The words "cheat meal" probably like Pavlov’s dog makes you start drooling. If you don’t know Ivan Pavlov than here’s a brief history on him. Ivan Pavlov was a great physiologist during the late 1800’s that studied the association with his dog’s drooling and a bell. He created a study in which every time he rang a bell the dog would be fed food. He associated his dog with that sound so many times that the moment that bell rang the dog would start drooling even without food. Isn’t that what certain foods do to us?
Cheat meals, in a short description are certain foods (usually higher fat, higher carbs like pizza, ice-cream etc…) that we eat once or twice a week if you are in a caloric deficit or even living a healthier lifestyle and you allow yourself to eat whatever you have been craving all week. For some, cheat meals don’t exist, they are simply part of their daily routine. Hence why a large percentage of the world is obese. Some people don’t care what they eat, so they eat foods higher in saturated fats, extremely high sugars all day. Then they wonder why their health isn’t where it should be and why they don’t look how they wish they looked.
But are cheat meals needed? Are they helping you at all or are you falling under a fad like diets themselves? Well, let’s first analyze why anyone would have a cheat meal under their own reasoning, or why they think they need one.
Why people in general think they need a cheat meal:
To reward themselves after a hard earned week of “clean eating”
To ‘boost’ their metabolism and reboot their system
To reefed their body after being so depleted of nutrients
Bodybuilders and fitness models who have promoted this on social media
Sometimes, we do need something out of the ordinary to keep our minds and perhaps our social lives going. However, many approach me and say “Alex, I didn’t’ cheat this week, I know I should have but I didn’t feel like it”. That’s GOOD! Cheats are NOT necessary and I don’t recommend having them if you don’t truly need them. Rewarding oneself with junk food because they ate how they were supposed to eat for a few days isn’t ideal. I feel social media and influencers have created a demand for people to believe they MUST have one or else they can’t be part of the whole “fitness community” or worst, they won’t achieve the results they see on social media. You know what’s more interesting? Some athletes on social media post that they are eating all this huge amount of food but in all reality they don’t even touch it! All marketing to get you under their wing and tell you you’ve been doing something wrong.
There is a certain truth to boosting your metabolism after a few weeks, you heard that right, a few weeks of eating “clean”, however I always say “diet’s don’t work to begin with”. People should have balanced nutritional lifestyles that allow them to fit certain foods they’d like to snack on and not feel a constant crave for junk food. Hence comes in “flexible dieting”. If you don’t know what flexible dieting is, it’s worth a google. But even flexible dieting has a balance and it’s not meant to be eating junk food all day. If I told you now, that for the next 3 months, you are not allowed to think about the color red, what do you think you will be thinking about the next 3 months? So now basically now I am telling you “you can’t eat this and you can’t eat that for the next ‘X’ days”. What will you do? Binge eat on your cheat meals or worst, create a cheat day. Do you see the pattern here? No? Well it’s called creating an eating disorder. When you constantly condition your brain to be able to have once or twice a week a cheat meal you slowly start depending on them. Based on my 13 years experience as a trainer who’s worked with so many athletes these cheats then become more and more aggressive. It begins with a slice of pizza and ends up with you eating the whole pizza by yourself down the line.
Don’t get me wrong. Everyone’s body is different and I am not here to convince you cheat meals are bad. I eat things out of my ordinary lifestyle myself. But what I am trying to pass on is that you should create a lifestyle where certain foods aren’t restricted out of your life and that you should in balance be able to enjoy certain foods you like in moderation. Exercise obviously is a must. Cheat meals unfortunately can create: a binge eating addiction, create psychological problems (as feeling guilty afterwards), create worst habits later in in your journey and prevent you from feeling good about yourself. Junk food is bad for your health period. There’s no justification about it. Don’t confuse cheat meals with reefed days though (that’s a topic for a different discussion).
But if you are going to ‘cheat’. When would be the best time? Unfortunately most people go all out at night and eat big portions of food closely to the time they will be going to bed. The truth is that that’s not always the best for performance. Wouldn’t you rather use that extra energy for a great intense workout? I know I surely would. I always advice my clients to consume them if they must have them prior to a workout and if not, after an intense lifting session. Plan your cheat meals. Personally I have always preferred foods that will actually help me with my workouts and not hinder them. Eating a big mac with chicken nuggets before lifting does not make me feel or perform better. Sushi on the other hand does a better job at it. So whether you decide to include cheats into your lifestyle or not, be sure to plan them well, be sure to know your body in order to know what you can eat comfortable and finally always think on the habits you are creating but having them constantly.