We all know the feeling. You’ve been disciplined: you’re training hard and your eating is on point. You’re starting to develop cravings and want to cut loose. You know you deserve a break and want to treat yourself. Enter the cheat meal.
Cheat meals are a bit of a controversial topic in the health and fitness world – some think they’re essential for maintaining your sanity; others think they’ll harm your physical and aesthetic progress.
WHAT IS A ‘CHEAT MEAL’?
A cheat meal is a planned meal which involves eating something which isn’t part of your normal diet regime; typically junk food like fast food, decadent desserts, and processed snacks. There aren’t any specific guidelines on how often you should or shouldn’t have a cheat meal, though many advocates of the cheat meal include them once a week.
TO CHEAT OR NOT TO CHEAT?
Denouncers of the cheat meal say that the term ‘cheat’ has negative connotations in itself – think cheating on a test, or on a partner.
A cheat day or even cheat week can be detrimental to your progress as it can make you feel lethargic, make your workouts more challenging, and cause you to slip into an ‘all or nothing’ mindset which makes future healthy eating harder.
Here at team MACROS, we believe in a healthy balance – life’s too short to deprive yourself of the things you love. We want you to be able to have your cake and eat it too. An effective cheat meal should work to satisfy your cravings – rather than overload your stomach and leave you feeling like you need a nap.
The 90/10 rule is a good concept to follow when thinking about cheat meals. 90/10 involves eating according to your nutrition plan 90% of the time, and indulging 10% of the time. How you choose to go about this depends on your individual mindset. For example, if you’re someone who can eat a few pieces of chocolate and stop there, you can give yourself small treats more frequently throughout the week. But if you’re more of an “I ate some chocolate so I may as well down the whole family block” kind of person, then a once-a-week cheat meal may be more your style.
CHEATING TO GET AHEAD
Cheat meal advocates suggest that cheat meals can lead to changes in body composition and improved metabolic function due to fluctuations in the hunger hormone leptin – a hormone responsible for suppressing feelings of hunger. When you lose significant amounts of weight, your leptin levels generally decrease. This could cause overeating as there are less leptin levels to tell your body you’re full, leading to weight gain.
Cheat meal advocates argue that periods of higher calorie consumption can trick the body into producing more leptin, which would prevent you from overeating in the future and allow you to stick to your health and fitness goals – but there is no concrete evidence to support this.
It’s likely that allowing yourself to have that cheat meal can help you resist temptation most of the time – enabling you to stick to your nutrition plan 90% of the time as you won’t be thinking, “I can never eat x again.”
HOW TO ENJOY A CHEAT MEAL AND STAY ON TRACK
Key word here: meal. Have a cheat meal, not a cheat day. Our MACROS approved tips for enjoying a cheat meal:
- Ditch the ‘all or nothing’ attitude: Choose the food you’re craving most, savour it when you do have it instead of wolfing it down, and ditch the added extras (e.g. have a burger but lose the fries and coke). The point is to satisfy your cravings, not eat yourself into oblivion.
- Go for quality over quantity: Sure, have the spag bol, but one made with quality grass-fed beef at a good Italian restaurant, rather than a hormone and rubbish ingredient-laden fast food variety.
- Don’t cheat when you’re starving: Think pre-gaming a cheat meal by calorie restricting and ‘earning’ it in the gym will help it burn off better? Think again. Having a cheat meal when you’re too hungry leads to overeating and can actually set back your progress, so follow your training and nutrition plan as usual leading up to your cheat meal.
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