Muscle & Fitness|October 2019
Cheat meals can serve as a beacon, with bacon cheeseburgers, greasy pizza, and ice cream sundaes singing a siren song that can help pull us through to the other side of pain, sweat, and cramps. These indulgences can also help break the monotony of eating grilled chicken breast, white rice, and broccoli, making the parameters of a strict diet a little more palatable. But do cheat meals offer anything aside from mental relief from a calorie-restricted diet?
DEFINING “CHEAT MEAL”
They’re not supposed to be a calorie free-for-all. Plowing through a bag of Ruffles and then a Hot Pocket and then a bag of Funyons is a binge, not a cheat. A better definition of a cheat meal, says Ali Gilbert, C.S.C.S., a men’s health coach in Greenwich, CT, and a Golf Digest Top 50 Golf Fitness Professional, “is to think of it as more of a free meal consisting of foods that would not be in somebody’s traditional dieting plan during low-calorie days.”
HOW DO CHEAT MEALS WORK?
Physically speaking, cheat meals serve to spike the metabolism and increase a hormone called leptin, which allows your body to mobilize fat stores and increase satiety, says Jim White, R.D., ACSM, owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia. “Leptin is produced by fat tissue, and the hormone helps regulate your energy balance by inhibiting hunger,” he says.
Keeping your body in a calorie deficit can cause your energy levels to crash, and that means leptin levels will fall, slowing down your metabolism. “By sporadically boosting your calories, you encourage your body to burn calories more quickly instead of allowing it to adjust completely to a restricted diet,” White says. Gilbert adds that cheat meals can work on a psychological level, “because it can be tough to be on a continuous calorie restriction for X number of months.”
THE SCIENCE BEHIND CHEATS
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