The Perils of Clean Eating & Cheat Meals by Mike Samuels
Katie is a typical woman in her early-40s. Not particularly out of shape, but definitely carrying some extra fat around her hips and stomach. Her exercise consists of a couple of circuits classes each week, and a tough weights and cardio workout with her personal trainer. Sheâ€™s been on her new lifestyle for three months now, and while progress was great to begin with, itâ€™s ground to a shuddering halt in the last four weeks.
Now Iâ€™ll introduce you to Philâ€¦..
Phil is your typical mid-20s gym rat. Heâ€™s spent years building muscle, and looks awesome with his tee shirt on, but when the clothes come off, his hard-earned muscle is hidden under a layer of stubborn fat. Sure, heâ€™s in better shape than the average guy, but heâ€™s a long way off donning a banana hammock and hitting the bodybuilding stage.
Katie and Phil might seem pretty different at first glance; different sexes, different routines, almost 20 years between them, and both looking for different physiques. Ultimately though, they both want to lose fat and look better naked.
The similarities continue when it comes to diet, too.
The Weekday Warrior
Without necessarily knowing it, both Katie and Phil are eating in a similar way. Monday to Friday, theyâ€™re both awesome with their diets. They hit their calorie intakes perfectly, stick to high-protein, low-carb, low-fat foods, with plenty of veggies. They avoid so-called bad foods such as bread, pasta, cakes and ice cream, sticking solely to a rigid list of clean foods â€“ chicken, tuna, brown rice, oats, broccoli, salad and the like.
When the weekend rolls around, itâ€™s a different matter though.
You might be just like Katie, or perhaps have a client like her. Sheâ€™s pleased with how well sheâ€™s done in the week, thinks of all the progress sheâ€™s made, and decides to let her hair down a little over the weekend. This starts with a glass or two of wine with friends on a Friday night, with maybe a cheeky chocolate bar when she gets home. Saturday is fairly relaxed , as is Sunday, which includes a full-on roast dinner with all the trimmings, plenty of dessert, and then a wine and chocolate-fest in the afternoon.
Not the best weekend nutrition-wise, but hey, sheâ€™s earned it, right?
You might be dealing with a Phil though.
He reads bodybuilding magazines like theyâ€™re his bible. Every weekday is the same â€“ six meals, spaced three hours apart, with a clean carb source, a lean protein and vegetables at every meal. Philâ€™s a smart cookie though, and knows that as beneficial as this kind of plan is, low-calorie dieting can slow your metabolism, so he reads up on the concept of cheat days.
A cheat day is designed to boost your metabolism, raise levels of leptin, T3, testosterone and other metabolism regulating hormones and give you a welcome break from dieting. So over the weekend, you work your arse off to boost your metabolism by eating a plethora of high-carb, high-calorie foods.
Friday night is pizza night. And whatâ€™s pizza without a few beers? Working off that hangover then requires a Saturday morning fry up, followed by a pie and a pint or two at the football, and another takeaway in the evening. Sundayâ€™s your last chance to boost that metabolism for another week, so itâ€™s the same thing again â€“ cereals, biscuits, bagels, pretzels, rice cakes, salted peanuts â€“ whatever you can force down your gullet to really raise those hormones that dipped during a tough week of dieting.
Despite the fact both these guys are sticking to their diets 100 percent during the week, and seemingly not doing anything wrong at the weekend, with Katie using it as a chance to reward herself a little for her compliance, and Phil implementing scientific diet-enhancing methods, both of them are getting nowhere.
Weekend Cheating: The Good
As alluded to above, going off your diet, raising calories (particularly in the form of carbohydrate) and giving yourself a mini break can help you both physiologically and psychologically.
Studies have shown that eating in an energy deficit lowers levels of leptin (1) and that as bodyweight drops during dieting, so does leptin. (2) The main role of leptin is to regulate hunger and appetite, and as leptin falls, your hunger levels and cravings go up. Plus, higher leptin levels can result in faster and more sustained weight loss. (3)
As leptin drops when your calories are lower, clearly it rises when your calories are higher.
Simply put, a short period of over-feeding raises leptin levels, thus reducing your appetite and cravings, effectively giving you a metabolism â€œboost.â€
It isnâ€™t just that though â€“ how often do you have a non-dieting meal, and feel a huge weight lift from your shoulders?
Eating those high-carb, high-calorie foods youâ€™ve been craving helps to give you something to look forward to during the week, and thereâ€™s no better taste than that of a well-deserved cheat meal. From a social standpoint too, itâ€™s much easier to go out to eat with friends when youâ€™re off your diet and having a cheat meal, then when youâ€™re on it, and limited to meagre quantities and only a small quota of foods.
Weekend Cheating: The Bad
Right, so thatâ€™s your binge-fest sorted then. A whole weekend of nothing but takeaways, booze, chips and sweets â€“ all in the name of leptin boosting.
Unfortunately, itâ€™s not that simple.
Sure, a higher calorie intake on strategically-placed days during your diet is a useful tool for sustaining progress, but it isnâ€™t as straightforward as succumbing to a weekend binge.
First up, thereâ€™s the issue of macronutrients.
This is covered extensively by Lyle McDonald in his book â€œA Guide to Flexible Dieting.â€
The long and the short of it is that carbohydrate loading or re-feeding is much more effective than increasing your fat or protein intake when it comes to influencing leptin production. A cheat meal should be predominantly based around carb-dense foods that contain low to moderate amounts of fat, and moderate amounts of protein. (4)
A good example of a leptin-boosting meal would be a white bagel with sliced turkey, lettuce, tomato, low-fat mayo, some baked crisps and a piece of fruit. Something with an equal calorie value, but lower in carbs â€“ say for instance a few slices of full-fat cheese, with some cured meat, a handful of nuts and a bowl of olives â€“ would have a much more minute effect on leptin, despite the fact these may also be â€œnon-dieting foodsâ€ and be exactly what youâ€™re craving.
Weekend Cheating: The Ugly
The notion of the word â€œcheatâ€ meal or â€œcheatâ€ weekend brings about all manner of undesirable connotations.
Unfortunately, many people equate dieting with misery, and food restriction, and see any deviation from their list of approved foods as cheating.
Your typical bodybuilder diet is all about egg whites, chicken breast, broccoli, spinach, oats and sweet potatoes, with perfectly good foods such as dairy, breads, and pastas given the boot. This isnâ€™t any way to diet, and it isnâ€™t any way to live, either.
As soon as you eat something deemed â€œunclean,â€ â€œdirty,â€ or â€œforbiddenâ€ most people think â€“ â€œThatâ€™s it, Iâ€™ve screwed up my diet, might as well not bother for the rest of the day.â€
The truth is though, that all of these supposed cheat foods can be included in your diet on a daily basis, without affecting progress, or causing feelings of guilt. This is really a topic for another article, as itâ€™s an extensive concept, but if youâ€™re currently following a pre-written meal plan, or avoiding certain foods for fear of them contributing to weight gain, or sabotaging your diet, I urge you to look into flexible dieting, or, as it is sometimes referred to â€“ IIFYM â€“ If It Fits Your Macros. While this term isnâ€™t 100 percent representative of a flexible diet, this seems to be a bit of a buzzword in the industry at the moment, so a quick Google search is a good place to start.
Diets donâ€™t have to be miserable, and they certainly donâ€™t have to exclude foods you crave to the point where you canâ€™t wait for the weekend to roll around so you can indulge.
Weekend Cheating: The Downright Abysmal
Weâ€™ve covered how cheating on your diet can be good, particularly due to the physiological effects on leptin, and the psychological effects from having a little more free reign over your food intake.
Unfortunately, it started to go downhill from there.
Unregulated cheat meals arenâ€™t nearly as beneficial as individualized high-carb re-feeds, as they donâ€™t have nearly the same leptin-raising effects.
Things got worse when we discussed the notion of clean vs dirty foods, how thinking of eating as cheating is detrimental, and why dieting shouldnâ€™t be miserable on a daily basis. But things deteriorate even more, when we come down to one of the most basic principles of dieting and fat loss â€“ calories.
You Canâ€™t Cheat Calories in Vs. Calories Out
Metabolism boost or no metabolism boost, raised leptin or decreased leptin, whatever your diet is doing here, you simply cannot weedle out of the fact that if you consume more calories than you burn, you will not lose fat.
Letâ€™s take a look at a typical dieterâ€™s weekday eating, and weekend cheats â€“
Said dieter may have a maintenance calorie level of 2,000 per day. To ensure they burn fat, they eat 1,500 calories per day, and take part in three training sessions that burn 500 calories each. This gives them a weekly calorie deficit of 4,000 calories. (2,500 of this comes from diet, and 1,500 from exercise. Weâ€™re also giving the benefit of the doubt, and assuming that Friday is considered a regular dieting day, not part of the cheat.)
Going off the 3,500 calories equals 1 pound rule, than means they should lose just over 1 pound each week.
Then in comes the weekendâ€¦..
Iâ€™ve been known for my huge cheat meals in the past (in all honesty, they were binges) so I know how easy it is to put away thousands of calories in a sitting without thinking twice. Even without such extreme cheat meals though, itâ€™s still surprising how quickly the calories from a lax weekend can add up.
Below is a table compiled of just some of the â€œtreats and cheatsâ€ that many dieters feel they deserve over the weekend as a reward for their hard work. Iâ€™ve based these around popular cheat meal food choices â€“
|Saturday breakfast||Fry up||850|
|Saturday lunch||Shop-bought sandwich, muffin and a latte||1,000|
|Saturday dinner||Takeaway fish and chips||850|
|Sunday breakfast||Croissants, pasties and juice||700|
|Sunday lunch||Roast with all the trimmings||1,200|
|Sunday lunch||Microwave pizza||900|
|Snacks||Few bags of crisps, couple of chocolate bars, five or six beers or glasses of wine.||1,900|
Weekend Total = 7,400
With a calorie maintenance of 2,000 per day, this weekend of eating, which, in my experience, is far from uncommon among the general public, means that over a weekend, the above dieter would be at a 3,400 surplus from Saturday and Sundayâ€™s eating.
Take that surplus from the deficit earlier, and over a week, that gives our dieter a deficit of only 600 calories. (Or to put it another way, it would take 6 weeks to lose a pound of fat.) And thatâ€™s assuming that they stick to their plan 100 percent during the week, complete all exercise sessions as planned, and keep their cheating to just these two days. Letâ€™s face it, for those of us who train people for a living, we know this doesnâ€™t happen. Work meetings come up, people are away, have lapses in their diet, and often start their â€œweekendsâ€ on a Thursday night, or when international office donut day comes around every Friday.
A Better Option?
Whatâ€™s the deal then? If your metabolism slows when you cut calories, but big cheat meals, while bringing about a physical and psychological boost, also cause you to more or less cancel out your weekly deficit, whatâ€™s a dieter to do?
The answer, my friend, is structured re-feeds.
I would propose that rather than a restrictive diet, which bans certain foods, or cuts and severely restricts certain macronutrients, you switch to flexible dieting, as this allows you to have a much more moderate approach to weekday eating. That being said, re-feeds will work with whatever style of diet youâ€™re following, whether itâ€™s a typical calorie-controlled commercial diet such as Slimming World or Weight Watchers, Paleo, or a low-carb diet such as Atkins or South Beach.
With a re-feed, you get all the benefits of an increased calorie and carb intake, without going into full-on binge mode, and cancelling out a weekâ€™s progress in one fell swoop.
My next article will cover how to tailor your re-feeds to your body type, current condition, training plan and diet. As well as giving you a step by step guide to taking regular, small breaks from your diet to help sustain progress and maintain your sanity, while losing fat and getting lean.
4. â€œA Guide to Flexible Diet” Lyle MacDonald