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Cheating. Whether it’s in sport, relationships or life, the word itself almost always carries a negative, even hurtful, connotation. And when it comes to meeting your fitness goals, cheating — on your diet, your workouts, your food journals — can feel like a betrayal to yourself. Why work so hard, if you’re only going to undermine your efforts with a cookie, or two — or five? But what if cheating was actually somehow good for you? What if taking a break from discipline can actually help you in the long run? It might seem counterintuitive, but there is scientific evidence that relaxing the rules occasionally can improve your chances of staying fit and healthy for life. What’s more, it can also help you feel better about your body, and reduce your likelihood of developing a negative relationship with food.
How Careful Can You Be?
For years, researchers have studied the effects of what is known as dietary restraint on eating habits and weight. Put simply, dietary restraint means consciously watching what you eat and trying to say no to temptation — think: you always politely saying “no thanks” to your coworker’s cupcake offerings. The results from the studies have shown that dietary restrainers tend to have a more sluggish metabolism and higher levels of cortisol, that nasty stress hormone that tells your body to hold on to fat.
What’s more, research reveals that dietary restraint appears to be a potential trigger for overeating. In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto, restrained and unrestrained eaters were both deprived of chocolate for seven days. At the end of the test period, the restrained eaters not only reported more intense cravings than unrestrained eaters, they also consumed more chocolate when the restriction was lifted. More recently, the same research team fed restrained and unrestrained eaters a slice of pizza, followed by an unlimited amount of chocolate chip cookies, which they were asked to sample for taste. The restrained eaters not only ate more cookies than their non-restrained counterparts, but those who were given what they thought to be a larger slice of pizza ate more cookies than anyone! As it turned out, the pizza slices were actually the same size, yet the restrained eaters who ate what they thought was the larger slice felt guilty enough that they responded by eating more cookies than anyone else in the study.
It seems to all boil down to what has come to be known as “the dieter’s mindset”: an on-again, off-again eating cycle that begins with a plan to eat perfectly, but falls to the wayside as soon as the person feels they have deviated from the plan. In the end, restrained eaters tend to consume more calories when they open the proverbial door — even just a crack — to forbidden foods. Overeating on the weekends is a prime example of this mindset.
How Cheating Can Help
Striking a balance that works for you is key to avoiding the pitfalls of eating too perfectly. Just like you need to build rest and recovery into your workout routine in order to promote muscle growth, finding a way to enjoy some of your favorite, or even forbidden, foods in moderation, is an important tool for keeping you on track in the long run.
Now, how often you choose to indulge depends on a few variables, including your personality, your goals and the types of foods that you tend to crave. For example, if you are weeks away from your first fitness competition, then keeping cheats to a bare minimum is probably best. On the other hand, if it’s a regular day or a regular week, then enjoying a planned cheat meal or a favorite snack should not do too much damage to your diet as a whole. While some people prefer to enjoy a small treat every day (hello full-fat latte!), others do fare better by having just one “free” meal per week. It may just take an extra glass of wine or a dessert when you go out socially to sate your need to cheat.
As for the size of the cheat you can afford, that also depends on a few factors. We know that cutting calories can help you lose weight, but being too restrictive for too long can actually slow down your progress by making it difficult for your body to build lean muscle, which helps you burn more calories at rest. If you know that you are consistently eating much less than you are burning (by 500 calories per day or more), then you may want to consider adding a cheat food to your daily diet to help you meet your caloric needs. However, if this is the case, you will want to make sure your cheats err on the healthy side, since you’ll be eating them often. Plus, it’s another chance to feed your body extra vitamins and antioxidants for your health.
If you have less wiggle room in your diet, then you should try to limit your cheats to a few times per week, or keep the portions smaller when you do indulge.
On the other end of the spectrum, full-out cheat days or weekends can be risky in the long run, especially if you throw all common sense out the window. And if you don’t feel the need to cheat, that’s okay, too — there is no need to force yourself to indulge if you are comfortable with your current routine. The most important thing is that you maintain a routine that is stable and sustainable for you. In my practice, I will often “prescribe” cheat/ indulgent/craving-type foods to clients who are working on weight loss, but we come to a mutual agreement of what is reasonable: it can be three times per week for one person, just once a week for another, or a piece of dark chocolate every day for someone else.
What The Trainers Think
“I think it’s a great reward system to keep you going, because you’re not always sacrificing. If your metabolism is high, your body knows how to delegate those calories and store them as glucose in your liver and muscles. And you know what? You’ll actually work out well the next day.”
— Andrea Orbeck, PT, NASM
“Mentally, people begin to obsess over food when they feel restricted. I think it is important for everyone to have one day where they feel they can eat whatever they want. If you don’t allow this in a regimen, you will feel deprived and eventually binge.”
— Jennifer Cohen, BA, ACE-PT
Clean Eats That Taste Like Cheats
Make no mistake: ice cream tastes good. And when it comes to cheating, sometimes nothing can replace the real thing. But if you’re looking for foods that feel like a cheat, but can still fit with a clean lifestyle, try any of these:
Dark chocolate. Rich in antioxidants, this is one of those naughty-but-nice foods that can help you fight disease while you get your sweet fix.
Non-fat lattes. Not only does a non-fat latte provide you with muscle-building protein and bone-building calcium, but the coffee itself is a significant source of antioxidants and magnesium, both important for healthy hearts and muscles.
Full-fat cheese. We know that too much cheese can derail the best training plans, but recent research suggests that full-fat dairy may not be as hard on your heart as once thought. Just make sure to really savor an ounce or so of the good stuff, as opposed to adding it as a calorie-laden topping on everything.
Red wine. We’re not trying to give you an excuse to turn into a lush, but there is ample evidence that those who enjoy an occasional glass of wine tend to be healthier than those who abstain.
Frozen banana shake. Take one frozen, overripe banana and blend it with a cup of milk and you will be amazed at how much it tastes like ice cream.