Fitness, the importance of cheat meals on your exercise and diet plan
Having a cheat day or cheat meals on your exercise and diet plan in your fitness regime is very important. When it comes to getting fit, getting to the gym is not the main issue here for the majority, but the diet is! Diet is the main synergist that makes all your hard work in the gym pay off. There couldn’t be any more truth in the saying “Abs are made in the kitchen”!
With so many conflicting information on the internet, you would be right in thinking that “cheat meal” your way to fit is surely too good to be true!? However, there is some truth in it. You can make cheat meals accelerate your goals. If done correctly cheat meals can work to your advantage.
Most of us know by now that we need to be in a calorie deficit in order to lose weight. We need to eat less calories than our body needs to burn through in order to keep us alive and fuel our daily activities. Cutting calories comes at a cost. Many diets that are effective in helping with weight loss utilize weeks or even months of cutting carbohydrates and calories. This can lead to hormonal changes in our body, effectively halting our weight loss efforts, causing us to plateau. Our body adapts in order to keep us alive. It is an efficient machine that can pretty much adapt to anything we throw at it. If you fancy knowing the science behind this, read the “Geeky Science Bit” below or skip it.
The Geeky Science Bit
When our hormones go out of whack from an extended period of dieting, our body thinks that we are in an emergency situation. It strives to hold on to body fat in an effort to prevent starvation and keep us alive. An important hormone known as Leptin decreases in our body. Leptin regulates our appetite and balances out our energy levels, playing a key role in regulating body weight and fat mass through its stimulating effect on our brains. Another hormone known as Ghrelin is an appetite stimulant which controls how hungry we get. Ghrelin tends to increase on low-calorie diets, which can lead to increase food intake and may result in a food binge.
Sustained low calorie – low carb diets also affect other vital hormones. These hormones play an important part in our metabolism that regulates our energy levels. In an attempt to prevent us from starving, the body conserves energy by downregulating the thyroid hormones T3 and T4, lowering the metabolism, making us feel weak and sluggish. This is further compounded by the drop in Testosterone making us feel even more lethargic and also causing us to lose our sex drive.
It takes around 72 hours of a calorie-restricted diet before people can see significant changes in the levels of leptin and ghrelin. So, a cheat meal every 4 days to a week that are higher in calories and carbohydrates can help raise leptin levels and lower ghrelin. This would help to rebalance the hormones and let your body know that you’re not going to be starving any time soon. This method of restricting calories for a few days, followed by a high-calorie day is similar to “Carb Cycling.” Physique/fitness athletes effectively use carb cycling to reach the extremely low levels of body fat.
Don’t be shocked, it’s Drs Orders!
Cheat meals can help you keep your sanity, be more disciplined and adhere to your diet plan when you know that you can have a “day/meal off” to satisfy your cravings. When used correctly it can help you lose weight, get lean and carve out your physique. After being on a low calorie for a few days, you would be pretty depleted, both mentally and physiologically in your muscles. Cheat meals are great for “rebalancing” hormones and replenish muscle glycogen which is the fuel stored within our muscles. We use up this fuel through physical activities. They help to replenish our muscle glycogen stores when the carbohydrates in the foods get shuffled into our muscles. This effectively “recharging” them so they are fuelled and ready for the next workout.
One caveat you may notice to your surprise after a cheat day, the next morning when you step on the scale, it reads a few pounds heavier! Don’t panic. You couldn’t put on that much fat in just one sitting. The weight increase is due to loading of muscle glycogen in your muscles. For each gram of carbohydrate stored in your muscle, it draws in 3-4 grams of water with it. Hence the sudden weight increase, which is mostly water.
When you exercise again, you will notice a sudden drop in weight again. The process is reversed when your muscle glycogen gets used up, freeing up the water it had drawn in before.
Follow the 90/10 Rule and your body type
Cheat meals would work well but only if you eat clean 90% of the time. If you eat 4 meals a day including snacks, you can have up to 3 cheat meals per week. No two bodies are the same. For cheat meals to work effectively to your advantage in helping you lose weight or get lean, it’s best to first evaluate your body type. Here are the guidelines you should stick to:
1. Endomorphic – If you’re in this category, then your body easily puts on body fat and weight. Your body composition would lean towards the overweight category. You should stick with one to two cheat meal/s every 5-7 days.
2. Ectomorphic – Ectomorphs are generally skinny or those with a “wirery” frame, finding it very difficult to put on weight. As losing weight or getting lean is not an issue, these individuals can eat 3-4 cheat meals in one day or spread out throughout the week.
3. Mesomorphic – Muscular or bulky in a definition. Strategically this would lie between the top two body types. 2-3 cheat meals per week ideally spread out on two different days.
Plan ahead and schedule meals
Be very careful that you don’t overindulge! Cheat meals are not free for all, “eat all you can” or you will blow away your entire weeks’ efforts! Eat till you’re satisfied, not till you’re busting at the seams. Build your cheat meals on your most intense workout day and on the days you cannot avoid eating out. Whilst eating out try to opt for higher carb meals as opposed to high-fat meals.
Some may find it difficult to stop once you start cheating, and fear that you may spiral out of control. It may be best to cook a healthier alternative at home. Focus on using clean sources of carbs such as wholegrain rice and pasta, so your body will still get a boost of energy from the carbs that are needed and keep your hormones in check. This way you still get a healthy balance of macronutrients, less likely to crave and maintain your progress.
Cheat meals can definitely work to your advantage when planned and used correctly.
You can still keep your body well nourished, healthy and not feeling guilty about the indulgence here and there. All whilst you work toward achieving your goals, be it to lose a few pounds or carve out the dream physique that you aspire to.
AUTHOR: Steven Wong
Steven is a Level 3 personal trainer. He has more than 12 years of expertise, especially in the areas of fat loss and muscle building. He is also a certified nutritionist and writes on his blog about general health and fitness&nutrition related topics.
To read more about his pieces go to Steven’s website.