One of the most favorite things of anyone who's dieting or following a carefully regulated nutritional program is the so called "scheduled cheats."
These are basically meals or days planned into your schedule that allow you some leeway to eat the foods you are craving and relax your willpower for a while.
There are many different ways to incorporate cheats into your program as there are also both positive and negative aspects that go along with cheats.
One of the common ways to incorporate a cheat into your plan is to have a cheat day. This is basically a day where you can eat whatever you want, not following a schedule.
How 'intensely' you choose to do this is an individual preference. Some people choose to just go all out and eat anything and everything they can get their hands on, often eating thousands of calories at a time.
Similarly some people choose to take a less extreme approach and rather than eating all of the junk foods they normally crave, they just loosen their rigorous plan and eat relatively healthy with regular meals and might have some special for dessert or something.
Another way to incorporate a cheat is to just have a cheat meal rather than a day. In this case the person would just eat whatever it was that they had been craving at one meal and follow their regular meal plan as scheduled.
Usually with these types of cheats, the focus is on eating 'forbidden' foods since they will be eating as normal for the rest of the day.
Benefits Of Cheating
Physiologically, cheats can offer many benefits. If you have been dieting pretty hardcore, it's likely that you have low muscle glycogen levels. Along with this often comes a sluggish feeling during your workouts and less than optimal strength.
Glycogen is a polysaccharide of glucose (Glc) which functions as the secondary short term energy storage in animal cells. It is made primarily by the liver and the muscles, but can also be made by the brain and stomach.
You may also find that you are fatiguing faster than normal and are not able to keep up with your previous performance.
A cheat meal or day, since it often means an excess of calories and carbohydrates taken in, will serve to replenish some of these stores, which will help give you more energy and train harder at your next workouts.
Along with decreased muscle glycogen that goes with dieting, there is also a slowing of the metabolism effect. The body senses starvation and tries to lower the amount of energy it needs to continue to function on a daily basis.
This means you will be burning less calories just sitting there than if you hadn't been dieting, which makes weight loss even harder.
When you shock your system with a high influx of calories at one time, the body's metabolism will show an increase and you'll kick start your 'furnace' into high gear once again.
This will help you body to get less accustomed to running on a lower caloric level and make getting lean easier.
How Much Cheating Is Allowed?
Generally, the leaner you get, the more cheat days or meals will be needed to get this 'high gear' effect.
Note, however, that a better approach to dealing with this subject is more of a reefed approach where you will intake a large amount of carbohydrates, which are the body's main source of fuel, rather than just eating vast quantities of junk.
Often however, with many bodybuilders or fitness elites, foods that they choose to cheat with are high in carbohydrates (such as pasta and bread) so they would serve this purpose as well.
Effects Of Cheating
The next reason to consider whether or not you should cheat is how it will affect you psychologically. Many people feel that cheat meals help them deal with the feelings of restriction they endure while on a diet.
They find that by looking forward to splurging on their favorite foods they have an easier time sticking with their diet the rest of the time.
On the flip side of the coin, though, cheating may turn into a negative psychological thing for some people.
Those people who decide to have a cheat day and eat so much in one period that they physically become ill or find themselves fantasizing about their cheat day for many days ahead of time may want to look at the possibility that they are becoming obsessed with food.
It's almost like an all or none thing with these people, either they are 100% perfect all the time, or else detour and just go crazy and all out binge.
I feel that this practice may be setting them up for a more serious issue of developing an eating disorder or unhealthy views about food that may last a lifetime.
So, when looking at whether or not you should cheat there are a few factors to consider.
First of all, what are your main goals? This will help you decide how intensely you should cheat. Your current body fat and nutritional intake will also be a determinant with this as well (as the lower body fat you have or the more restrictive plan you are follow, the likelier it is you will need more carbs in your cheat to replace muscle glycogen).
Also keep in mind, however, that if you have been eating real clean for a long period of time, your body might not handle it so well if you go and eat a large pizza followed by a box of donuts and a pint of ice cream.
The second factor to consider is if you want to make it more of a refeed rather than a cheat by incorporating mainly healthier sources of carbs into this meal/day, or if this is more for pleasure purposes and plan on eating foods that you normally restrict.
Finally, look at how this will affect you psychologically. Will cheating make you feel like your constantly dreaming about food? Will it make you feel as if your losing all control and once you start you can't stop?
If this is the case, this may be unhealthy for you mentally and you may be better off to just include small cheat snacks as part of your regular diet (such as a small piece of chocolate on certain days) so you maintain a healthy relationship with food and don't develop binge habits.
If you feel that cheating doesn't affect you that way though and basically all it does is keep you motivated for sticking to your diet the rest of time (and allowing you not to focus so much on food) then cheating may be very beneficial for you.
The next time you are thinking about a cheat, think about how it will affect you physiologically and psychologically and try and make the best judgment as to how it will help you progress and reach your long term goals.