Scenario: You’ve been on this low calorie, health-conscious diet for a few weeks now. You are seeing your desired results and you are getting a hang of this new dietary lifestyle. All seems right and you’re well on your way to goals. But then you notice a lag in your progress and your optimism wavers: you have hit the dreaded plateau.
What is this dreaded plateau; why aren’t you losing weight even though you are following your diet just as strictly as before?
Interesting fact: when you get use to a new diet, so does your body.
Let’s take a step back and ask ourselves why new diets work in the first place: In order to reach a particular body weight or appearance goal, pushing your body out of its comfort zone is how you instigate change.
At the end of the day you eat to survive, and this comfort zone is where your body resides to survive. Food is the fuel for all of your organs to function and it likes to function with the same type and amount of fuel each time. When you change up that fuel perhaps by eating less than usual, your metabolism has to make adjustments to feed those organs properly. How? By using your body’s storage of fat and sugar. This period of adaptation outside of your comfort zone is the goldmine; it’s when you lose weight.
So far you have done just that. But now you have reached a plateau. Your new way of eating is the “new normal”. You have slid back into your body’s new comfort zone, and it is time to jump back out again.
The positive side? It’s time to cheat.
What Does It Mean To Have A Cheat Meal?
“Cheating” often has the connotation of doing something naughty, but in this scenario perhaps it’s better to think of it as simply “mixing it up”. As noted before, if you want your body to change, you have to change what you put into your body. A cheat meal is the extra nudge in your healthy new regimen to keep and body guessing the progress going.
Losing weight through diet is simple in theory: eat less, eat better. “Better” generally refers to clean protein sources, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats. Therefore in order to “mix it up” we eat a meal high in calories and all macronutrients—protein, carbs, and fat but in a way that would not normally be part of a proper diet plan.
Some FAQs about Cheat Meals:
Time Carefully: Timing is everything. It is recommended to cheat right after an intense workout for maximum use of calories as well as a period of fasting if possible (“Fasting” refers to a period of time when you consume a minimal amount of calories or no calories at all for at least 12 hours).
Don’t Cheat with Junk: It’s a trap! Sure, you can splurge a little but it is by no means time to eat anything and everything. Some food should flat out be avoided, such as trans-fats also known as fake-fats, highly processed and chemical-rich foods, and please try to avoid high fructose corns syrup (and generally any savory products with a type of sugar as one of the first few ingredients). It’s fine to eat non-dietary foods, but keep the real junk at bay. Fat or skinny, big or small, these foods can do a lot of harm and little good.
Plan in Advance: The leading issue with cheating is the likelihood of overeating. Once given permission to indulge we do just that, and naturally it’s hard to put on the breaks. Planning is the answer. Lay out the exact amount of food you plan on eating and ignore the desire to search for second helpings. Try your best to eat slowly as well. Don’t you want to fully enjoy this scrumptious, special meal?
500-1000 Calories: It’s hard to eat more than 1000 calories without overdoing something. If it’s easy to pass that threshold you are most likely consuming some of that junk we talked about and/or are overeating. This also goes hand-in-hand with planning, which includes keeping up with food intake recording (which hopefully you are doing anyway – highly recommended to use the app, MyFitnessPal if not!)
Avoid your Addictions: Have a food you love but know it’s your biggest weakness? Keep it away. It’s a lot harder to stick to your plan if you include this food. Yes, a cheat meal is a great time to munch on something you’ve been missing, but it is not the time to binge on the bad stuff, which you are much more likely to do if it’s your drug of choice. Stay away from “drugs”, everybody!
Protein Always: Cheat meals are often high in carbs but protein is necessary especially if you want to keep the muscles in check after your pre-cheat workout. Make sure to include that clean protein source each time and at least 5oz.
Minimal Alcohol: Sure, alcohol is mostly sugar/carbs and happens to be our brain’s favorite source of fuel (crazy, right?) but you definitely want to avoid racking up alcohol-based calories. Alcohol has no nutritious value and throws your blood sugar off way past the time of your cheat meal. A glass of wine, a beer or a serving of liquor is just fine, but if you want to “party” keep the excessive drinking as a treat for another time. “Cheating” is not synonymous with “Treating”.
Meal vs. Day: Both are only to happen once a week. However, meals are better recommended as opposed to days. This helps you avoid throwing off your week’s hard work. It is unwise to do a cheat day unless you are already extremely lean and fit and/or your goals are specific to such a diet. You’ll find that a single, well planned cheat meal is rather satisfactory in instigating that necessary metabolic jump. It has also shown to be just enough of a mental and physical benefit that you feel ready to get back on the weekly regimented wagon without major cravings.
When it comes to losing weight, cheating is not the devil as long as it is planned out and deemed appropriate according to your dietary regimen. Random acts of binging are always a no no, even if they include your cheat day pre-approved foods. It is not recommended physically or mentally to ever let yourself go crazy on any food.
Do what’s right for your body and your body will do right by you. That includes cheating responsibly.
Eva Lana is the founder and CEO of Bria Body, an integrative whole-body health approach toward health and wellness for new mothers. Eva is a Nutritional Scientist, Certified Personal Trainer and Stress Management/Postpartum Coach. Eva is the nutrition consultant at Bring the Gym to Me. To find out more about Eva or book a session, click here.