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Saturday
Feb042012

Is a weekly cheat meal a good idea?

Written by Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

One of the first questions people ask when they begin changing their nutrition habits is “When do I get to eat my favorite food again?” It’s as if they’re planning on how to fit junk food into their nutrition plan before they even get started. To satisfy this urge, some weight loss programs call for a free-for-all meal or day each week. But if your goal is long-term health, is this appropriate? Is it necessary? Or can it actually sabotage your plans?

Cheating and Extreme Fat Loss

Though there’s no “historical record” on how cheat meals became popular in weight loss programs, chances are bodybuilders were the first to try cheat meals. There is a dramatic difference between what is required to keep one’s body at a healthy body fat level, and what is required to become ultra-lean. To prepare for a figure or bodybuilding show, some form of a cheat meal or carb-loading meal can have its place, although many individuals do well without it.

One of the best resources I’ve come across for this type of fat loss programming is The Ultimate Diet 2.0 by Lyle McDonald. However, unless you’re already very lean and looking to become extremely lean, this type of nutrition plan is not appropriate. Such an approach is designed to take your body below body fat levels it would naturally maintain. It is not a way of eating for life. It truly is a diet and requires much in the way of meal planning, weighing and measuring, and structuring your exercise program to complement the diet.

Before you consider such a program, you should get your body fat levels down to an athletic level and maintain your conditioning for several months. Most people reading this are not interested in stepping on stage in a physique competition, and instead are interested in being healthy and lean. If that sounds more like you, the following are some reasons to avoid the idea of cheating.

Cheating Can Make Cravings Worse

A cheat meal is a meal (or sometimes a day’s worth of meals) that consist of foods you wouldn’t otherwise eat. Just mentioning “cheat meal” probably stirs up visions of processed, sugar-laden, vegetable-oil filled junk food. If you understand how bad these foods are for you, it will make it easier to pass on them.

I have a couple friends who are recovering alcoholics. They’ve been sober for years and the most important part of being sober is they know they can never indulge in alcohol. They don’t stay sober by drinking alcohol in moderation, they stay sober by abstaining completely. If they instead tried to limit drinking to just once a week or once a month, the thought of their upcoming drink would consume their life. Food isn’t much different. As Dr. Davis discussed in our recent interview, many processed foods made with wheat and sugar can become addictive. The cravings don’t lessen by limiting them to once a week. If anything, they can become stronger.

For a long time, my own weekly cheat meal was pizza and ice cream. Friday night I’d fill up and I would be satisfied for the next couple days. As the week went on, I’d find myself thinking about Friday night’s cheat meal. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? It’s not that I didn’t enjoy all the other food I ate during the week. It’s just that the taste of the wheat, sugar, artificial flavors and other junk in my Friday night feast were more appealing to my palate than the whole food I was eating all the other meals. Today, the thought of eating pizza or ice cream never crosses my mind.

Cheat Foods, Junk Food

Cheat meals almost always involve processed foods. Pizza, ice cream, bread, pasta, candy, French fries, buttered popcorn. You probably have others you can add to the list. These foods have excessive amounts of gluten, sugar, preservatives, artificial color and flavor, artificial sweeteners, monosodium glutamate (MSG), vegetable oils and other undesirable additives.

My wife pointed out to me one evening the fact that if those foods weren’t good in my diet every day, they’re not good in my diet once a week. After all, if you eat them once a week, that’s 52 times per year. Think about that. Do you plan to eat 52 pizzas this year, or 52 pints of ice cream, or...When you look at it that way, once a week is a LOT.

Cheating Won’t “Stoke your Metabolic Fire”

Low-calorie diets have been shown to lower metabolic rates. The more severe the calorie deficit, the more significant the drop in metabolic rate can be. That’s why we don’t focus so heavily on calorie-restriction at Life Time, and instead focus on eating the right foods and listening to your body.

Your body has tens of thousands of calories stored up as fat that it can use for energy. Common calorie-restricted diets tend to be high in carbohydrates. The carbs cause an increase in insulin and insulin shuts down the ability to burn fat. If insulin levels are high, even if you eat a low level of total calories, your body can’t use body fat for energy. Instead, it uses available carbohydrate and can break down muscle tissue when necessary. Following a low-calorie, low-fat diet leads to an insatiable appetite and a drop in metabolic rate to conserve energy.

I like to use this analogy: Imagine you have bills to pay and you’re running short on cash at home. You have thousands of dollars in your bank account, but you can’t remember your PIN. You have all the money you need to pay your bills, but you can’t get at it. If you can’t get at the money you need to pay your bills, the alternative is to downsize and cut back on expenses. Once you find your PIN, you get access to your savings and can start paying bills again.

Low insulin levels are like knowing your PIN. When you need extra energy to maintain normal activity, you pull energy out of your fat cells and burn the fat. It’s like accessing your savings to cover the cost of your living expenses. You probably don’t have an endless supply of money to spend, but you do have an almost endless supply of energy stored as fat to supply your body’s energy needs. If you eat fewer calories, but the foods you do eat are rich in protein and healthy fat and lower in carbohydrate, your body can burn fat from your fat cells for energy. If you keep supplying your body with energy from fat, your metabolism won’t slow down as you always have access to extra energy from fat stores.

To Cheat or Not

Including cheat meals in a weight loss plan can be effective for some people for weight loss. If your goal is health and weight management, the foods so often associated with cheat meals are not health-promoting. Though cheat meals can be useful for extreme fat loss, they make little sense if your goal is to live a healthy way of life. A healthy way of life includes physical and mental health.

Aside from whether it's nutritious or not, some people find they develop an abnormal focus on their cheat meal, which can easily turn into more of a binge than a meal. If that sounds like you, cheating is probably not a good idea.

Finally, understand a cheat meal is quite different than an occasional dinner out where you veer off your nutrition plan. Just as it's unhealthy to plan out a junk food binge each weekend, it's also unhealthy to beat yourself up because you ate something you normally wouldn't. Unless you have a food allergy where you clearly should not be eating certain foods, give yourself a break if you get off course on occasion. After all, we're all human.

If you're healthy and eat well 90% of the time, you'll probably be fine. Health isn't determined by how you look, though. The only way to really know how healthy you are is through a comprehensive lab test. If you have insulin resistance, food sensitivities, metabolic syndrome, systemic inflammation, digestive issues or hormonal imbalances, cheating isn't a good idea. After all, long-term health is far more important than how you look on the outside. In addition, when you focus on improving your overall health, you'll look better on the outside anyway.

Fill your kitchen with great-tasting whole foods and you’ll have all the variety and great taste you need. When you really need something sweet, there are easy ways to make dessert-type foods with little to no sugar and all the taste you want. It just takes a little practice. Leave Ben, Jerry, Little Debbie, and the Red Barron at the store and cook up a quality, whole food meal this weekend instead.

Share your thoughts and comments below.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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Reader Comments (8)

You mentioned weighing food. This is a concept I'm interesed in exploring for accountability purposes. How can I determine how much food is enough for me? I have heard it is best to weight my food raw. Where can I find out more information?

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKrep R

Well, good or bad, cheat meals keep me going. If I thought that I could never have another cupcake, steak, french fry, bowl of pasta or hamburger for the rest of my life I would lose an immense amount of motivation. Food is awesome! To have something extra yummy once and awhile should not be that big of a deal. I allow myself to celebrate what I have done (now -91 lbs and counting) by having a cheat night once a month. My desire for bad foods is considerably lower than it used to be. In fact, at the last cheat night I didn't even want the bun on my burger and ate a salad with it instead of fries. I ate it because that was what I was craving not because I SHOULD. I know I am not a nutritionist and I get how this could lead someone to start craving bad foods again but I think there is something to be said about how eating healthy MOST of the time can change what you crave MOST of the time.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKarrie

Karrie - congrats on your weight loss! That's awesome. Sounds like you're following the 90% recommendation like mentioned in the last paragraph. If it's working for you, keep it going. The longer you follow a healthy lifestyle, the less you may be interested in the "bad" stuff, although it's pretty easy to make healthy treats when the mood strikes you as well.

I think people "think" foods are worse for them than they are sometimes. You mentioned eating a burger without the bun and a salad instead of fries. I wouldn't consider that a "cheat meal" at all. That's actually pretty good for you, so you're making great decisions even when you think you're cheating. Nice work!

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

Krep, my wife and I have been using www.caloriecount.com. It helps you track your daily intake and how you are doing on nutrients, not just calories. Has worked so far for us(I am down 30, my wife is down 10 in a little over a month) along with exercise. Granted that is obviously the big loss you have your first week from changing from crappy food to healthy and the water weight, but still it is a start. :)

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

What I have found over the years is that when my body and brain are nourished I have no cravings for anything but healthy foods. The thought of purposely eating processed junk food does not occur to me, ever. There are many ways to make my old not so healthy favorites conform to my healthy eating lifestyle. Healthy carrot cake? Yep, made one last weekend for a birthday celebration, and was told it tasted better than it's unhealthy counterpart. It was gluten-free, sugar-free and low-carb! I am thankful for my health and I do not take it for granted.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVanessa

In terms of cheat days kick starting your metabolism, what I've read elsewhere suggests your bank analogy should be taken further. The fat you have stored is money in the bank, and the low insulin levels are the pin code, but the food you eat is your job. If you lose your job, even if you have money in the bank, you're likely to curb your spending until you have another job. The reason this translates to human metabolism is because as we evolved, food wasn't always guaranteed, so when we didn't have food our bodies changed modes and lowered our metabolism. Finding and eating more food would then raise our metabolism back.
I'm not necessarily saying you're wrong, I would just like to know how you would respond to some of the other literature I've read on the subject.

April 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGraham

@Graham: I've read quite a few articles and studies, suggesting a large refeed (eating a large volume of food in a short period of time) either as a single meal or over the course of a day, showed individuals' metabolic rates were elevated. However, time and again the increase in metabolic rate was related to the thermic effect of food (a.k.a. diet induced thermogenesis). That means the increase in metabolism was related to the work the body has to perform digesting the above-average amount of food. Over a period of several days, people who have suppressed their metabolism may slightly raise their metabolic rate, but it requires more than a meal or two. I hope that helps.

April 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

Thanks for the post. These are important tips for weight loss. Proper diet management & routine exercise keeps the weight in control.

October 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteranisley

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