Something that’s been on my mind lately has been the idea of a cheat meal or cheat day in regards to a diet.
I’ve actually had this discussion with a few clients and they’ve all said similar things: they hate the idea of cheating nutritionally.
First, lets examine why we “cheat,” because it happens for a few different reasons.
- Cheating allows us to stay more loyal to a strict diet, the “light at the end of the tunnel” approach.
- We simply cannot handle the strictness of our diet and need to eat junk to make up for it.
- Social situations dictate that we eat a certain way so we consider it “cheating.”
Cheating implies that we have been bad and deserve punishment. But this post is only about Reason #1. On a strictly-planned diet, cheating on a non-cheat day is a sin. So what do we do? We slam ourselves with boiled chicken and broccoli in an effort to get back on track. We stress out and become a hormonal food-monster. Or worse, we don’t eat at all, assuming that we’ve over-consumed calories in our moment of weakness.
Now, I’m not going to argue the efficacy of the “light at the end of the tunnel” approach. I understand that it works for some people.
What I’m going to argue here is that planned cheat meals, planned cheat days, and cheat day-fast day are all terrible ways to approach your diet and that there are better ways to eat and live your life at the same time.
Imagine you lifted weights so hard all week that you couldn’t possibly recover by the next week. Let’s just saying that you were deadlifting at 95% of your 1RM for five days straight. On Saturday, you tell yourself that you won’t do anything besides lay on the couch in order to “supercompensate” for the next week. And then the next week comes along and you’re weaker.
You’ve overtrained yourself. Of course, this doesn’t happen in one week. It might take four weeks, or six weeks, or 12 weeks. But overtraining will always catch up with you. And so will a strict diet that you cannot adhere to. It will catch up with you.
In a perfect world, we would only consume perfect, wholesome foods that help us attain our goals of looking and performing like Greek gods. But we don’t live in a perfect world.
An Alternative to the 90/10 Rule
The 90/10 rule is great, if your meals are broken up into perfect little multiples of ten. Let’s say you eat three meals a day, 21 meals a week. That’s 2.1 meals that you can be less-than-perfect on, 2.8 if you eat four times a day. That’s not reasonable.
Here are the questions that I ask myself when approaching a meal:
1. Is this food that I am about to eat a good source of protein, a vegetable, a fruit, or healthy fat? If it’s post-workout or at dinner/night, is this food a starch? Can I possibly make this meal a healthy one?
If the answer is yes, I’ll eat it. If the answer is no, I’ll move to the next question:
2. Do I have any other choice at the moment?
For instance, am I in Quincy hanging out with Haley when, out of nowhere, somebody starts to crave ice cream(not pointing any fingers here)? You better believe I’m eating the ice cream.
In all seriousness, if your goal is weight loss, you have no place giving into your cravings for ice cream.
Also, in all seriousness, I will not resort to being a pain-in-the-ass in social situations. If I’m out to lunch with my Dad, you better believe I’m not concerned that I’m being served a baked potato after I didn’t lift on that particular day. I’ll just hit the conditioning hard afterward or the next day.
I think you will find that 80-90% of your meals will fall under the category of “healthy” using this quick and easy pre-grub quiz. Whether you’re Paleo, vegetarian, or meat-ist.
The Science and the Reality of Cheating
Here, in my opinion, is why cheating doesn’t work.
Cheating generally assumes a strictly-timed diet, regardless of social situations, one where you can plan when your cheats will be. If you don’t plan your cheat meals/days, a cheat meal or day could happen at any time.
What typically happens after an unanticipated cheat meal? First, you probably stress out over the bag of Lindor truffles you just ate. Know what happens when you stress? Ghrelin responds and says, “I can help!” And since ghrelin is closely linked with dopamine pathways, you eat more chocolate.
And then you cycle back onto a ridiculous diet that you cannot possibly keep up with.
And then cheat again.
Now, I’m not criticizing your ability to withstand the urge to eat all the Oreos in the cabinet. In fact, a cheat day/meal diet is more likely to fail in a social situation where a bad decision is all but inevitable.
For example, let’s say your cheat meal is typically Saturday night dinner. You cheat on Saturday night dinner every week. But on Friday, your coworkers want to go out for drinks. From there, you get home a little later than usual and your girlfriend just wants to order-in because neither of you wants to cook. Then, your buddy calls you because it’s his one night in town and wants to do something. Do you reject all of these ideas in order to maintain your strict diet? No.
And I wouldn’t either.
But what happens on Saturday? Your family always goes out for dinner on Saturday, that’s why you made it your cheat day. Do you cheat again? Yes. You do.
First, let’s agree that cheating is eating anything that doesn’t fit your macros/that isn’t part of your diet plan.
What’s the solution to cheating?
Let’s stop telling ourselves that high-protein muffins from the high-protein-lean-body cookbook are delicious. They aren’t.
Let’s stop feeling guilty when we go out to dinner and eat pasta. Let’s stop feeling guilty for going out to brunch.
Let’s stop stop using the word “cheat” altogether.
Let’s acknowledge that bad meals will happen and we must accept them and take them in stride.
Let’s follow an insulin-based nutritional plan (Part III coming soon!), cut back on the processed crap, and make sure we’re getting our protein at every meal.
Let’s train to be awesome. That means lifting heavy things, sprinting fast, and jumping high.
This isn’t your go-ahead to be a slob. This isn’t your go ahead to order two of those family-sized giant-ass cookies from Uno’s and eat the second one when you get home.
This is your go-ahead to be social, hang out with your friends and family, and stay on the path to your goals at the same time. It’s your go-ahead to eat healthy every chance you get so that you never worry about having a bad day, because you had 5 perfect ones before it. It’s your go-ahead to lift and condition yourself like an animal.
Look, I know that the diet where you have a cheat meal/day every so often works for some.
But it doesn’t work for all. Life dictates cheating at unpredictable times. And that’s the problem with planned cheating.