Logically, there's no reason why a diet should end with a single slipup. What's the worst that can happen? It sets you back a day or two. If your goal is permanent weight loss, what you do 6 days a week should matter more than what happens on the seventh.
In fact, some in the field suggest that a good diet plan should include wiggle room. In other words, you should plan to give yourself an occasional break—in the form of a cheat meal.
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The most popular example is Body for Life. Author Bill Phillips advised readers to follow his strict high-protein, low-fat plan 6 days a week and then use the seventh as a "free day" to eat whatever they wanted. Pizza, pancakes, "a Big Mac or two for lunch"—it was all on the table. Those free days, Phillips wrote, "may help convince your body that it is not starving." But even more important is the psychology behind a break. "You don't want to create standards you can't meet," he added.
The 12-week Body for Life program was put to the test in a Skidmore College study. Even with 12 days of anything-goes eating, people on the program reduced their daily calories by 29 percent and lost an average of 11 pounds. But something interesting happened along the way: "Many of the participants grew out of the free-day eating plan early on," says study author Paul Arciero, DPE, a professor of health and exercise sciences at Skidmore. After the first couple of weeks, they were happy with a single cheat meal or an occasional dessert rather than a full day without rules. Although it was impossible to say whether the call to cheat was crucial to the participants' success, Arciero was intrigued; he decided to follow up with several longer-term studies. What he's finding could lead to new and less militant weight-loss strategies. Answer these questions and outsmart the flab monster.
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Do cheaters win by losing?
A Brown University study estimated that 80 percent of overweight people who drop at least 10 percent of their body weight regain some of it within a year. So it's reasonable to ask if a diet that includes some kind of release valve—a way to fudge on the plan without giving up entirely—might work better than one that doesn't. Men's Health nutrition advisor Alan Aragon, MS, points out that a strict all-or-nothing approach to dieting has been linked to such problems as overeating, weight gain, and anxiety. Conversely, people who take a more flexible approach—that is, those who slip up occasionally but then quickly jump back on track—may have more success.
The goal is what researchers call "flexible restraint," or the ability to stick to the plan most of the time without forcing yourself to refuse cake on your own birthday. But that still doesn't answer the question of whether a planned cheat meal works better than waiting for your urges or the environment to sneak up and blindside you with a plate of nachos.
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Who needs to cheat?
"If your body fat is really high, then you don't need a cheat meal," says Shelby Starnes, a nutrition coach and bodybuilder who has spent the past 7 years working with everyday Joes and elite lifters. "You can probably go weeks without one." How high is "really" high? If you're under 200 pounds and your waist is 36 inches or larger, then you're probably at least 20 percent fat, which suggests you've enjoyed quite a few cheat meals already.
The guy who most needs to cheat is the one who's doing exhausting workouts while adhering to a strict diet. "It's like a gas tank you've emptied," Starnes says. "You use cheat meals when you're depleted and your metabolism starts to drop a little bit." A slowing metabolism is an obvious handicap to someone trying to lose weight. You have to do more to accomplish less. But that's just one of the problems you encounter when your diet is working.
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"When people diet, they overrestrict their carbohydrates, fat, or both," Aragon says. Severe fat restriction, especially when it eliminates most saturated fat, may lower testosterone levels, Aragon says, while a low-carb diet could reduce levels of thyroid hormone. Lower T would make it harder to retain muscle while shedding fat. Less thyroid hormone may slow fat loss. Two other hormones could also be affected: Leptin, a hormone related to satiety, declines when you restrict calories, while ghrelin, a hunger-inducing hormone, rises.
Strategic cheating could reset all four hormones to optimal levels and temporarily boost your metabolism. But it's important to note that no new research has examined the effect of cheat meals on any of these factors. Instead, we have to look at older studies of overfeeding and underfeeding to see what happened.
The answers aren't always what we expect. For example, a 1986 study in the journal Metabolism found that lean people's resting metabolic rates increased when they ate too much. But obese people's rates did not rise, a result that supports Starnes's point: Cheat meals tend to work better for relatively lean guys who are trying to become even leaner.
But even that may be a stretch. "The rise in metabolism doesn't last that long, and the increase in calories probably won't be offset," says Michael Ormsbee, PhD, an exercise and nutrition scientist at Florida State University. Cheat meals may work best for weight loss only if the noncheating part of your diet cuts calories enough to give you an overall deficit.
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What are the best cheat foods?
Your choices should depend on what your diet has depleted, Aragon says. If you've been curtailing your fat intake, you want a high-fat cheat--mozzarella sticks, prime rib, cheesecake. If you've been going low-carb, then you want pasta, fries, or another high-carb cheat.
But all that is irrelevant if you crave something specific. "The psychological impact of militantly depriving yourself of food you like can sabotage you," Aragon says. "It gives all the power to the food and takes the power away from the dieter." In other words, it's best to just eat what you want and enjoy it.
What foods should you avoid? Start with these 25 New “Healthy” Foods That Aren’t.
When is the best time to cheat?
Although weekends may seem perfect for nutritional anarchy, they're actually the most dangerous time. "You can spin out of control if your cheat meal stretches out to a full day or weekend," warns Ormsbee. Dinner is the ideal cheat meal because it's the easiest one to contain, says Starnes. But he cautions to eat for no longer than 45 minutes. He also recommends having your cheat meal the night before your toughest workout. The extra calories, combined with your improved mood, can make that training session more productive.
How often should you cheat?
While Starnes recommends one cheat meal a week, Aragon's approach is more nuanced. His goal for his clients is to have them eat right 90 percent of the time, leaving 10 percent of their calories for cheating. He offers three options:
- One huge indulgence a week—"2,000 to 3,000 calories of pure junky goodness."
- Two 1,000-to 1,500-calorie meals a week.
- A small indulgence daily. "For most guys, this boils down to 200 to 300 calories," he says, adding that it's the most popular option.
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Arciero's research points to the same conclusion. He gave participants 15 percent "free" calories. "The majority chose to spread out the 15 percent over the week," he says. "The cheat foods were embedded with healthy meals. It's a very effective adherence strategy."
It also suggests a new weight-loss paradigm, one in which it's perfectly okay to have something fun every day if that's your preference. After all, at that point you aren't cheating on your diet as much as following it.