In the last couple of days I received some messages with the question:
“Do you have cheat meals? If yes, how many times per week?”
My outlook on this topic has changed since I came home from vacation (lot’s of cheat meals).
Today, I would like to explain why I do not have “cheat meals” anymore and why you should not have them either... (don’t worry my views are not as strict as this sounds)
What is a Cheat Meal?
There is no clear definition of the term “cheat meal”. While for one person it might mean going to McDonald’s and enjoying a burger, it can be a huge plate of vegetables and chicken at a vegan restaurant to another.
In the following, when I use the term “cheat meal”, I mean the unhealthy kind. I will address the healthier way (huge meal at a vegan restaurant) at the end of this article.
In both situations, the “cheat meal” implies that we do something that does not fit into our “diet/macro plan”.
In fact, there are many people, especially in the fitness world, who apply cheat days.
Can you imagine a day full of pizza, ice-cream, chocolate bars, coca cola? Does that sound appealing to you? Then, just think about how you will be feeling at the end of that day. It might be different for each person but I would be bloated and have serious reflux and digestive issues. Not to mention, by body would be shocked by the intake of sugar and trans-fats, which it does not have to deal with normally.
What happens in the body when you “cheat”?
When you eat a big pizza followed by a serving of ice-cream, your body will release hormones that make you feel less stressed and happy (Endorphins) and Dopamine. Especially Dopamine is involved in the mesolimbic pathway, a connection of different regions in the brain that is also called the “reward system”. This pathway plays a significant role in addiction, depression and schizophrenia.
Anything that is high in sugar and fat triggers the secretion of these hormones. This explains why people on a weight loss diet experience cravings.
Imagine your body is used to a high intake of sugar and fat and thus high levels of Endorphins and Dopamine. Now, you start a diet and cut out all sweets and fatty foods and only eat salad and dry chicken or fish. However, your body has become addicted to those sugary and fatty foods because it has adapted to high levels of the neurotransmitters (small chemicals that basically carry information between neurons). Now, the receptors in the brain where the Endorphins would normally attach on, are left unoccupied.
Actually, this is the same principle that happens in an addicts’ body. Your body is suffering because of the withdrawal of those Neurotransmitters.
Most of the time, people who have started a strict weight loss diet, stick to their plan for around 2-3 weeks, until they give in. The lack of Neurotransmitters puts our body in a state of depression. Anyone trying to lose weight might think:
“It is hard enough to eat less food but now this clean eating thing makes be unhappy, I will never get my dream body. Might as well give it all up”.
Definition of “clean eating”
Fitnessmagazine defines the term pretty accurately:
At its simplest, clean eating is about eating whole foods, or “real” foods — those that are un- or minimally processed, refined, and handled, making them as close to their natural form as possible.
Clean eating is about nourishing your body with real food. Food our body knows how to digest and how to use as fuel. I don’t see anything like “deprivation”, “diet” or “starvation” in these statements, do you?
Why I hate the term “diet”
A diet is something you commit to for a certain period of time.
For example, you might want to lose 10 kg. In order to lose weight, you start eating healthy and lower your caloric intake. However, many people stop the healthy eating part after having reached their goals. The result is that they slowly gain back the weight and have to start all over again.
Taking care of our body should be something we commit to a life long.
So, even if you are trying to lose weight, never use the term “diet“. This is your new lifestyle. You are showing your body some love by nourishing it with real food and improving your fitness. You should be able to continue this forever!
Tips to start “clean eating”
I think the issue here is that many people do not know what to eat when they start clean eating. This is completely understandable. In fact, in my opinion, the transition from today’s fast food eating to clean eating should be taken slowly. This way, your body will get accustomed to the new way of eating and you will not feel deprived.
Go on Pinterest, google clean eating recipes. Clean eating does not imply “eating disgusting food”.
In fact, once the receptors on your tongue have been “cleaned” from the sugary and fatty molecules, you will find that an apple with a tablespoon of peanut butter triggers nearly the same feeling of satiation as a doughnut might.
As a matter of fact, you do not need to stop eating cake, cookies, doughnuts. Simply make them yourself! You might not be used to dedicating this much time to food but once it becomes a habit, clean eating is very easy.
I would like to give an example from my own family here:
When we found out my father had cancer, we completely changed our whole lifestyle. My mother and father have always tried to make sure my sister and I eat real food and I have only been once to McDonald’s in my entire life and that was on a birthday party. Still, we were not exactly eating “clean“. We would still use processed sugars, flours and buy cookies and bread.
After the diagnosis, my father, who is a scientist, and me started researching on nutrition. When I started medical school, I shared my knowledge on how the immune system works. We tried to find recipes to boost the immune system naturally. On top of that, my father started running every day.
Before the change of lifestyle, my father could not drink his tea without two teaspoons of sugar. And green tea? “No, not for me!”, he would say. Nowadays, my father drinks a can of green tea every day and you cannot find sugar in our house … .
I do not know what has had the biggest impact on my father’s health but I am happy to say my dad is fully recovered.
In this example, the diagnosis was the turning point for our family to start caring for our health.
I wish that people would realize the importance of nutrition and fitness and develop self-love before they get sick!
My principles: Enjoy treats and stay in Shape
Lastly, I would like to share my tips to enjoy treats (I use this term instead of “cheat”) and still stay in Shape.
Clean eating 80-90% of the time
Like I mentioned before, transition slowly. Start with eliminating sugary drinks at first. Then stop putting sugar in your tea and coffee etc. It will take a while to get to this point but it is worth it. Remember, this is a lifestyle, not a diet. You have your whole life ahead to achieve a healthy fit body!
Allow yourself a treat nearly every day
Yes, you read that right. Every day. Even, or especially, if you want to lose weight. The tricks here are portion control and macronutrients.
You do not need to track your macros but you should know which foods contain Protein, Carbohydrates and Fats and how to combine those together to balance your hormones. I have written a whole Series on that “No macro was left behind- Find your Balance”, so check that out, if you haven’t already.
The same goes with portion control. If you have a piece of chocolate, or half a serving of ice-cream or whatever you like to treat yourself with, a couple of times throughout the week, your hormones will be balanced and you will not feel like you are on a diet. In fact, you will learn to love this new lifestyle!
Eating clean and healthy most of the time, thus achieving your dream body, but still enjoying some pizza along the way? Sounds too got to be true? It can become your reality!
Do not listen to mean comments
Your way of eating might be foreign to other people. Unfortunately, we tend to be prejudiced against anything that is unusual. For example, on vacation we went to a pizza restaurant. However, I decided to have chicken casserole (which was delicious) instead because I wanted to enjoy ice-cream afterwards. My relatives know me and my parents eat clean, so the fact that I didn’t have pizza was not an issue at all. As we got to the ice-cream shop and I ordered a huge serving of three cups, they were quite shocked. I explained that I chose to have a healthy meal before to be able to enjoy this treat without competely going off limits.
Make your own cookies, cakes and put them in the freezer
I do this all the time and the bakes goods do not lose any of their freshness and taste. You have to put them in the freezer right after they cooled down though, not the day after. This way, I can enjoy a piece of chocolate cake (made with raw cacao and coconut and buckwheat flour) and still be healthy and in shape.
I put them in the freezer because I lack the time to bake something new every week. With medical school, internships and now my doctoral thesis, I need something quick, tasty and healthy.
Refeed day and Reverse dieting
This is useful for anyone who has been on a low-calorie diet. When you are on a low-calorie diet, the metabolism slows down, leptin levels (the hunger depressing hormone) decrease and your cravings increase.
To transition into this “clean eating and treats” – lifestyle, I recommend reverse dieting. I will write a whole post on that. Basically, you slowly increase your food intake over a span of weeks – months (depends on your body’s response) without gaining weight, as your body adapts to the higher calories and speeds up your metabolism in response.
A refeed day is one day per week where you eat your maintenance or above maintenance calories. Again, this helps to establish a balance of Leptin and Ghrelin (hunger hormone), so you do not have cravings when dieting.
To sum it up:
It is not necessary to include “cheat meals” into your diet. Instead, enjoy a little treat most days of the week and stay loyal to yourself and your health. Do not use the word “cheat” when talking about your health.
We only have one chance to life a healthy, happy and fit lifestyle, why not make the best out of it?
I hope you enjoyed this post. I certainly had fun writing it!
And what is your favorite healthy treat?
Wish everyone a relaxing weekend!