

If by ‘effective’ you mean does it prevent you from hitting a weight loss plateau or does it help you lose more weight than you would have by simply following your nutrition plan, then the answer, once again is it will depend…

Your Caloric Deficit

Many of the participants in studies where people lost more weight by including cheat meals were restricting calories rather significantly.

Over the course of three experiments published recently in the Journal of Consumer Psychology researchers gauged whether subjects would be better able to stick with their goals if they were allowed cheat days.

First, the participants imagined either being on a 1,500-calorie diet every day or a 1,300-calorie diet with a 2,700-calorie splurge day at the end of each week. Those with the splurge option predicted they would have more self control by the end, and they could come up with more strategies to overcome temptation than the others, even though they were on the stricter diet plan.

Then, the researchers asked 36 participants to actually do the two diets for two weeks. Those who had the cheat day reported they were better able to sustain their motivation and self-control than those who ate the same amount each day. Surprisingly, the two groups lost similar amounts of weight.

These so-called planned hedonic deviations, or 'cheat days,' seemed to boost drive in the long run.

Again, we have to look at the fact that this was a controlled study, however, it is nice to see the scientific proof that overeating for a short window of time after dieting really insanely hard will not impede your results, but it is highly impractical. Read on - there is a better way!

Your Workouts

Weight trainers who are continuously breaking down muscle and need to repair muscle fibers are going to require more calories especially carbohydrates and protein to aid in that recovery process. If you only do cardio or aerobic activity or are not exercising to exhaustion, you are not creating the same demand on your body. 

If you make the meal you have after weight training your cheat meal you are way more likely to have those calories (and carbohydrates) shuttled to your hungry muscles than stored as fat.

Your Body Composition

The leaner and more muscular you are, the more high carbohydrate meals you may need and the bigger they need to be. And let’s face it, when we are talking cheats, treats or whatever nomenclature you are comfortable with, we are not talking about an extra serving or two of roast chicken!

The reason hugely muscular folks, like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson can get away with eating huge amounts of highly processed carbohydrates is because the demands being placed on the body during the grueling 2 hour daily workouts fueling  a 260 lbs. muscular body require it. I am quite positive he is eating really healthy and monitoring his macronutrients like a professional bodybuilder. Getting to that size and body composition does not happen bu accident or per chance.

For us mere mortals, the same rule applies but on a smaller scale.

If you are obese or overweight, you are going to have a tougher time assimilating all those calories and end up storing a larger portion of them as fat than someone who is leaner. As you lose weight, start getting leaner and adding more muscle, you will find that you can add in a few more mindful indulgent choices without it packing the pounds back on. (This is what maintenance looks like!)

I would advise significantly overweight individuals not to use cheat days and instead recommend possibly including smaller, indulgences less often. Most people can lose significant amounts of weight by changing up their food choices to higher protein, more plants, and lower sugar. You want to make sure you avoid conditioning yourself to rely on food as a reward and instead focus on non-food rewards that excite you.

Your Hormones

Significant calorie reduction over a prolong period of time can cause major disruptions to your hormones whether you are already lean or not. The best way to get your hormones working in your favor again is to feed yourself properly and adequately so the correct signals can be sent  to burn fat and not store it and that there is no need to trigger the hunger signals of your brain.

Your Mindset

This is probably the single biggest factor to consider as you are wondering if you should add cheat meals to your eating regime. If you struggle with eating due to stress or as a means to cope with some tough stuff going on in your life, then cheat days can do more harm than good for you. Instead of being an enjoyable break that replenishes your energy and boosts your metabolism, they can be a slippery slope that leads to emotional dependence on food, frequent binging and weight gain.

A better approach is to become more mindful of what is triggering you to eat in the first place. Start journaling. Pause when you feel the urge to overeat. In that moment simply ask yourself what you are feeling. The first step is awareness, and from there you can figure out what you truly need and begin making conscious decisions about eating.

My Preferred Alternative

Refeeds are similar to cheat or treat meals in that they are specific periods of time in which you increase your carbohydrate consumption in order to reap the maximum benefit of your body’s hormonal environment.

The difference is that with a refeed there is more intent. It is less about eating whatever you want and however much you want and more about eating  a specific amount of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. The food choices should remain high-quality and more nutrient dense.

Planned refeeds are usually a part of a low-carbohydrate diet where every 3 to 10 days you eat enough carbohydrates to restore your glycogen stores (anywhere between 150-400g depending on your size). This type of program is known as carb-cycling. Staying low-carb for too long can disrupt your hormones, especially insulin. Incorporating carbohydrate refeed days keeps your body sensitive to insulin which guards against insulin resistance and weight loss resistance.

Although I dislike the term, cheat meals (not days!) have their place as long as they do not become a free-for-all. I believe in being flexible around your eating and mindful regarding your indulgences.  

The large majority of your meals should be healthy, low-sugar, unprocessed, and free of crap ingredients you do not recognize or cannot pronounce. This leaves room for a few meals or choices that are less than optimal, whatever you want, so long as you make sure not to supersize your portion size. 

Using this approach for fat loss and health maintenance will keep you from feeling deprived and miserable.

This is the approach that has worked best for so many of my clients, as well as myself, especially in maintaining health goals long-term.

Michal Ofer