The most important aspect of nutrition, is to have a diet that is both healthy and sustainable. That is why I do not believe very restrictive diets are good. Granted, restrictive diets can help you to reach weight loss and muscle gain really fast, but does it really matter if you can only keep up with the diet just for a few months and are miserable the entire time? No! We want to still be able to enjoy life and our foods. That is why I believe cheat meals are important to include in your diet, so you can allow yourself to still enjoy the foods you like the most. So, in this article I will give you 4 tips in order to make the best out of your cheat meals without hindering fitness progress.
Tip #1: Have a cheat meal once a week – The internal and external consequences of bad foods depend on quantity and frequency. As long as you do not eat them very often, you are good!
Tip #2: Go for the exact thing you want. - Do not go for the “diet” or “healthy” version, the ones that are full of artificial sweeteners and other harmful chemicals. They might have zero calories and help you not gain weight, but they will for sure harm your metabolism and throw everything off internally. Go for the real thing, and allow yourself to fully enjoy it without guilt.
Tip #3: Make sure you give your body the nutrients it needs the day of your cheat meal – Often times we think that because we are going to have a meal that is high in calories, we should balance that out by skipping one or 2 meals that day. Sure, that will help the calorie count, but it is going to negatively affect your body because you won’t be providing it with all the nutrients it needs to work properly. Don’t deprive your body from the good fuel it needs just because you are concerned about calories. If you are having a cheat meal just once a week, I promise the extra calories won’t matter.
Tip #4: Have you cheat meal when you are NOT hungry – By doing so you will help decrease the psychological association of that food with pleasure. When we are really hungry and eat a food, we immediately perceive it as really good tasting and associate it with pleasure. Not necessarily only because of how great it tastes, but also because it became a suppressor of pain or stress (hunger). We do not want to make that unhealthy meal to taste even better. If we do, we will start to crave it more often in the future because our brain will connect it with a state of pleasure and reward.
Now let’s get into cravings and why we get them. This is something important to touch on because having just one cheat meal a day can seem like too little to some people. Sometimes the cravings hit really hard, and it seems almost impossible to stay away from certain foods. So if we gain a deeper understanding of what cravings are and why we get them, then we can better help ourselves deal with them. So here are the main reason why we get cravings:
1. Our body is not receiving all the energy and/or nutrients it needs.
2. We are not well hydrated
3. We’ve become addicted
A well balanced diet should provide our bodies with all the nutrients we need, that is why it’s important to have good sources of both macro and micronutrients. On the other hand, we also need to be aware of our water consumption. On a daily basis we should aim for something close to 2L of water a day. That liquid intake along with the one we get from foods that contain water, should keep us at a well hydrated level.
Finally, addiction. Without knowing it, we’ve become addicted to foods high in sugar and dairy. How is it addictive? Both sugar and dairy create responses on our reward system. Sugar attaches to a receptor in the brain that releases dopamine, which makes us feel great. That is why we keep coming back for more, when we continually eat sugary foods, we keep our dopamine levels high so we become addicted to it. Dairy on the other hand, is addictive because of casein. Casein is a protein found in dairy. The digestion of this protein results in protein fragments called casomorphins, which are opioid peptides. Yes, opioid. We all know what opioids do, they help reduce pain and stress by stimulating dopamine release. In big quantities and frequencies, casomorphins constantly act as a pain and stress suppressor and our brains love that. Of course it’s subconscious, but that is why sometimes we can’t explain why we love cheese or ice cream so much, and why we can’t even think about giving it up. We’ve become addicted. We crave that state of pleasure and reward.
So don’t forget to include a cheat meal a week, and try to follow the tips I just gave you! Also, my biggest recommendation is to start limiting foods high in sugar and dairy. Aim for a diet that is inclusive, and not restrictive. Focus on eating more diverse foods that will give your body the right nutrients, rather than directing all your attention to the foods you cannot eat. Once you start adding new healthy foods, you will naturally stop eating a lot of the bad ones because hunger will decrease, and your body will slowly stop asking for garbage food.