Cheat Meals: A Fitness Friend Or Foe?
The concept of restricted diets has been around for centuries and so have our cravings for delicious high-calorie foods. People practice diet modification to lose weight, gain muscle, or improve overall health. The regimen and requirements of these diets can be widely different, but they often share one common thing — a “cheat meal” that allows the dieter to occasionally cater to his/ her food cravings.
What is a cheat meal?
A cheat meal is a single meal — either planned or spontaneous — that provides a temporary break from a tight dietary regimen. The concept of cheat meals is based on the idea that you can “cheat” for one meal on any given day in the week as long as you stick to your diet plan for the remaining six days.
By definition, a cheat meal allows dieters to indulge in their favorite, not-so-healthy foods, which are not part of their diet plan. Therefore, the day you indulge in a cheat meal can be loosely defined as a day on which you do not count calories and consume high-calorie, high-fat foods, like burgers, pizzas, biryani, and sweets.
Depending upon your cheat food of choice and how much of it you consume, a cheat meal can add anywhere between 500 to 1,500 calories to your total energy intake. So, if you cheat more than once on your diet plan, it can significantly offset your weekly calorie goals.
Does one cheat meal per week make you stay faithful to your diet in the long term?
According to a 2018 study published in a Nature journal, people who take a scheduled temporary break from their low-calorie diet plan may lose more weight and body fat than those who continued the calorie-restricted diet regime without taking a break. The research also indicated that “cheat day” dieters may also be able to stay more faithful to their diet regimen over a longer period.
But, how does a cheat meal help you lose weight and stick to your diet? Three theories may help answer this question.
1. Metabolism-boost theory
When you’re on a weight loss diet, you consume fewer calories than what your body needs to function normally — leading to a negative energy balance. But, your body gradually becomes accustomed to the long-term calorie deprivation and reduces your metabolism, which may lead to a weight-loss plateau. And, according to this school of thought, occasional consumption of calorie-dense foods may jumpstart your body’s resting metabolic rate, thus providing a more effective and sustainable weight loss strategy than continuous-dieting approaches.
2. Leptin regulation theory
Leptin — a hormone that controls your satiety signals — is released when you eat enough food and instructs your brain that you are full. It also balances your energy levels by signaling your body to continue burning fat efficiently. Restricting calorie intake through dieting decreases the production of leptin, making you feel hungrier and instructing your body to store fat. Limited scientific evidence indicates that temporarily increasing calorie intake through a calorie-rich meal may increase circulating leptin levels by nearly 25% for up to 24 hours. This may trick your body into thinking that there is a plentiful supply of food or calories and that there is no need to store energy as fat for the future.
3. Gratification theory
Several psychologists and nutritionists believe that giving in to temptations once in a while to gratify a craving can help dieters stick to otherwise restrictive diets. Research indicates that this is because people, who occasionally stray from their diet plans, feel better about the diet process and stay motivated to adhere to it in the long term. So, as long as you are following your diet 90% of the time, you can enjoy one cheat meal every week.
It is important to remember that all these theories suggest that cheat meals should be planned into a diet rather than being a spur-of-the-moment thing.
To cheat, or not to cheat — that is the question
Your body composition, fitness goals, and psychological predisposition will all decide whether this approach to dieting will work for you or not.
It is easy for a person who is new to following a diet and exercise regimen to fall off the wagon. Why? Because he/ she has nothing to lose.
On the other hand, once you have seen the quantifiable results of your hard work — like going down a dress size or watching the scale of your weighing machine tipping down — you are less likely to allow a cheat meal to turn into a cheat day, week or month.
So, before heading down the cheat road, first ensure that you stay consistently faithful to your routine. Also, according to a study published in the journal Appetite, cheat meals are not ideal for people who have a history of eating disorders (like anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating), emotional eating, or generally poor self-regulation.
Can a cheat meal undo a week of dieting and exercising?
No, a single planned cheat meal will not wash out the efforts you have put in working out and dieting over a week. You probably will weigh more after a weekend of indulgence, but this weight gain does not necessarily indicate a gain in body fat. This is because for every gram of carbohydrate (carb) you consume, your body holds nearly 3g of water. So, most of the weight gained would probably be water-weight.
It may not seem so, but just like losing fat takes time and effort, so does putting on fat. Gaining fat requires sustained positive energy balance, i.e., you need to consume more calories than you burn over a long duration.
For example, to gain about half a kilogram of body fat, you need to consume approximately 500 more calories a day than your normal calorie intake, every day, for about seven days. So, a 500-600 calorie cheat meal every once in a while will not erase weeks and months of hard workouts and careful calorie counting.
How to cheat responsibly?
You can cheat responsibly on your diet by following these tips:
1. Plan your weekly diet/ meals
Planning when and what you are going to eat is the key to a successful cheat meal strategy. It is best to schedule your indulgence on a weekend or for a special occasion, so that you can dine out without feeling deprived. This will allow you the time to plan your calorie intake for the day and the week. It will also give you an incentive to adhere to your diet plan for the rest of the week by allowing you to look forward to eating your favorite meal.
2. Balance your overall weekly calories
You can include an indulgence into your diet schedule by balancing the total number of calories you consume in a week. For example, if your daily energy requirement is 2,000 calories, you can reserve 600 to 750 calories for your cheat meal and balance these extra calories by reducing 100 to 125 calories every day from your budget, for the remaining six days of the week.
3. Create a calorie buffer
You can also minimize the negative effects of a cheat meal by creating a calorie buffer, either by eating light before the cheat meal or by working out before it. Having a hypocaloric meal before diving into a high-calorie dish may not only reduce the overall calories you consume that day, but may also shift your body into a fat-burning state. Exercising for even 20 minutes before you feast may deplete your muscle glycogen (energy) reserves, so the extra calories you consume would first go into restocking these reserves before being stored as fat.
4. Practice portion control
A good diet and exercise regimen, which creates a calorie deficit of about 3,500 calories in a week, should help you to lose about half a kilogram of weight per week.
But, binging on an entire regular size cheese-burst pizza, instead of eating only a couple of slices, will add about 2,500 calories to your weekly intake, thus undoing your weight loss efforts in a matter of hours.
Overeating also stretches the stomach beyond its holding capacity, which may cause stomach ache, heartburn, and even vomiting. So, it is very important to practice portion control even on the days you let loose. Remember, no food is bad, it is how much and how often you eat it that counts.
5. Practice mindful eating
Mindful eating — the practice of eating food without distractions — allows you to enjoy your favorite food to the fullest by engaging all your senses in the act of eating. Staying tuned to your body also helps you understand your hunger and satiety cues, so that you do not end up overeating your not-so-healthy meal.
6. Provide positive mental reinforcement
The term “cheat meal” has a negative connotation, which may make you feel that you are committing a bad act. But, calling these dietary deviations “reward meals” will help you associate eating your favorite food as a prize for your hard work and self-control.
Providing positive mental reinforcement will also prevent a minor slip-up in self-control from turning into a major backslide. So, if you end up binging on more food than your calorie allowance you should simply accept what you’ve eaten and continue with your diet as planned. Do not let the feeling of guilt lead to a sense of helplessness and loss of control. This will help you avoid turning a cheat meal into a cheat fest.
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