Contact Us
This form does not yet contain any fields.
    Search Wo40
    Recent Site Activity

    Cheat on your Diet

    Go ahead.  Cheat on your diet.  You have permission.

    Imagine this: you've started a new eating regimen that promises you will lose weight with the single caveat - no junk food ever again.  Are you excited about that meal plan?  If you're anything like me, the answer is a resounding NO!  The primary staple of my food intake for the last several years has included things like pizza, tacos, fried chicken, soda, and a bunch of other hysterically unhealthy stuff.  I LOVE bad food, but I'm also aware that I cannot exist on it for extended periods of time.  With that in mind, there's no way I'm signing on for any program that says that I can't have so much as a lollipop in my diet ever again.

    I've tried the "no junk food ever" approach to trimming fat before.  Usually around the second week I get to the point where I'm looking for something with refined sugar or grease in it to feed that part of me that craves junk.  At that point, I realized that there was no way I could stick to a long-term plan of eating that didn't include at least one or two opportunities per week to indulge in not-so-approved food choices.

    Now I generally loosen my dietary belt on Saturday or Sunday and eat stuff that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy - those comfort foods that I have been accustomed to eating for years.  True to form, tonight's dinner was fried chicken and mashed potatoes.  I'm feeling pretty cozy now, basking in the afterglow of deep fried goodness.  It makes the coming week seem so much easier now.

    How does a cheat day benefit those of us who are trying to reduce the waistline and trim the fat?  It's part psychology and part physiology.

    Psychological Reasons to have a Cheat Day

    I've already touched on this a little in the introduction to this article.  In the back of our minds, there's that little voice saying, "You're never going to be allowed to eat birthday cake, candy canes, and anything else you like ever again."  Our conscious response to that thought goes through a couple of stages: at first we think, "I can do it.  I'm strong."  Over the course of just a few days, that bravado eventually gives way to thoughts like, "Man, I could really go for a cheeseburger right now."  Once that point is reached, failure is just a matter of time, because "never" is a long time when it comes to not being allowed to eat some of the things we've come to love.

    Rather than the "never again" mindset, we'll take on the "not until this weekend" mindset.  It's a lot easier to see to the weekend from Tuesday when the chicken breasts, tuna, cottage cheese, and protein powders are just getting a little too mundane.  Staying the course isn't quite so daunting when we know that it's only 4 more days until we get to feed our cravings a little.

    Staying on track with a new eating strategy is much simpler when we know that there's an opportunity just around the corner to have that slice of pepperoni.  We are far less inclined to just say 'forget it' when faced with temptation when we know that we can feed that temptation in just a matter of a few days.

    For your own peace of mind, schedule a convenient day when you can diverge from the stricter dietary practices you set up for yourself during the rest of the week.  You'll stick with your program far longer, and you'll be able to benefit from the physiological advantages of having a cheat day.

    Physiological Reasons to have a Cheat Day

    Our bodies have a wonderful ability to adapt to pretty much any situation, especially when it comes to how we eat.  That adaptability is easily observed in the way our bodies store fat.  The body recognizes two simple states of existence, feast and famine.  For each, the body has a ready response.

    Those of us in the United States become fat because we exist in a land of plenty.  Food is available in huge quantities at any number of locations from convenience stores to huge super centers.  Most of that food is not dietarily beneficial to us, so when we consume it in large quantities our bodies recognize this state of plenty.  Excess is stored in the form of fat in preparation for the possibility of a period of famine.  The real problem there is that there isn't often a period of famine in the United States (with all deference to my international readers) that requires our bodies to dip into that energy stored as fat.  We continue to eat in excess, and our bodies continue the job of dutifully storing extra calories in anticipation of a period of famine.

    When we start a new dietary regimen that is shorter on calories than our normal eating, our bodies will soon become aware of the new situation.  We are suddenly eating fewer calories and exerting a lot more energy in the form of exercise.  Our bodies begin to believe that we have entered a period of famine.  Its response to this new situation will be, at first, to burn that fat as energy.  If the "famine" condition persists for a long period of time, the body will change tactics and begin to hold on to fat stores while preferring to use more readily available sources of energy such as food in the gut or muscle protein.  Obviously, this body-response is counter-productive when our goal is to rid our bodies of excess fat.  The trick is, then, to not let our bodies get to the point where they believe we are in a true famine state.  Enter the cheat day or cheat meal - a nice, calorie-dense, wholly unapproved indulgence that has little to no positive benefit for our bodies in the long term but is perfectly suited to confuse our bodies in the short term.

    By including a day (or a meal) of indulgence in our program, we send the message to our bodies that there is no famine and that it's perfectly OK to let go of those fat stores when the exercise and dietary regime resumes.

    Now, for the die hards out there who think that a cheat day will completely foul their progress, let me share this following example: imagine yourself trying to build a campfire.  When your fire is small and barely burning, throwing a log on that fire would have the obvious result of slowing its progress.  However, if your campfire is burning strong, throwing a log on that fire will see that log burned up fairly quickly.

    The same is true with our body metabolism.  A slow metabolism that receives a huge meal, like that small fire getting a huge log, will have a hard time burning through all of those calories.  However, a body that has been lifting weights and doing cardio training has a metabolism that is similar to that raging fire.  A big cheat meal is greedily consumed by that speedy metabolism with little impact on overall progress.

    It's OK to cheat, but cheating has to be done under fairly well-controlled circumstances.

    Controlling your Cheat Day

    No matter what happens, there's still truth in the maxim that caloric intake must be utilized or it will be stored as fat.  Keeping that in mind, a planned cheat is far better than just attacking any food that happens to be in the pantry.  For instance, my cheat day today was planned in advance.  I knew a few days ago that I was going to have fried chicken for dinner.  I ate a decent breakfast (a spicy egg wrap - check my recipes), went to the gym, had a protein shake at lunch, had a clean mid-afternoon meal, and then just enjoyed my fried chicken and soda this evening.  Tomorrow it's right back to chicken breasts, cottage cheese, and apples.

    My cheat day pretty much ended up being a cheat meal and a drink.

    Now, if you're thinking, "I'm gonna eat whateverthehell I can," that's OK, but remember that the more that goes in, the more affect it has on overall progress.  I used to just go nuts on my free day.  Fast food for breakfast, junk for lunch, and more fast food for dinner.  Probably about 4-5000 calories worth of food.  Since a pound of fat is equivalent to about 3500 calories, I could easily regain half a pound (or more) from my free day.  If I'm only trimming 2 lbs of fat a week, gaining 1/4 of that weight back from one day's indulgence just seems a little silly to me.  I decided to trim the indulgence down to 1/2 a day or just one meal.

    There's a certain degree of good that can come from cheating, but be sure you're planning your cheat.  If 1 week is too long to wait between cheat meals, try having 3 entire days on track and then enjoy a cheat meal on the 4th day.  Repeat that pattern until you feel you can go 6 days between cheats.  Do what it takes to stay on track for as long as possible.  When you cheat, enjoy it as the indulgence it is (i.e. don't beat yourself up or dwell in feelings of guilt), and then get right back on your clean regimen.  In the long run, these little moments of indulgence will be a benefit to you, both psychologically and physiologically.

    Be well!