Maybe this scenario sounds familiar – you’ve been successfully following a low-calorie, health-conscious diet for a few weeks now and are seeing your desired results. You found a groove with your new dietary lifestyle, everything seems to be going right, and you feel well on your way to your goals. But then you notice a lag in your progress and your optimism wavers. What happened? – You’ve hit the dreaded plateau.
You might be wondering, what caused your weight loss plateau? Why aren’t you losing weight even though you’re following your diet just as strictly as before?
Here’s an interesting fact: when you get used to a new diet, so does your body.1
Before getting into how to overcome your plateau, let’s discuss why new diets work in the first place.
In order to reach a particular body weight or appearance goal, you have to push your body out of its comfort zone to instigate change.
Food provides the fuel your organs need to function, and your organs require the same type and amount of fuel all the time. When you change up that fuel, perhaps by eating less than usual, your metabolism has to make adjustments to feed all of your organs properly. How? By using your body’s storage of fat and sugar. This period outside of your comfort zone before your body adapts is the goldmine – it’s when you lose weight and fat.
But the human body is highly adaptable and, at the end of the day, you eat to survive. Our bodies seek to establish and maintain homeostasis, which means that your body makes adjustments to your metabolism and calorie burn when you eat less or exercise more for prolonged periods of time.
Because of this, you’ll eventually reach a plateau by following the same exercise and diet routine. Your new way of eating becomes the “new normal”, and to continue to see results you need to push yourself in a new way.
Want some good news? This could mean it’s time to cheat.
“Cheating” is often associated with doing something naughty, but in a dietary sense it’s better to think of it as “mixing it up”. As noted earlier, if you want your body to change, you have to change what you put into your body. A cheat meal could be the extra nudge in your healthy new regimen that keeps your body guessing and the progress going.
Losing weight through diet is simple in theory: eat less, eat better. “Better” generally refers to clean protein sources, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats. Therefore, in order to “mix it up” we eat a meal that’s high in both calories and all of the macronutrients—protein, carbs, and fat, in a way that’s not normally a part of your diet plan.
I’m not giving you the go-ahead to regularly and excessively indulge on junk food. Getting the most out of your cheat meal takes some mindfulness and planning.
You might be wondering why a cheat meal works. Well, it all comes down to hormones. Two hormones that influence appetite and fat loss are leptin, the “satiety hormone”, and ghrelin, the “hunger hormone”. 2
Leptin is primarily produced by fat tissue, and plays a critical role in regulating the body’s energy balance and appetite. Leptin acts upon the hypothalamus in the brain to suppress food intake and stimulate activity (calorie expenditure). Simply put, it tells your brain you’re full and should go exercise.
Ghrelin is mainly produced by the stomach, and it stimulates appetite and the release of growth hormone. So, ghrelin tells your brain you’re hungry. Studies have shown that low-calorie diets and chronic low-intensity exercise can increase ghrelin production, which can lead to increased food intake and weight gain.3
Having a weekly cheat meal that’s higher in calories and carbohydrates can actually increase leptin levels while decreasing ghrelin, normalizing your hormone levels despite an otherwise low calorie diet. It could also increase thyroid hormone production, which further increases metabolism. This hormone optimization is what can help you avoid plateaus and see continued fat loss.
Here are the best tips to help you cheat the right way.
Timing is everything. The best times to cheat are (1) right after an intense workout so you maximize your use of the calories, and (2) after a period of fasting.
“Fasting” refers to a period of time, usually at least 12 hours,4 when you consume a minimal amount of calories or no calories at all. Studies have found that leptin levels decrease after fasting for a period of 12 hours, which is why fasting before your cheat meal is a practice you should consider implementing into your program.
This is where most people get in trouble. Sure, it’s ok to splurge every once in a while, but having a cheat meal is not an excuse to eat anything and everything. Some food should flat out be avoided, such as trans-fats, highly processed and chemical-rich foods, and high fructose corn syrup.
It’s fine to eat non-dietary foods every once in a while, but keep the real junk at bay. Fat or skinny, big or small, these foods can do a lot of harm and little-to-no good.
The leading issue with cheating is the likelihood of overeating. Once we mentally give ourselves permission to indulge, most people do just that and it can be hard to put on the breaks.
Planning is the answer. Lay out the exact amount of food you plan on eating and ignore the desire to reach for second helpings. Try your best to eat slowly as well. Don’t you want to fully enjoy this scrumptious, special meal? Mindfully savor each bite, and you’ll get even more out of your cheat meal experience.
Also, max your cheat meal at 500-1000 calories. When eating mostly real food, it’s pretty hard to eat more than 1000 calories without overdoing something. If it’s easy for you to pass that threshold, you’re most likely consuming a lot of highly processed junk food and/or you’re overeating.
Keep a food log or journal to track how much you’re eating on a daily basis, and to help you plan your cheat meal accordingly. In general, tracking your food is one of the best things you can do when you’re trying to lose weight.
Have a food you love, but know it’s your biggest weakness? Keep it away. It’s a lot harder to stick to your plan if you include these trigger foods. Yes, a cheat meal is a great time to munch on something you’ve been missing, but it’s not the time to binge on foods that make you lose control, which you are much more likely to do if you’re eating your drug-of-choice. Stay away from “drugs”, everybody!
Cheat meals are often high in carbs, so don’t forget to include protein. Protein helps to increase satiety, and is necessary for muscle growth and retention after exercise (remember, you’re doing a pre-cheat workout!). Make sure to include at least a 5oz portion of protein in your meal.
Sure, alcohol is mostly comprised of sugar/carbs, which happens to be our brain’s favorite source of fuel, but your cheat meal shouldn’t be filled with alcohol-based calories. Alcohol has no nutritious value and can affect your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar for hours after your cheat meal. It also interferes with your body’s fat metabolism and can hinder your weight loss efforts.5
One glass of wine, a beer, or a serving of liquor is fine, but if you’re serious about losing weight and getting lean, you’ll want to reconsider excessive drinking. “Cheating” is not synonymous with “drinking a lot of alcohol”.
Cheating should only happen once a week, or less. And opt for a cheat meal instead of a cheat day. This can help you avoid undoing a full week of hard work. It’s unwise to do a cheat day unless you’re already extremely lean and fit, or your goals are benefitted by a whole cheat day.
You should find that a single, well-planned cheat meal is effective at instigating that necessary metabolic boost to keep your progress going, and beneficial mentally because you won’t feel deprived of your favorite foods. After a really good cheat meal, you should be able to get right back on track with your nutrition and workout program without any major cravings.
For the best possible cheat meal, keep these two key tips to keep in mind:
(1) Your cheat meal should ideally be higher in both calories and carbohydrates, but should still be well-balanced with good quality protein and some healthy fats.
(2) Even though you want to increase the amount of carbs in your cheat meal, those carbs shouldn’t come from sugar-laden, nutrient-poor foods. Small, sweet indulgences are fine to have on occasion, but shouldn’t comprise the majority of your cheat meal.
Some sample cheat meals include:
• A cheeseburger with the bun.
• Two slices of pizza.
• A pasta dish with a high-quality protein.
• Chicken stir-fry with rice or noodles.
• Nachos with ground beef and cheese.
When it comes to losing weight, cheating can actually be beneficial as long as it’s mindful and planned. Random acts of binging are always a no-no, even if you’re primarily eating cheat-day approved foods, because binging can have negative physical and mental repercussions. If you struggle with binge eating, consider talking to a Registered Dietician, Certified Nutritionist, or other healthcare professional.
Do what’s right for your body and your body will do right by you. That includes cheating responsibly. Have questions? Reach out in the comments below.