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Are Cheat Meals the Wrong Way to Go?

There are a ton of terms tossed around in the health and fitness industry of which I am not a fan. Are they all bad or wrong? No, not necessarily. Trust me, some very intelligent people use them. It isn’t about right or wrong. It is about analyzing what certain words can do to your overall outlook and how they can affect your behavior. OCD? Perhaps, but here it is anyway. If you haven’t guessed by now, I feel that cheat meals is one of these terms. While I believe the intention is good, I feel it is better to use a different outlook or at least be very clear about what it means.

What Is a Cheat Meal?

A cheat meal has become different things to different people, but for the most part, a cheat meal is food you can’t have in your program or diet on a normal basis (for various reasons). For example, you are following a very strict low-carb program and you decide you want two servings of rice with your vegetables and meat. This increases the amount of calories and carbohydrates you are ingesting that day so it’s cheating on your program.

Some people only consider it to be cheating if the food is unhealthy or junk food, if they stick to their allotted caloric needs or macros. Others don’t really have a clue what they are eating; they will go to a restaurant and order cake and call it cheating. In that case it begs the question, “On what?”

To be clear, the technical definition is:

1. To deceive by trickery; swindle: cheated customers by overcharging them for purchases.
2. To deprive by trickery; defraud: cheated them of their land.
3. To mislead; fool: illusions that cheat the eye.
4. To elude; escape: cheat death.
1. To act dishonestly; practice fraud.
2. To violate rules deliberately, as in a game: was accused of cheating at cards.

What sort of psychological game are you setting yourself up to play when you continually agree to this type of mentality? This is the point on which I want to focus and discuss regarding this topic.

I Once Had a Conversation with a Client that Went Something Like This…

Client: What do you think of cheat meals in your programs?
Me: Let me ask you a question. Do you cheat on your wife?
Client: No! You really think that is a fair comparison?!
Me: Stick with me. Why don’t you cheat on your wife?
Client: I don’t know…I love her very much. It just isn’t a thought for me. I’m a loyal kind of guy!
Me: So, you’re saying your reason for not cheating isn’t because it is wrong—correct?
Client: Well, I think it is wrong, but no, I don’t think that is why I don’t cheat.
Me: So, you would say you don’t cheat because you are satisfied with what you have—correct? So it doesn’t cross your mind to stray?
Client: Yes, I would say that.
Me: Then you need to learn to make your dietary habits match your marriage—healthy, satisfied, and with special indulgences if you behave.

The fundamental problem with cheat meals is that they give the wrong impression about good dietary habits. All food should have a purpose, even if enjoyment is the purpose. If you are following a very strict program/goal, you should allow yourself to eat food you enjoy whenever possible. Foods that are generally considered cheat foods often supply a high level of carbohydrate or fat response in the body that can be desperately needed while dieting down. If you are smart about your diet strategy and include structured higher days, cycling programs, or daily “treats,” than you move away from cheating and into optimization and happiness.

If you are happy with what you have, you don’t generally stray. Yes, sometimes it takes buckling down to achieve your goals which can leave little room for luxuries, but that should be short-term only. If it’s not, you aren’t really moving towards your goals, you are just lying to yourself.

Technical Reasons to “Cheat” All of the Time

Most of the food people consider to be cheat foods are either high in carbohydrates, fats, or both. Also, there is often a higher salt (sodium) level, especially iodized salt due to people usually restricting it in hypocaloric situations. Technically, all of these “cheats” can provide benefits during a dieting down situation. For example, in a hypocaloric state, it has been shown that thyroid levels decrease at a slower rate versus that of a low-carb diet. In fact, in VLCD studies, decreases in thyroid levels were severely blunted when carbohydrate levels were higher.

When fat intake is decreased, we usually see a rise in all sorts of problems from physical pain to depression. Refilling on both saturated and unsaturated fats can help quickly decrease the negative effects and return you to a better mental and physical state. Willpower is a physical thing that occurs in the body and it often decreases in a hypocaloric state, so fats and carbs can help with this among many other things. If you pay extra attention to the detail of your fat (e.g. vitamin D3) you can cross intake with specific supplementation as well.

Lastly, while it is known that iodine plays a role in thyroid regulation, supplementation of it alone in a VLCD doesn’t seem to do much. However, there is a suggestion that mixing it with a slightly higher intake of carbohydrates and calories can offset the negative effects of low iodine in the diet. There is also research to suggest keeping potassium and sodium levels high despite a low caloric diet has positive effects on metabolism.

Take Home Point

Making room in your daily program for carbs, fats, and salt is a good thing. It is not bad, foolish, swindling, trickery or cheating; it is simply smart dieting and good sense. For additional information, please check out The Fat Loss Troubleshoot.

1. O’Brian JT, Bybee DE, Burman KD, Osburne RC, Ksiazek MR, Wartofsky L, Georges LP. Thyroid hormone homeostasis in states of relative caloric deprivation. Metabolism. 1980 Aug;29(8):721-7.
2. Serog P, Apfelbaum M, Autissier N, Baigts F, Brigant L, Ktorza A. Effects of slimming and composition of diets on VO2 and thyroid hormones in healthy subjects. Am J Clin Nutr. 1982 Jan;35(1):24-35.
3. Mathieson RA, Walberg JL, Gwazdauskas FC, Hinkle DE, Gregg JM. The effect of varying carbohydrate content of a very-low-caloric diet on resting metabolic rate and thyroid hormones. Metabolism. 1986 May;35(5):394-8.
4. Reinhardt W, Holtermann D, Benker G, Olbricht T, Jaspers C, Reinwein D. Effect of small doses of iodine on thyroid function during caloric restriction in normal subjects. Horm Res. 1993;39(3-4):132-7.
5. The effect of varying carbohydrate content of a very-low-caloric diet on resting metabolic rate and thyroid hormones.Mathieson RA, Walberg JL, Gwazdauskas FC, Hinkle DE, Gregg JM.
6. 3. Jorde R, et al. Effects of vitamin D supplementation on symptoms of depression in overweight and obese subjects: randomized double blind trial,” J Intern Med, Sept 2008
7. Effect of dietary carbohydrates during hypercaloric treatment of obesity patients
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8. Dietary-induced Alterations in Thyroid Hormone Metabolism during Overnutrition
ETHAN A. H. SIMS, Metabolic Unit, Department of Medicine, University of
Vermont, Burlington, Vermont 05405

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