A strict diet and exercise plan is a major aphrodisiac for a Type A personality.
For the Type Bs out there, it’s a major appetizer. Pass the beer, wings and chocolate cake while you tell me more about how I can never eat my fav foods ever again if I want to lose weight…
Luckily, many experts in the health and weight loss field are starting to agree that the very best diets and exercise programs out there are the ones that allow for some wiggle room, a scheduled break, a regular yay-cation to re-motivate oneself to keep forging ahead – i.e. an unabashed cheat plan.
But won’t regular cheat meals throw you off the wagon and undo all of the hard work you’ve invested, nibbling and sweating yourself silly towards your weight loss goals?
Nope, says Bill Phillips, author of the highly popular 12-week weight loss program and book, Body for Life. Phillips advises his readers to stay true to a strict high-protein low-carb plan for 6 days a week, and then to use day 7 as a cheat day to eat whatever they want. “Those free days,” Phillip says, “may help convince your body that it is not starving.”
Putting Phillips’ Body for Life weight loss strategy to the test, researchers at Skidmore College observed that, even with cheat days built in to their weight loss program, Body for Life participants reduced their daily calories by 29 percent and lost an average of 11 pounds.
But what was even more intriguing, reports Paul Arciero, D.P.E., professor of health and exercise sciences and head researcher of the study, was that after the first couple weeks of dieting, the participants started to naturally lose interest in the cheat days. They electively started to reduce their “cheat day” into just a single cheat meal or cheat dessert for the week, instead of a full day of unrestrained dietary hay-day rule-breaking.
While there is sparse evidence that supports that cheat meals boost one’s metabolism, perhaps it is this psychological effect, more than anything else, that makes cheat meals an important part of a lasting, successful weight loss strategy.
“The psychological impact of militantly depriving yourself of food you like can sabotage you,” says Alan Aragon, M.S., nutrition advisor and weight loss coach. “It gives all the power to the food and take the power away from the dieter.”
Rather than having to completely deny your cravings, cheat meals allow you to “save them up” and to turn them into a strategic part of your weight loss program. While strict all-or-nothing diet plans force dieters to choose between staying on or completely getting off the weight loss wagon when feeling overcome with cravings, strategic cheating creates a healthier sense of what researchers call “flexible restraint,” the option of sticking to the plan most of the time while allowing for short indulgent detours – all of which lead right back to the plan again.
However, it’s important to note that the key to “getting away with” cheating on your weight loss plan and still losing major poundage is to do it strategically. Weight loss experts chime in on important rules to follow when breaking the rules of your diet.
1. Cheat Meal, Not Cheat Day
While most people like to save their cheat meals for weekends, Michael Ormsbee Ph.D., an exercise and nutrition scientist at Florida State University, warns that weekends may be the absolute worst time to let your cravings run loose. “You can spin out of control if your cheat meal stretches out to a full day or weekend,” he warns. Also, free time and boredom often have the effect of triggering false hunger signals and mindless binge eating.
Ormsbee recommends that you allow yourself a cheat meal per week rather than an entire cheat day, that the meal be limited to the space of one 9 inch plate, and that you limit your sitting to no longer than 45 minutes.
2. Don’t be a Dinner Sinner
Cheat meals eaten earlier in the day, for breakfast or for lunch, allow your body more time to burn off all those cheat calories and to do so when your body’s metabolism and digestive system are working at their peak times. Aragon also adds that the best time to indulge in your cheat meal is right after you’ve done a hard-core workout. During this post-workout window, the calories from that cheat meal have a much higher chance of being utilized for muscle recovery instead of being stored as fat.
3. Stick to Your Cheat Schedule
Many diet experts recommend selecting one day of the week to have your cheat meal, and to stick to that same day as your cheat day every week. This way you have something to look forward to every week and are less likely to cheat during the rest of the week.
Aragon and Arciero use a slightly different cheat strategy with their clients. Aragon subscribes to a “90 – 10” rule, in which 90% of one’s calories come from healthy foods that stay within one’s diet plan, while 10% of the calories are used for cheat foods. Aragon and Arciero find that many of their clients prefer to use small chunks of their cheat calories once a day – for a small daily treat, small dessert, or for a cheat food that is incorporated into an otherwise healthy diet-abiding meal – rather than to use all of their cheat calories up in one meal, once a week.
Whichever cheat strategy you prefer – one cheat meal a week, or one smaller cheat food daily – be sure to stick to one cheating strategy that regulates the foods you eat and doesn’t allow cheat eating to get out of control.
4. Give Yourself What You’re Been Missing Most
Aragon recommends that your cheat food choices be influenced by the type of diet you may be on. If you’re on a low-fat diet, than indulge on high-fat foods for your cheat meal, like prime rib, cheese cake or mozzarella sticks. If you’re on a low-carb diet, perk up with a plate of pasta or some other fun high-carb cheat. This cheating strategy may help to re-set your hormones, re-balance your nutrients, re-boost your energy levels and turn off cravings.
However, at the end of the day, if you’re really craving something specific, than guiltlessly cheat with whatever food that’s been gnawing on your brain. Make sure your cheat meal is something you enjoy and feel is well worth the effort you put in to earn it.
5. Earn That Cheat Meal
The most important thing to remember about successful cheating is that you have to have spent the rest of your time sticking to the rules. The only way that your cheat meal can constitute a real reward that brings you closer to your weight-loss goals is if it remains the much-enjoyed exception to your regular weekly diet – and not the regular part of your regular weekly diet.