“I’m trying to lose weight and body fat. Is it okay for me to cheat once a week? Will it sabotage my efforts? What if I gain 2 kilos afterwards? OMG!”
Sounds familiar? It does to me. When I was losing weight three years ago, I stuck to a strict 6-days, 1200-calorie diet, only to cheat and eat dirty on Sunday. It was great initially, but when I started consistently losing weight and seeing the pounds drop, I became a little more worried every time Sunday came around. As much as I was looking forward to the cheat day, I was scared it could put all my hard efforts down. It wasn’t easy waking up at 6am every morning for that run and counting every single calorie possible.
And so I started reading books, research articles and other trusted resources on the pros and cons of cheat days. Three years later, and after so many trials and errors, I finally found something that works for me. Not only for this moment in time, but in the future too. So today I’m going to talk about cheating, in the fitness and nutrition world. Knowing what it can physiologically and psychologically do to you is crucial in attaining success no matter what your fitness goals are.
Are you ready pretty awesome people?
The cheat in fitness and nutrition
The idea of a cheat is simple. Typically, the goal and outcome of the cheat involves:
– Allowing yourself to eat whatever you want in a set period of time. Usually people choose one whole day to cheat like I used to do (e.g. Sundays), or choose one or two meals a week and have dessert with it.
– Making a conscious decision that you are going to have that burger and fries after eating nothing but chicken breasts and steamed broccoli all week. This means that you know you are going to cheat, and you stick to it as planned (or not… more on that later).
– Refuelling your body to make you feel happier, less stressed out and fidgety and more energy for the week ahead.
Cheating can bring about a wealth of benefits to our sanity but before we delve deeper into the topic, let’s have a chat about how cheating effects us.
The physiological effects of cheating
Ahhhh. Hormones. Nerves. Biomechanics. Boring stuffs. But it’s important. And if you’re reading this blog, you must be awesome AND smart. Backed by scientific evidence (I have to!), as you sit down to have that cheat meal, here are the things that happen:
– A high-carb meal (which is the typical cheat kind of meals), elevates blood insulin levels which in turn decrease fat mobilisation and oxidation. Not so great, I must say. Insulin spikes are some of the things we should try to avoid when trying to achieve optimal body composition levels.
– Increased sympathetic nervous system activity. Our body’s sympathetic nervous system is primarily responsible for our fight-or-flight response, and is responsible for various nervous system functions such as stress, adrenaline production and excitement. While this is great in keeping us sane and happy after a cheat, different people react differently when it comes to the body’s sympathetic nervous activity response.
A study published in Obesity Research studied 16 age and height-matched obese and non-obese women to see the difference in diet-induced sympathetic nervous activity. While energy expenditure increased in both groups after a meal, the magnitude of increase is significantly greater in the non-obese group and it was shown that obese women may possess a reduced sympathetic nervous activity.
In simplest terms, this means that even though a bad meal can increase your metabolism and burn more energy, the energy burned differs between individual and it works better in individuals with higher lean mass as opposed to higher fat mass.
This is also probably why people who are lean and fit can afford the occasional pizza on Friday night ins! Makes sense now, huh?
– Increased release of thyroid hormone T3 and T4, the hormones responsible in increasing basal metabolic rate, protein synthesis and body’s sensitivities to adrenaline. An increase in sympathetic nervous system activity is normally linked to the increase in T3 and T4 hormones. I know, this is awesome too, but just like the previous point, there are variability in the release of hormones in obese and lean people. A study in The American Journal of Physiology has shown that obese individuals tend to release much lesser thyroid hormones compared to those with a lower body fat percentage.
– Increased carbohydrate and fat burning in exercising individuals. A study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism studied the way aerobic trained and untrained women metabolise fats and carbohydrates. It seems to be that the non-exercisers store more fats and carbohydrates than oxidising them.
– Increased leptin production, the hormone responsible in regulating our hunger, metabolism and food intake. In hunger regulation, leptin is released by our fat cells to give us the ‘game-over’ signal, telling us to stop feeding ourselves. In periods of caloric restriction, which is what typically happen when we are on a diet, not only do our leptin levels decrease, our thyroid hormones and testosterone levels decreases too. This part explains well and truly why we normally lose our energy levels, excitement, happiness and libido while dieting. Having the occasional cheat puts our hormones back into the game, increasing leptin levels by nearly 30 percent for up to 24 hours (and thyroid hormones as I’ve mentioned above).
OMG Aqilah! This is confusing!
I know, and I don’t mean to. My take home message for you here is to remember that different people react physiologically different to cheats. Someone who is uber lean will react differently to that ice cream and brownies compared to someone who has a 40% body fat mass. While cheating does give our hormones and nervous system a good boost, it is good to know how to manage it… Which leads us to…
The psychological effects of cheating
Remember when I told you that I was worried about cheat days only because I don’t want it to sabotage on my efforts? Enter the whole different effect of cheating – the ones that can mess up with our brain.
I have to admit, after losing 20 kilos over 9 months, I had a hard time going back to ‘normal’ eating. Why? Because I was on a restrictive, low calorie diet, that only allowed me to have my favourite foods once a week. While I know that I can tell myself — ‘Let go of it. You’ve lost all the weight, no more counting calories!’ — I simply do not know how to. While fear plays a big part, it wasn’t easy if you’ve built a habit for nine months only to change it.
And you know what? It took me about a year and a half before I stopped being so paranoid about things. Research studies aside, a low calorie restrictive diet where you count every single thing that you put into your mouth can have the potential to mess you up for many months to come — I am living evidence. Now how does this link to cheating?
Just like how you get paranoid in putting all those weight back after all your hard work, having one cheat meal a week can turn into a massive binge eating bonanza.
When you start eating pancakes with maple syrup and ice cream for breakfast, instead of oatmeal and eggs, you’re giving a chance for your brain to think that it is okay to have another cheat meal. The first cheat meal then becomes a cheat second meal, say perhaps, pizza for lunch. And then you tell yourself it’s okay now since I’ve cheated for breakfast and lunch, I’ll cheat at dinner too. And maybe I’ll have a couple of beers to go along with the steak. It goes on, and what started out as a cheat meal became a cheat day, which is way off your plan. What was initially a conscious decision to have a cheat meal became an unconscious binge feast.
That is how, you sabotage your efforts and weight loss goals. And that is not what you want, no?
Now while for some people the probability of that happening is low or zero, it can and it does happen. It’s good to take note of it.
Enter the 90% rule
If there was one thing I wished I did differently while I was losing weight was this — the 90% rule. What this simply means is that you’re feeding your body with fuel you need for success 90% of the time, and allowing yourself 10% of the time to eat whatever you like. It is very similar to the 80/20 rule in the Paleo world where Mark Sisson and Rob Wolff advocates, and I personally think it is one awesome way to provide both positive physiological and psychological ‘cheating’ effects to our life.
The catch here is to do your math. Nothing is more important than to calculate what 90% and 10% is. In other words, be conscious. In fact, if you’re trying to change your lifestyle for the better, you should already be conscious of what you’re eating and what exercise you’re doing. Otherwise, go revisit your goals!
The 90% rule can be applied in several ways.
– In main meals. If you’re eating three main meals a day (breakfast, lunch and dinner) — times that by 7 days and you’ll get 21 main meals in a week. Allow yourself to be flexible for 2 of your main meals. It can be a breakfast out with a bunch of friends on Sunday and a corporate lunch on Thursday, for example.
– In your snacks. If you’re eating two snacks a day, allow yourself to be flexible for one or two snacks a week. You can have your soy mocha or hot chocie if you want to. Or a Subway cookie. As long as you’ve planned it and you’re conscious about what you’re eating.
Unless you want this to turn into a Lochness Binge Monster, the best way to approach this is to schedule your meals way in advanced. Sometimes, an emergency corporate lunch meeting crops up and this does not work but in the grand scheme of thing, it is the long term that matters.
Should I cheat or not?
If you’re on a program (with zero cheats) and you’re doing perfectly fine — you’re losing weight, you’re happy and you’re looking forward to more awesome results, I will suggest you just stick to it. Don’t try to introduce any cheats midway through your program unless you want it to backfire on you.
But if you’re starting to lose weight and you’re losing sanity because you’re thinking about your favourite foods, you’re throwing bitch-fits on your partner, colleague, neighbour, dogs and employees or you’re just feel like you’re sleep walking every single due to the lack of energy, you might want to consider the cheat.
But wait a minute, before you go off downing a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts, remember that how you cheat will make a difference in your progress. I suggest you follow this general guideline I’ve created:
– If you’re midway through a program and you’re doing fine without cheating, do not cheat! You’re doing great. (I know I’m sounding like a broken record here but I find it incredibly important to remind you to keep it simple. Most of the times people tend to create their own problems when it is unnecessary.)
– If you’re exercising and you have a body fat under 20% for females and 15% for males, the weekly cheat day should not pose a problem to you, unless you know from past experience that a cheat has the potential to turn into a crazy binge fest.
– If you’re overweight and obese, and/or your main goal is to lose body fat, I do not suggest you adhere to a weekly cheat meal or day. Be kind to yourself and adopt the 90% rule.
With anything else in health and fitness, there is no one size fits all approach. What is mediocre progress for some might be awesome for others. For some, the cheat day works extremely well, or just one meal a week is fine and they get by. For others, not having a treat at all seems to go great for them. If you’re not sure what works for you, try it out. It is better to try out and make mistakes early in your pursuit of healthy living rather than later when you’ve lost all the weight. I’ve been there and it wasn’t a nice feeling trying.
And with everything else too, only introduce new changes to your body and life one step at a time. Take baby steps if you need too. Don’t just start introducing cheat days if you’re not ready. If a binge fest can backfire on you, doing a lot of things at once can start a forest fire. Work on adopting healthy habits and make changes when you’re ready.
Here’s to you…
2300 words! And with any long posts, all information will soon be forgotten once you close this page and move on to making a grilled salmon lunch or doing some push-ups. But I don’t want that to happen to you. Here are some take home message and actionable steps you can apply immediately to your life right now…
– If you’re midway through a specific program or you’re working with a trainer/nutritionist who is accountable for your progress, do not add an unnecessary stressor like a cheat day/meal/meals. You’re doing fine.
– Different people react differently to overfeeding. Be aware of who you are and what your goals is and act accordingly! You’re smart.
– Be conscious of what you’re eating every single time, even on your cheat days. Plan what you want to eat and schedule your cheats. That way you won’t binge.
– Remember that for everything that you do in health, fitness and nutrition, make sure you’re able to do it for the rest of your life. If you think cheating once a week won’t work after you’ve lost weight, then go for the 90% rule. It is absolutely okay to indulge once in a while (remember, conscious!).
– Focus on creating healthy habits that lasts. If you need help in adopting healthy habits, check out this article I wrote last year.
Now tell me, by leaving a comment below — what is your positive (or negative) experience in weight loss and cheat days? Do you cheat yourself? If so, how do you approach it?
Share with me and the rest of the community. I am always here for you.
Have a fabulous weekend, awesome people. :)