TO CHEAT MEAL OR NOT TO CHEAT MEAL? THAT IS THE QUESTION

The other day on Facebook I announced publicly my affection for J-Biebs music. In particular the song, “Love Yourself.” Oh and, “One Less Lonely Girl,” my all time favorite. In fact, cheesy pop music is one of my favorite things in the world.

I also really like the movie 27 Dresses, walking around the house naked when no one is home, and letting my dog lick my leg after I’ve put lotion on. And yes I said leg. I don’t want any of you fools asking me if I really meant leg. Remove mind from gutter.

That is the very short list of my many guilty pleasures. 

By definition a guilty pleasure is a something (anything really) like a song, fashion, movie, T.V show (cough) Gilmore Girls (cough) (cough), fetish, or food that you enjoy but feel is not held in high regard, would be embarrassed admitting, or are sometimes even ashamed of.

Today’s article is about guilty food pleasures and whether you should have a “cheat meal” as a way to enjoy them. So turn on that Biebs, walk around your house naked, and read up.

WHAT IS A CHEAT MEAL?

You actually may call it something entirely different. 

  • Cheat meal
  • Free meal
  • Reward meal
  • Relax meal
  • Flex meal
  • Pizza and ice cream

It doesn’t really matter what you call it. They all pretty much mean that you’ll be eating something not consistent with whatever meal plan, diet, or nutritional approach you’ve decided to follow. Most often a cheat meal is a calculated decision to eat something not part of your plan during a certain time period. 

If you’ve ever dieted before it was probably pretty restrictive and I bet you felt pretty deprived. You probably missed eating certain foods you enjoy but felt they were not healthy enough to be included in your plan. These would be your cheat foods.

The point of a cheat meal is usually to give yourself either a psychological or physiological break from the “diet” that you’ve decided to follow.

WHY OR WHY NOT TO CHEAT

Don’t cheat on your husband or wife, taxes, or tests. That’s pretty good advice. Ah, who am I kidding. Just don’t cheat on your husband or wife. The other two are questionable.

For me to tell you whether or not to cheat on your diet would be irresponsible. Having a cheat day, meal, or following my personal favorite the 10% meal rule* is something you should decide for yourself. If you’re approach is working than keep on truckin. If not, then maybe it’s time to switch things up.

*This is how I like to define the 10% rule. 90% of the time you’re eating real, whole food, with 1-ingredient (there are some exceptions) and 10% of the time you’re not.

For you engineers, math elites, and those that just like numbers (I’m raising my hand) this is what that may look like over the course of a week.

Lets say you normally eat 4 meals or 3 meals and 1 snack a day. Over 7 days that’s a total of 28 meals. 10% of that is roughly 3. This means that if you’re following the 10% rule, 3 meals per week can be whatever you’d like within reason.

I’m going to present some of the facts. I’ll throw them out there and if you like it you can take it and if you don’t just send’em right back.

Most proponents of having a cheat meal do so for the following reasons. Now I’m going to warn you, this is some science-y shit right here.

#1: Dieting can lower your levels of leptin, a hormone responsible for maintaining energy balance and weight loss.

Including a cheat meal will supposedly boost these leptin levels and help you burn more calories. Some studies show that levels of leptin will be elevated anywhere from 3 to 10% for up to 24 hours. 

#2: When dieting there is less T3 and T4 thyroid production which is important for metabolic rate.

A cheat meal may increase energy expenditure by 9% and for up to 24 hours.

Personally, I love a good study but I can’t believe I’m going to say this. I feel this is one time where you may want to throw the science out the window – gasp!

I say this for a couple of reasons. One, it’s easy to find evidence to support what ever biases you have. If you want to have cheat days you can google and find information telling you cheat days are the best and that you need to be doing them. Same goes for if you believe cheat days are the devil.

Also, a lot of the pro cheat day information refers to leptin levels being depleted and say that because of this depletion that is why you should cheat. Now raise your hand if you’ve ever had your leptin levels checked… Yeah, I thought so. Most people who use cheat days for this reason have no idea if their leptin levels are depleted. 

You’ll also hear from the no cheat people. They usually say something like cheating is for the weak. Well you people can shove it. Striving for perfection is setting yourself up for failure. No person is perfect – no one.

For me, having a cheat day has absolutely zip to do with anything physiological. Instead, it’s all about the psychology. If I’ve been eating really healthy, getting results, and am happy with where my body and health are and my buddies want to go grab a beer and burger – I’m going. I don’t go all the time but if I feel like it I do it. It’s a nice little break that I know we could all use sometimes. 

No with that said it is my responsibility to make sure that I’m not doing this too often. If I’m on my game 90% of the time and off it 10% – that’s pretty darn good.

YOU’RE EVENTUALLY GOING TO “CHEAT”

No matter how dedicated, motivated, and inspired you are to follow your diet there is going to come a time when you “cheat” on it. You may be at a party and taste test one of the desserts. You’ll forget to prepare a meal or 2 and be forced to pick something up on the run. Quesadilla anyone?

Your buddies or girlfriends will peer pressure the shit out of you and eventually you’ll crumble and drink a few beers or some fruity drink with an umbrella in it. It’s going to happen – you’re going to cheat.

Food isn’t just fuel. It should be fun, enjoyable, and social. It can add great joy to your life and that’s ok. So if you’re going to “cheat” why not schedule it.

  • If you’re using the 10% meal rule you may schedule a few of them throughout the week.
  • If you’re like my brother or Tim you’ll schedule in an entire day.

The key to this is to recognize what your domino foods are. Domino foods are the ones that are nearly impossible for you to eat a reasonable amount of. Winnie the Pooh has honey, the Cookie Monster has cookies, and I have Almond Butter. 

Cookie Monster

After talking to clients I’ve found that some common domino foods are:

  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Baked goods
  • Flavored nuts
  • Peanut butter
  • Ice cream

These are the foods that you’ll want to be on watch for. It’s best not to keep these at home but instead to enjoy them while out. It’s harder to eat too much of them when you don’t have a large supply or are not alone.

SLOW DOWN YOUR CHEAT

One of my favorite Saved By The Bell Episodes is when Screech makes it to the all city chess finals and Zack and Slater make a bet with Valley that he’ll win. Screech ends up going against a Russian chess ringer named Peter Breschnev. It looks like he’ll have no shot but one of the strategies they use to try to beat Peter (aside from kidnapping him) is to hurry or rush is moves.

One of the best lines in that episode: As Zack is trying to hurry Peter to make a move.

Peter – I can’t concentrate.

Zack – That’s why I’m Rush’n you.

Get it? 🙂

It takes roughly 20 minutes for your gut to signal to your brain that you’ve had enough to eat. If every meal you consume lasts 5 minutes that’s 15 extra minutes you can keep eating until you actually know that you’ve had enough.

Do you know how many scoops of ice cream I could eat in 15 more minutes? A lot!

Because most of us eat the majority of our meals in less than 20 minutes we’re eating past the point of fullness. Essentially, we’re eating more than our bodies actually need.

Yeah, but is eating slowly really going to make a difference? 

You bet your butt it is. Studies are showing that just by slowing down when you eat you’ll consume fewer calories. Enough to lose 20 pounds a year without making any other changes.

In a University of Rhode Island study researchers took a group of people and served them a giant plate of Pasta with red sauce and cheese. All of the participants were told to eat until they felt comfortably full. However, half of the group was told to eat as quickly as possible while the other half was told to eat slowly and to put utensils down between bites.

What they found was this:

  • Fast eaters consumed 646 calories in 9 minutes
  • Slow eaters consumed 579 calories in 29 minutes

Say whaaaaa!?

That’s right. Slow eaters ate 67 fewer calories in 20 more minutes of eating. That might not seem like much but extend those 67 calories from one meal over the course of a year and that comes out to 24,445 fewer calories consumed.

Because a pound of fat is equivalent to 3,500 calories that comes out to about 7 pounds lost in a year from eating slowly at one stinking meal! How would you feel if you lost 7 pounds and didn’t have to change the food that you ate?

Now imagine if you ate slowly at all of your meals? Yeah, that’s too much math for me too but I think you get the idea.

Eating slow actually gives you a chance to enjoy your food. I mean hell, that’s one of the reasons we eat right? Because it provides a little bit of pleasure – and there’s nothing wrong with getting pleasure out of eating despite what you’ve read. Eating should be fun, social, and enjoyable.

Lets look at this in 2 ways real quick:

  1. Would you rather eat a “sinful” food like cheesecake in 1 minute or to enjoy all its goodness over 15?
  2. Would you rather sit down with friends for 5 minutes and shovel down a healthy salmon salad or chat and eat and enjoy each others company for 20 minutes?

Eating slowly gives you an opportunity to enjoy what you’re eating. The textures, tastes, and smells – even if you’re “cheating” on your diet. So have that cheesecake, just eat it slowly.

Eating slowly also helps you to digest what you’ve consumed. Digestion actually starts in the mouth and the more you chew your food the easier it is for the stomach to turn it into chyme. This means that more of it goes to nourishing and replenishing your bodies energy stores and less to sitting like a brick in your gut.

Eating fast doesn’t even feel good. I don’t know about you but when I’m eating too fast I often feel lethargic, foggy brained, and sometimes even grumpy. Eating slowly also helps to keep your blood sugar stable and reduce insulin spikes. This may reduce the desire to eat shortly after a meal

So if you do decide to cheat – do it slowly.

Here are a few cool apps that can help you with this. 

Or you can just use the timer on your phone.

SO SHOULD YOU CHEAT?

Yes and no.

I know I know. What kind of bullshit fence-sitting is that? Just hear me out alright?

What happens when you decide to get fit and healthy? You commit to a specific workout and diet, right? A couple of weeks in and you’re likely to miss a workout or two and to mess up on your diet. You get frustrated, angry at yourself for not having enough willpower to follow your plan, so you throw up your hands, say fuck this, and decide to either start all over Monday or forget it altogether. Thus, this cycle repeats itself over and over again.

Gain weight – diet – lose some weight – fall off the wagon – gain weight back – and repeat

You can do 1 of 2 things to keep from this endless cycle.

  1. Schedule yourself a cheat meal
  2. Forget the cheat meal altogether but work on self-compassion

Buy how will you know which one will work for you? Don’t worry, I got your back. Here’s how you can tell.

What happens when you cheat? Is it tough for you to stop? Does a 1/2 cup of ice cream turn into a pint? Does 2 beers turn into 6? Does a slice of pizza turn into 8? If this sounds like you scheduled cheat meals might not be your best option but instead working on self-compassion may be in your best interest. 

However if you can eat these foods in reasonable serving sizes than scheduling a cheat meal every once in a while may be the best choice for you. 

HEALTHY EATING ISN’T ABOUT PERFECTION

Following a diet is tough. They usually include ridiculous rules that are difficult to follow and set you up for failure.

  • Certain number of meals per day
  • Specific amounts of carbs, proteins, and fats
  • Avoid sugar
  • Eat this many calories
  • Has to be gluten-free

Things like those above make it difficult to enjoy food, be social, and to succeed.

You’re going to forget to bring healthy meal with you. You’re going to be at parties where healthy options are not available, and you’re going to want to have a beer or mixed drink every once in a while. Healthy eating doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s not about being allowed to eat this and not allowed to eat that. There is no such thing as good food and bad food. Healthy eating is about doing your best with the options available in whatever situations that you’re in.

So where do you stand? Are cheat meals working for you or are they not part of your nutrition plan?

Live Limitless,

Justin

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