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Can you “CHEAT" on your diet without ruining it?

This is bit of an odd topic for me to cover since my challengers on my 6 week Body Transformation Plan commit to no ‘cheat meals’ for the 6 weeks. It’s a mindset as much as it is a physical challenge and seeing it through releases feelings of great self-fulfilment and a massive sense of achievement. Saying that, we have weekly ‘re-feed’ days to pep up those flagging leptin levels which we will look at in a sec, and these recipes feel like ‘cheat’ meals as they are so good, such as chocolate porridge, pancakes, smoked salmon and scrambled egg on a bagel, mug cake or brownies! Yum!

Once my challengers have attained their goals they then move to ‘maintenance’ where they stick to my nutrition and exercise plan for 5 days of the week and then take their foot off the peddle for a couple of days each week. But this is planned, allowed and should be thoroughly enjoyed without any feeling of guilt or ‘cheating’. Saying that, for those in this great position, advice is often asked about how to relax on those 2 days but without blowing it altogether! So do read on, as this advice will work well if you are in that enviable position.

So perhaps it’s just the terminology, ‘cheating’, that I am not a fan of. I personally think you should be eating on a long term nutrition plan that allows you the freedom of enjoying the foods and drinks we want without feeling we have ‘cheated’ and ‘failed’ and then feeling guilty as a result. Your nutrition plan, in the long term, should be sustainable and healthy, both nutritionally and mentally. Being ‘allowed’ to eat the foods we enjoy, guilt free is important to provide a psychological relief from a structured diet plan, and will make the diet as a whole more enjoyable and sustainable. However, there is a right and a wrong way to go about it, and for some who struggle to lose or maintain their weight, they are likely doing it very wrong.

So what is ‘cheating’ anyway? And although I don’t like that terminology, let’s roll with it for the purpose of this blog…

‘Cheating’ isn’t necesarrily when you fall off the wagon into a pile of sugary doughnuts and fat dripping pizza, instead, it is when you eat more calories than you planned on eating - which can in fact be deemed as ‘healthy’ foods, but too much, so moving you into a calorie surplus. But yes, ’cheating’ can also be when you replace a large portion of your nutritious calories with non nutritious ones- the scenario more often associated with ‘cheating’.

The negative effects of cheating are quite obvious; eat more calories than planned, even from ‘healthy foods’ and you will gain weight. Eat non nutritious foods too often and you increase the risk of nutritional deficiencies which will impact your health. As a little aside, this is why I personally do not support just calorie counting. You could in all sense and purpose eat just 4 chocolate bars in a day and be in a calorie deficit, but be in a a nutrient deficit too. I prefer macro counting with calorie counting, so you get the correct amounts of protein, fats and carbs to keep your body healthy, but within a calorie deficit to ensure fat loss too. (I offer a formula to those on my challenges who prefer to track their own macros, as well as providing set meal plan

to follow for those who can’t be bothered with the hassle of tracking)

So if you have planned to have a ‘cheat’ meal, but you don’t want to sabotage all your hard work you need to know how to cheat.

  1. Frequency. If you cheat a few days a month then there is likely to be little harm done. But if you do it a few times a week, then you are likely to slow down/halt weight loss and increase health problems.

2. Eating too much in a cheat meal. Most people simply do not know how many calories they are eating, especially when eating out.

This has of course changed as from 6 April 2022, it is now a legal requirement for large businesses with more than 250 employees, including cafes, restaurants and takeaways, to display calorie information of non-prepacked food and soft drinks. With smaller business being encouraged to do the same. This follows many reports such as a UK study in 2018, published in the British Medical Journal, which showed that only a small minority of meals met the 600-calorie public health recommendations, with 89% of full-service dishes and 83% of fast food dishes over this limit.

Dr Eric Robinson from the University of Liverpool's Department of Psychological Sciences looked at calories in 13,500 main meals from 27 large high-street restaurants. They included 21 full-service and six fast-food outlets. Dr Robinson, said: "Only one in 10 of the meals we surveyed could be considered a healthy number of calories”, with an average of 751 calories in main meal dishes served by fast food chains. They even discovered a staggering 1,033 calories in dishes served by some full-service restaurant chains too!

And these are just the calories in the main meals, not taking into account starters and deserts and alcohol! I have handpicked a few popular cheat meals below, but it’s easy to see how one cheat meal can spiral out of control!

It’s interesting, as I see this new calorie labelling legislation as a positive move, I guess because nutrition is my profession and my passion. I have worked with hundreds of people, mostly women, who struggle with weight loss and then maintaining their weight, and seen how despondent and disappointed they feel when they have undone some of their hard work by unknowingly making some poor choice when eating out.

However, it did spark an interesting debate with my two daughters aged 18 and 22, who feel the new calorie labelling is a negative move fearing it could be a trigger for those with eating disorders, which is sadly on the rise since the pandemic as reported in this article from the Guardian. My Daughters also feel that eating out is meant to be an enjoyable treat and that they would rather not know, as if they don’t want to feel bad about what they are eating and perhaps ruin the experience. I absolutely see where they are coming from, but eating out in our household, along with many others, is not the occasional treat that it used to be. As a nation we dine out more regularly than we did a generation ago. I was able to find this government report that shows back in 1952 nearly half of all households ate no meals outside of the home and only one fifth ate one dinner a week out. By 1983, the average person ate three meals a week outside of the home. I struggled to find accurate stats for recent trends, but did find a food standards report in 2014 which records that in their survey of those who said that they had eaten out in the last seven days, 63% had eaten out occasionally (once or twice) and 14% had eaten out at least six times.

Furthermore, tackling obesity is one of the greatest long-term health challenges this country faces. Today, around two-thirds, 63% of adults, are above a healthy weight, and of these half are living with obesity. It is estimated that overweight and obesity related conditions across the UK are costing the NHS £6.1 billion each year! So the government has to find ways to address this, and with the popularity and regularity of eating out, coupled with the crazy calorie tot up of some restaurant dishes, I can see what they are trying to do.

What do you think? Please do write in the comments your thoughts about the new calorie labelling- I’ll be interested to know what you make of it!

How about cheat days?….

So a cheat meal can quickly rack up a few thousand calories, but let rip for the whole day and well, you can easily undo your weight loss progress for the entire week!

Here are the rough calories for some popular cheat meals:

  • Bills 5 stack steak bacon and maple syrup: 932 calories

  • Average chip shop medium fish and chips: 835 calories

  • Bills sweet potato fries: 510 calories

  • Average tikka masala: 1245 calories

  • 3 slices of a dominoes American Hot: 1044cal

  • Bills triple chocolate brownie: 775

Yikes!!!!!!!!! ……

3. Eating too much dietary fat in just one meal

Eating too much dietary fat in one meal can cause immediate fat gain as this requires very little energy to convert to body fat. Carbohydrates are processed more slowly but when you eat carbs with fat, fat oxidation decreases, which speeds up the process of storing dietary fat into body fat. Bummer….

This is why research conducted by the National Institute of Health shows that calorie for calorie, low fat dieting is more preferable for weight loss than a low carb diet. The research also shows that it’s easier to over eat on a high fat diet and that obesity is higher among high-fat dieters than low-fat. A top tip I have seen is to keep your fat intake for a day under 100g on a cheat day, and instead of hitting the fat jackpot, go high carb instead. This will at the very least help with your flagging leptin levels.

Leptin is a hormone that is released from fat cells and tells your brain that you have enough energy to move, function and engage in physical activity and that there is enough energy from your food to do this. When you restrict your calories to drop body fat, the decreased leptin levels communicates to your brain to conserve energy by lowing your metabolism and stimulates the appetite to eat more. This is why I have what is called re-feed days on my challenges, to temporily lift these leptin level and help avoid plateaus in weight loss. This is not a ‘cheat’ day, as it’s controlled, planned, calculated and a part of the ‘diet plan’.

4. Alcohol

Unfortunately it’s not just the empty calories in the drink that is the problem, but sadly because alcohol blunts fat burning, thus accelerating the rate at which your body stores dietary fat as body fat it also increases the conversion of carbs into body fat too .

So, fat + carbs + alcohol = weight loss disaster. Nooooooo……

If you want a drink, keep it to one day a week and lower your carb and fat intake that day (eat more protein). Try not to eat whilst drinking ( so hard!) and stay away from carb heavy drinks like beer and fruity alcohol drinks. Stick to wine or better still gin and slimline tonic.

To sum up

If you’re serious about getting leaner, you simply cannot afford to be in a large calorie surplus very often, especially when that surplus is dietary fat and carbs, washed down with alcohol. Already reached your weightless and fitness goals? Then great! Just approach ‘treat’ meals mindfully, but you worked damn hard to earn it, so then bloody enjoy it!

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