Why cheat meals are bad when you’re trying to be healthier

This may not make me the most popular personal trainer in Red Deer but today I am going to share with you why I feel cheat meals may be a bad idea.

First let me come clean with you on something, I’m a terrible dieter. I struggle with willpower just like you; I struggle to avoid eating foods that I know are not good for, or conducive to my fitness goals. My favourite foods are cheeseburgers and French toast, with lots of butter and syrup!

Before finally calling it quits I competed in 10 bodybuilding shows with three trips to the Canadian nationals with a strong second place finish in 2008. During that process I’ve personally gained and lost more than 1,000 lbs. But this isn’t about bodybuilding; it’s about cheat meals and the potential problems they can cause for anyone trying to achieve a weight loss goal.

Now we all know to lose weight it generally means we need to exercise regularly, maintain consistent portions and avoid obviously bad foods. Unfortunately that simplified approach is never quite enough, hence why the weight loss industry continues to grow and so does the national obesity rate.

But that is topic for a different column. Today let’s assume that you understand the importance of regular exercise, you’ve figured out that it’s critical that your nutrition must consist of the correct amount of calories, protein, carbohydrates and fats for you, and to this point you’ve been consistent with all of this on a daily basis except for every Saturday evening which is your designated “cheat night.”

Now it’s not hard to find research that validates cheat meals. Some of the most current would revolve around a hormone called Leptin and the premise that Leptin may have a direct link to your body’s ability to burn fat and that one of the best ways to stimulate Leptin would be with an occasional reefed (cheat) consisting of an excessive amount of calories. I wouldn’t argue this research at all, in fact I agree with it in many ways but here’s the problem in practice.

When you consume a cheat meal usually consisting of high sugar or high fat foods in an excessive amount you completely destabilize your blood sugar. Like any chemical reaction this creates a chain of events in your body, the most dramatic being a rise and fall of your blood sugar which stimulates a hormonal cascade creating feelings of anxiety, possibly depression, bouts of abnormal hunger and an ongoing desire for sweets. This feeling in spite of just one event usually persists for three to five days depending on the person.

This is the first problem with a cheat meal and for some it just doesn’t stop there. It takes an incredible amount of willpower and desire to remain on track through this recovery period. This is easily observed at New Year’s or in office fitness challenges with how quickly many resolutions fade or generally how most people that don’t complete fitness challenges stop after the first week.

The second problem with cheat meals is purely psychological. For most people they are planned at regular intervals. This is a very dangerous thing as it creates a pattern or behaviour of self-sabotage at regular intervals; it’s never a good thing to reinforce this behaviour.

You could compare it to the likeliness of anyone trying to overcome an addiction as you’ve created a situation where something detrimental to your health is initially looked at as reward, something looked forward to or an emotional reinforcement. But combined with the physiological lasting effects on blood sugar should you start to fail to get back on track immediately after you combine that positive feeling with guilt, depression, disappointment and failure. This is how an eating disorder could potentially develop.

Though this is a simple look at cheat meals and the potential dangers they create I do want to leave you with this. The truth is on average most people need 12-14 days of extremely consistent eating to fully balance their blood sugar. When they do they feel better, their body dramatically changes and their desire for cheat meals almost diminishes completely.

I know that’s hard to believe, at least it has been for the thousands of local people I’ve helped including myself, but try it and you will see for yourself. And lastly in spite of what I’ve illustrated as a trainer I do allow cheat meals with one simple recommendation — make them infrequent, unplanned and never the same day, time or interval as the last one. Be prepared for the feeling after and do whatever it takes to get immediately back on track. If you do this you will look the way you want, feel better than you thought imaginable and likely live longer too.

Cabel McElderry is the director of One-to-1 Fitness in Red Deer. He can be reached at 403-341-4041. Also check out www.personaltrainingreddeer.com for more information.

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