When I think of eating disorders I think of high school health class and watching one of those terrible “after school special” videos talking about the dangers of anorexia, bulimia, etc. I also have images in my head of extremely small, skin and bone females hunched over a toilet. The image I don’t have is one of a fit, health conscious individual, who is a regular member of the fitfam. The question is, should I?
What are Cheat Meals
How many times have you heard, “I am going to eat clean all week, then have a HUGE cheat meal on the weekend”? I know if you follow fitness people on social media you have heard it a lot! Every time I hear someone talk about how hard they are going to go on their weekly “cheat meal” I cringe. I can almost feel the eating disorder coming on.
Before we go any further I feel we must define what we are talking about in terms of a cheat meal. In 2012 I defined Cheat Meal in the article The Truth About Cheat Meals as:
“Cheat Meal– unplanned dietary lapse in which someone fails to eat food that is on their nutrition plan and/or eats foods not in their calorie/macronutrient guideline. “
and Free Meal as…
“Free Meal “Planned Over Feeding” – Planned increase in calories over a single meal. This is typically NOT calculated.”
Ok I am going to admit something, I don’t agree with those definitions anymore. That article was written over two years ago, at a time when I was still allowing my clients to use free meals. It was in the beginning stages of implementing flexible dieting and a lot of my clients were still resistant to meticulously tracking their food. In turn I created what I referred to as the “free meal”, something that was different than a cheat meal because it was planned but still off the diet. As I came to find out, this did not work very well. Now the closest thing to a free meal my clients get come on holidays.
Unless my clients are deep in contest prep, or need to make weight for an athletic event, I recommend on holidays my clients eat freely and don’t track one food item. I HATE to see people restrictive on holidays, especially the clean eating type who refuse to eat with their family and break out the tupperware at Thanksgiving dinner. This is not a cheat or free meal, its just eating like a normal human being. Ahh I regres.
The bottom line about cheat meals is this – there is no need to ever have a cheat meal. My clients can eat WHATEVER they want as long as they hit their macronutrient (protein, carbohydrate, fat) and fiber requirements. I hardly ever hear one of my clients complaining about their diet or complaining about food cravings. It’s not very common to want a cheat meal when you get to eat foods of your choice every day.
This is my new definition of a cheat meal.
- Cheat Meal – planned or unplanned binge eating episode where upwards of a full days caloric intake, sometimes more, is consumed within a short period of time.
Simple and to the point.
Clean Eating / Binge Cycle
I’m not here to bash clean eating but cheat meals (as just defined) are much more common with clean eaters then people who are more flexible with their nutrition. Here’s the deal, flexible dieting creates a structure that is sustainable, easy to follow, and lessens food cravings. On the other hand, following a structured clean eating meal plan is not sustainable. I do not care who you are, it is impossible to eat chicken and broccoli six times a day for the rest of your life. I know I am exaggerating but the point is, its only a matter of time before you must eat off of the plan and there is where the problem lies.
Once you eat off from the plan things get messy.You go for your weekly cheat meal and binge on over 10,000 calories. Following that episode you feel terrible, worthless, like you are a failure. A mild depression sets in. The next day you jump back on the meal plan and go at it again for another week, making sure to eat as clean as ever this week because you know you went over board on your cheat. Then here comes the weekend cheat meal again and the same thing happens. This goes on for weeks and weeks and before you even realize it, you are at the beginning stages of an eating disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic the definition of binge eating is:
“Binge-eating disorder is a serious eating disorder in which you frequently consume unusually large amounts of food. Almost everyone overeats on occasion, such as having seconds or thirds of a holiday meal. But for some people, overeating crosses the line to binge-eating disorder and it becomes a regular occurrence, usually done in secret.When you have binge-eating disorder, you may be deeply embarrassed about gorging and vow to stop. But you feel such a compulsion that you can’t resist the urges and continue binge eating.”
Not everyone who follows clean eating meal plans has this problem so I don’t want to make it seem like I am putting everyone in the same group. I also realize that people can have cheat meals and be completely fine there after. I am just trying to point out this is a serious situation and it is more common than you think!
Aside from the mental implications of this situation, there is also negative side effects to your physique as well. The human body has an unlimited ability to store body fat. What I mean by that is simple. There is no cut off point where your body will stop absorbing nutrients and accumulating body fat. The weight gain following an epic binge like we are talking about here is not all water, there definitely is some fat accumulation associated as well. The human body likes to store body fat, that is one reason as a society there is such a huge obesity problem.
If you look at it from an evolutionary standpoint it makes perfect sense. Our hunter and gatherer ancestors needed to be able to survive possible food shortages for an extended period of time. Having a body that was efficient at storing body fat made long periods with limited food intake possible. If you eat an abundance of calories above maintenance, there is a very good chance those calories are going to be stored as adipose tissue.
Stop defining food items as “good” or “bad”, “clean” or “dirty “. Lets start defining foods by their macronutrient composition. A Pop Tart is no longer a dirty food, it is now 200 calories, 5g fat, 37g carbohydrate and 2g of protein. Again, my intention is not to bash clean eating or meal plans, its just to point out, that way of thinking can create an unhealthy relationship with food. With that comes eliminating the need for cheat meals. You no longer have cheat meals you now just fit whatever foods you want into your macronutrient numbers for the day.
One thing I left out of this article was re-feeds. Without getting into much detail, re-feeds are days or periods of time where calorie intake is higher than normal. Re-feeds are specific macronutrient numbers to follow which are typically higher in carbohydrates. This is a calculated form to get the psychological and physiological benefit of a cheat meal without going overboard. This is basically the flexible dieters form of having a free meal. This is what I recommend and have my clients follow.
To close out, I hope this article shed some light on a topic that I don’t see get nearly enough attention.
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