I get asked a lot about cheat meals. When I say no, you shouldn’t have them, clients often seem surprised, as though the guy in the shirt with “Coach” written on it was seriously expected to answer “Hell yeah, eat pizza until you puke…” I think the problem is that there is a lack of clarity about what a “cheat meal” actually is.
So here’s the lowdown on cheat meals, and why we might be eating them.
If your diet is in some way restrictive, and every good training diet is (if you are allowed all the doughnuts you can eat, it is not a good training diet), then there are going to be certain things that your body needs to understand. Day to day, you want the fats you eat to support body function, the protein to help build lean muscle following a gruelling resistance training session, and the carbohydrate to provide energy. Any carbohydrate not used for energy will be stored for later use, as fat. This means that we want to limit the carbohydrate we eat to no more than we need for the energy we’re going to expend. This makes sense, right? The only problem here is that, after a while of this sort of treatment, it’s easy for your body to start believing there’s a shortage of food. So what does your body do when there’s a shortage of food? It stores anything it can for future use. This means you’re back to square one, storing your carbs as fat.
Enter the cheat meal. Once in a while, if we load up on carbohydrate, it reminds our body that there’s sufficient food around, it doesn’t have to start panicking, and we’re just limiting its carbs for optimal usage and training purposes. What does this mean? It means that all we really need to have for our cheat meal is a larger serving of rice, or sweet potato, along with whatever else we normally eat.
So that’s that conundrum solved, isn’t it? All we need is a little extra rice.
Except that’s not it. Because the other reason for a cheat meal is sanity. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, if you eat like a monk all the time, eventually you’re going to crack, black out, and wake up in a dumpster somewhere covered in blood and faeces, clutching a meat cleaver. Or you’ll go on a three-day ice-cream binge. Either way, you don’t want the consequences and neither does society.
If, however, it’s Thursday night, and you’ve already got your cheat meal planned for Saturday, when you’re going to order your favourite pizza and settle in to watch whichever ensemble rom-com or zombie movie is hot this month, this might be enough to get you through. The knowledge that sometime soon you will be indulging both your taste buds and your appetite for pithily scripted witticisms can keep you from hitting that wall. Then, come Sunday morning you can return to your training diet for another couple of weeks, sanity restored to whatever it was optimally (notice I’m not making any bold claims about your pre-existing sanity levels here).
So you have to ask yourself why you’re craving what you’re craving. Is it because you’re getting carb deficient, and your body is beginning to think it’s bang in the middle of a Siberian Winter with bugger-all food stored to live on, or is it because you just want something fatty, carby and gooey?
With this in mind, when you start asking about cheat meals, what is it you are asking your coach to sign off on?
If it’s the first one, your carbs just need replenishing, then all you’re asking is if you should have an extra serving of rice or sweet potato. For optimum performance, and as long as you’re being totally honest with yourself about your body’s needs, the answer to this is going to be yes (probably).
If, however, you are asking your trainer for permission to eat a pizza, a tray of brownies, two litres of cola and a bucket of chocolate thick shake so large it could be mistaken for the Florida Everglades, the answer’s a little different.
Here’s what I say to my clients – I’m here for one reason and one reason only. I want to get you to your goals. I know there will be times when other commitments affect your ability to stick to your diet and training program one hundred percent, but that doesn’t mean I’m signing off on them. They’re your goals. Cheat meals, alcohol, poor training or lack of consistency pushes them further away. I’m here to eliminate these threats. Everyone eats a meal that’s not part of their program once in a blue moon, I know it’s going to happen. I have them too. But they’re not part of your program, because your program is designed to get you to where you want to be in the shortest time possible.
So if you’re going to have pizza, be your own judge. My answer is “no,” you shouldn’t be having it, but I know that, realistically, that doesn’t mean you never will. Also, try to remember that I’m not your priest, I’m your trainer. Neither my permission nor my forgiveness removes the kilojoule value of your indulgences from your past. Don’t tell me you’re going to have wine, or vodka. Don’t tell me when you did. I can’t help you with that, it’s not my goals it’s creating more distance from, and I’m not going to tell you it’s okay.
The reason I’m not going to tell you it’s okay is because such matters are some of the absolute most misunderstood in health and fitness. If I say it’s okay to have a full on cheat meal once per week, clients will have two, because the first is permitted and therefore doesn’t count. If I say that if you must drink, try clear spirits and sugar-free mixers, suddenly everyone’s showing up with vodka-and-soda hangovers, sporting a smile because they got pissed and it didn’t affect their goals.
So from my point of view, it’s not okay, it’s not part of the plan and it’s not what you’re employing me for. You need to be realistic about what it is, and that’s a deviation on the path to the goals you wanted me to help you towards. It makes the journey longer and harder, and that’s not what I’m here for.
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