How to Cheat and Lose Big

Men's Health - Belly Off Guide - - CONTENTS - BY LOU SCHULER

A too-strict diet can un­der­mine your weight-loss ef­forts. To keep the ki­los com­ing off, some­times you need to break your own rules

EV­ERY­BODY KNOWS HOW TO LOSE WEIGHT. Eat less, move more, buy new jeans. What could be sim­pler? Ex­cept it’s not re­ally that easy. For one thing, weight loss isn’t lin­ear. The more you lose, the more your body fights back by slow­ing your me­tab­o­lism and in­creas­ing your hunger. That’s why so many di­ets that start as New Year’s res­o­lu­tions are long for­got­ten by the time Ok­to­ber­fest rolls around. Log­i­cally, there’s no rea­son why a diet should end with a single slip-up. What’s the worst that can hap­pen? It sets you back a day or two. If your goal is per­ma­nent weight loss, what you do six days a week should mat­ter more than what hap­pens on the sev­enth. In fact, some in the field sug­gest that a good diet plan should in­clude wig­gle room. In other words, you should plan to give your­self an oc­ca­sional break – in the form of a cheat meal.

The most popular ex­am­ple is Body for Life. Au­thor Bill Phillips ad­vised read­ers to fol­low his strict high­pro­tein, low-fat plan 6 days a week and then use the sev­enth as a “free day” to eat what­ever they wanted. Pizza, pan­cakes, “a Big Mac or two for lunch” – it was all on the ta­ble. Those free days, Phillips wrote, “May help con­vince your body that it is not starv­ing.” But even more im­por­tant is the psy­chol­ogy be­hind a break. “You don’t want to cre­ate stan­dards you can’t meet,” he added.

The 12-week Body for Life pro­gramme was put to the test in a Skid­more Col­lege study. Even with 12 days of any­thing-goes eat­ing, peo­ple on the pro­gramme re­duced their daily kilo­joules by 29% and lost an av­er­age of 5kg. But some­thing in­ter­est­ing hap­pened along the way: “Many of the par­tic­i­pants grew out of the free-day eat­ing plan early on,” says study au­thor Paul Arciero, a pro­fes­sor of health and ex­er­cise sciences at Skid­more. Af­ter the first cou­ple of weeks, they were happy with a single cheat meal or an oc­ca­sional dessert rather than a full day with­out rules.

Al­though it was im­pos­si­ble to say whether the call to cheat was cru­cial to the par­tic­i­pants’ suc­cess, Arciero was in­trigued; he de­cided to fol­low up with sev­eral longer-term stud­ies. What he’s find­ing could lead to new and less mil­i­tant weight-loss strate­gies. An­swer these ques­tions and out­smart the flab mon­ster.

Do Cheaters Win by Los­ing?

A Brown Uni­ver­sity study es­ti­mated that 80% of over­weight peo­ple who drop at least 10% of their body weight re­gain some of it within a year. So it’s rea­son­able to ask if a diet that in­cludes some kind of re­lease valve – a way to fudge on the plan with­out giv­ing up en­tirely – might work bet­ter than one that doesn’t. Men’s Health nutri­tion ad­viser Alan Aragon points out that a strict all-or noth­ing ap­proach to di­et­ing has been linked to such prob­lems as overeat­ing, weight gain and anx­i­ety.

Con­versely, peo­ple who take a more flex­i­ble ap­proach (i.e. slip up oc­ca­sion­ally but then quickly jump back on track) may have more suc­cess. The goal is what re­searchers call “flex­i­ble re­straint”, or the abil­ity to stick to the plan most of the time with­out forc­ing your­self to refuse cake on your birth­day. But that still doesn’t an­swer the ques­tion of whether a planned cheat meal works bet­ter than wait­ing for your urges or the en­vi­ron­ment to sneak up and blind­side you with a plate of na­chos or a litre of ice cream.

Who Needs to Cheat?

“If your body fat is re­ally high, then you don’t need a cheat meal,” says Shelby Starnes, a nutri­tion coach and body­builder who has spent the past seven years work­ing with av­er­age Joes and elite lifters. “You can prob­a­bly go weeks with­out one.” How high is “re­ally” high? If you’re un­der 90kg and your waist is 91cm or larger, then you’re prob­a­bly at least 20% fat, which sug­gests you’ve en­joyed quite a few cheat meals al­ready.

The guy who most needs to cheat is the one who’s do­ing ex­haust­ing work­outs while ad­her­ing to a strict diet. “It’s like a gas tank you’ve emp­tied,” Starnes says. “You use cheat meals when you’re de­pleted and your me­tab­o­lism starts to drop a lit­tle bit.” A slow­ing me­tab­o­lism is an ob­vi­ous hand­i­cap to some­one try­ing to lose weight: you have to do more to ac­com­plish less. But it’s just one of the prob­lems you hit when your diet is work­ing.

“When peo­ple diet, they over­restrict their car­bo­hy­drates, fat or both,” Aragon says. Se­vere fat re­stric­tion, es­pe­cially when it elim­i­nates most sat­u­rated fat, may lower testos­terone lev­els, Aragon says, while a low-carb diet could re­duce lev­els of thy­roid hor­mone. Lower T would make it harder to re­tain mus­cle while shed­ding fat. Less thy­roid hor­mone may slow fat loss. Two other hor­mones could also be af­fected: lep­tin, a hor­mone re­lated to sati­ety, de­clines sig­nif­i­cantly when you re­strict kilo­joules, while ghre­lin, a hunger-in­duc­ing hor­mone, rises.

Strate­gic cheat­ing could re­set all four hor­mones to op­ti­mal lev­els and boost your me­tab­o­lism. But it’s im­por­tant to note that no new re­search has ex­am­ined the ef­fect of cheat meals on these fac­tors. So we looked at older stud­ies of over­feed­ing and un­der­feed­ing to see what hap­pened. The an­swers aren’t al­ways what we ex­pect. For ex­am­ple, a 1986 study in the jour­nal Me­tab­o­lism found that lean peo­ple’s rest­ing meta­bolic rates in­creased when they ate too much. But obese peo­ple’s rates did not rise, a re­sult that sup­ports Starnes’s point: cheat meals tend to work bet­ter for rel­a­tively lean guys who are try­ing to be­come even leaner. But even that may be a stretch.

“The rise in me­tab­o­lism doesn’t last that long, and the in­crease in kilo­joules prob­a­bly won’t be off­set,” says Michael Ormsbee, an ex­er­cise and nutri­tion sci­en­tist at Florida State Uni­ver­sity. Cheat meals may work best for weight loss only if the non-cheat­ing part of your diet cuts kilo­joules enough to give you an over­all deficit.

What Are the Best Cheat Foods?

You choices should de­pend on what your diet has de­pleted, Aragon says. If you’ve been cur­tail­ing your fat in­take, you want a high­fat cheat. If you’ve been go­ing low­carb, then you want a high-carb cheat. But all that is ir­rel­e­vant if you crave some­thing spe­cific. “The psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact of de­priv­ing your­self of food you like can re­ally sab­o­tage you,” Aragon says. “It gives the power to the food and takes the power away from the di­eter.” In other words, just eat what you want and en­joy it.

When is the Best Time to Cheat?

Al­though week­ends may seem per­fect for nu­tri­tional an­ar­chy, they’re ac­tu­ally the most danger­ous time. “You can spin out of con­trol if your cheat meal stretches out to a full day or weekend,” warns Ormsbee. Din­ner is the ideal cheat meal be­cause it’s the eas­i­est one to con­tain, says Starnes. But he cau­tions to eat for no longer than 45 min­utes. He also rec­om­mends hav­ing your cheat meal the night be­fore your tough­est work­out. The ex­tra kilo­joules, com­bined with your im­proved mood, can make that train­ing ses­sion more pro­duc­tive.

How Of­ten Should You Cheat?

Starnes sup­ports one cheat meal a week, but Aragon’s ap­proach is more nu­anced: eat right 90% of the time, and leave 10% of kilo­joules for cheat­ing. He of­fers three op­tions:

One huge in­dul­gence a week: “8 000 to 12 500 kilo­joules of pure junky good­ness.”

Two 4 000- to 6 250-kilo­joule meals a week.

The most popular op­tion: a small in­dul­gence daily. “For most guys, this boils down to 800 to 1 250 kilo­joules.”

Arciero’s re­search points to the same con­clu­sion. “The cheat foods were em­bed­ded with healthy meals. It’s a very ef­fec­tive ad­her­ence strat­egy,” he says. It also sug­gests a new weight loss par­a­digm: it’s okay to have some­thing fun ev­ery day. Af­ter all, you aren’t cheat­ing on your diet as much as fol­low­ing it.

EX­PERTS SUG­GEST THAT A GOOD DIET PLAN SHOULD

IN­CLUDE WIG­GLE ROOM

WHEN YOU LOSE WEIGHT YOUR BODY FIGHTS BACK BY IN­CREAS­ING YOUR HUNGER LEV­ELS

STRATE­GIC CHEAT­ING COULD REST YOUR HUNGER HOR­MONES AND BOOST YOUR ME­TAB­O­LISM

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