Learn everything there Is to know about fItness, performance, fat loss and lifestyle from Adrian McDonnell.
Cheat meals – the idea of scheduling meals that include indulging foods you normally wouldn’t have in your diet has been a concept popularised by bodybuilders and has been around for decades.
Some people swear by it claiming there are health benefits to having a ‘cheat meal.’ Others claim it’s an excuse people make for themselves to eat junk food. I give my take on the concept of ‘cheat meals’ below and my own approach in this area.
Foods Don't Have Morals
Firstly, I don’t like using the term ‘cheat meal.’ It brings with it negative connotations around food. Food’s don’t have morals. There is no good or bad food per se. Categorise foods as low nutrient or high nutrient. Low calorie or high calorie.
The idea that you’re ‘cheating’ can make people feel somewhat guilty afterwards because they’ve gone off track (even if you had planned and scheduled for it). I prefer the term ‘free meal’ – the concept is the same but using free instead of cheat evokes a different mindset without the guilt or shame attached.
Free Meals - My opinion on them
I think free meals can be a useful tool to help people stay on track – particularly those who are starting out and have never gone more than a few days without reaching for a slice of pizza or ordering a takeaway. If you’re eating say 4 meals a day x7 days a week, that’s 28 total meals in one week. If 27/28 of those meals consist of nutrient dense foods with some lean protein, veggies & healthy fats, one free meal shouldn’t have a major impact on your long term results and progress. In fact, if you schedule them in and don’t go over-board, they can increase your compliance your diet – your ability to stick to it. After all, compliance and adherence to a plan is the most important thing for long term results.
However, the danger of free meals is they can turn into a free day or days if you let it! And that’s where you need to be careful. Eating high sugar and low nutrient foods send signals to the brain that make us crave more. And if you’re someone who finds it hard to manage those cravings, one meal can easily turn into one full day! Dr Jordan Feigenbaum from Barbell Medicine gave great advice for people having free meals:
An Alternative approach
Some people love the idea of having one free meal a week and then being super disciplined for the rest of the week. Others find it difficult to go one day without a sugar hit and would struggle to wait til the end of the week before they have their free meal. If this is you, firstly I would look out for some triggers which may cause these sugar cravings – e.g. maybe you had a fruit flavoured yogurt for lunch or granola for breakfast (both of which are high in sugar) which had led to more cravings throughout the day.
However, even if your nutrition is on point for the most part but you still like a small treat here and there, I like the idea of micro-dosing some small treats or snacks within their day. For instance, having a small serving of chocolate every evening or after you finish your workout instead of going all out at the weekend.
This is my preferred approach because when you can include foods like chocolate and sweets into your overall daily calories and macros, in the words of one of my clients “it doesn’t even feel like a diet – more of a lifestyle approach.” And the funny thing is, when you start building good nutrition habits and essentially change your lifestyle, you no longer crave the foods as much which you previously would’ve taken without thought.
An prime example of this is from one of my clients who previously worked in the construction industry on a building site. Every day, for breakfast he would go to the deli with his fellow workers and grab a breakfast roll or jambon. Since starting his online coaching, he now laughs at the idea of getting a breakfast roll and a jambon in the deli first thing in the morning and has swapped that with some chocolate flavoured protein oats which “tastes like dessert” in his own words. In 12 weeks he lost 10Kg/25lbs which all started with one small change – addressing his breakfast and building good habits from there.
Weekly Budget - The Key
Free meal or no free meal, your overall weekly caloric target is and always will be the most important factor for you when it comes to getting results.
Think of your total weekly calories as a budget. Say you earn €600 a week. This is your budget. If you’re foolish you might spend your entire pay cheque on pay day and be broke for the rest of the week (we’ve all been there). Or, you could plan out your week in advance and realise you have some fun events planned for the weekend with your friends that you’ll need to save some money for.
Your total weekly calories work the exact same way. Let’s just say calculated your maintenance level of calories (the amount of calories you need to maintain your current bodyweight) and they are 2,500 calories per day. But, if you want to tone up and get leaner you decide you’re going to eat 2,000 calories per day. Let’s do the math.
This means, you could eat all 14,000 calories in one day (although I wouldn’t advise it unless you’re filming a YouTube video!) or balance it out accordingly during the week. Provided you don’t go over your budget, you can still continue to make progress. And this is the most important factor when having a free-meal or if you like to micro-dose your treats throughout the week.
How to Enjoy saturday Night without losing progress
Using the above numbers as an example, if you know you’re going out for drinks at the weekend, and on average you drink a respectable 8 vodka’s and whites (my personal favourite) on a night out, this means 8 vodka’s & white’s at approximately 150 calories per drink = 1,200 Kcals you need to save up from alcohol alone.
Now that 1,200 Kcals doesn’t include food at all. It’s not a good idea to starve yourself, especially on a night out so let’s just say you eat 1,800 calories of food before you even start drinking alcohol.
(Side note: Do you see how going for a takeaway after or eating pringles and bars of chocolates beforehand can put you well over 4,000 calories in a single day?)
Now that you know you need to save 3,000 Kcals in the bank for Saturday night, take this amount from your total weekly calories.
Knowing this alone is worth the (free) price of admission! This is the key to balancing your social and fitness life. Period. Both can be done, just be smart about it and don’t be afraid to against the grain and say no to the massive fry or takeaway you get offered the next day. Enjoy your night out. Get back on track the next day.
And before anyone accuses me of promoting people to drink alcohol, I’m not. But what I am is realistic. And I know that if you’re reading this, you probably enjoy socialising – especially as Christmas time now approaches. While being healthy and fit is important, being able to socialise and enjoy yourself at the weekend is also. Are you going to make progress as fast? Probably not. Is it optimal to drink alcohol every week? Absolutely not. But we know alcohol isn’t good for our health and we drink it anyways. So if you are going to do drink alcohol, limit its damage and do it right.
However, what this does mean is you really have to think twice about grabbing a twix for lunch or eating the cheesecake for dessert after dinner during the week. Save that for your Saturday night and focus on good quality proteins and fiber (veggies) weekdays.
Need some extra assistance with your health and fitness goals as the holidays approach? Would you like to have a proven game plan in place pre & post-Christmas? Then fill out your details in the form and I’d love to help you.
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Adrian McDonnell -
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