Weight Loss Wednesdays: Food For Thought-Is Your Cheat Meal Cheating You?

Over the past few years, the concept of the “Cheat Meal” has gained definite popularity within the fitness community, becoming as ever-present a part of the fitness nutrition language as “protein supplementation” and “clean eating”. With the advent of flexible dieting (a.k.a. the ‘If It Fits Your Macros” or IIFYM diet) in the past few years, the enthusiasm for the occasional “cheat” within an otherwise healthy and balanced eating pattern has only grown- sprouting up all over fitness websites and social media. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

 My preccciiooouuss!!!

My preccciiooouuss!!!

 For those of you that don’t know, the idea behind the cheat meal is that an athlete’s occasional indulgences in unhealthy meals will not significantly impact their health and fitness goals. If you have ever fantasized about devouring a box of doughnuts when the Dunkin Donuts commercial comes on mid-workout or have enviously watched your coworkers eating junk at the office holiday party while you ate plain chicken and steamed broccoli for the fifth day in a row, I am sure the appeal of this idea is quite clear.

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“Cheat”- the word even feels good, conjuring up images of naughty little things we’d like to sink our teeth into: cheesecake, piles of candy, maybe even a huge plate of pasta with garlic bread. When you’re in the midst of following a diet so squeaky clean that you can see your reflection in it, the idea of a cheat can be enough to make you cackle evilly like a cartoon villain in anticipation of pure hedonistic food indulgence. The best part of it is, on the surface, a cheat meal here and there doesn’t really affect our long-term goals, right? Or is it?

Let’s think of a cheat meal: How about a fully loaded cheeseburger, an order of fries and a coke. Sounds good to me.  Total calories? A whopping 1873!!! For some of us, that’s almost our total daily intake. That information alone made me stop and think, but there’s more.  Physiologically, it turns out that cheat meals aren’t as harmless as they seem. Here are some of the things that a meal of that size can do:

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·       Increase insulin levels in the blood, leading to decreased metabolism of fats. Now this is a normal response to eating a meal, however, lab studies have shown that fat metabolism almost completely shuts down in weight gain prone individuals, but changes little in those who are weight-gain resistant.

·       Diverts the extra fat and carbs you don’t need into storage.  Research has shown that outside of the post-exercise window, eating over 750 kcal at a go leads to measurable fat storage. This is especially true if you are prone to weight gain already.

·       Changes energy storage within the body. Overeating in weight gain prone individuals can cause increased burn of carbs and decreased metabolism of fats.

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While there is a great deal of variability in the above effects, they tend to be the most strong in weight gain prone individuals, so if your goal is continued weight loss, cheat meals may not be the best idea for you. Conversely, if weight has never been a problem for you and you are looking to gain mass, occasional breaks from your diet might not affect you very much.

The bottom line is, there’s no one answer for whether or not a cheat meal is an appropriate part of everyone’s meal plan. The individual variability across the human metabolism make this so. If you are going to cheat, do it infrequently, within reason and get some cardio in after, as studies have shown that exercising after a big meal versus before it leads to greater overall calorie burn.  If you overdo it during a period of stress, don’t hate yourself. Every day you wake up alive and breathing is a chance to start over, do better and surprise yourself. Keep up the good fight.