Do Cheat Meals Help or Hinder Your Metabolism?
To cheat or not to cheat? In the fitness industry, this is a common question when chatting about nutrition plans. Cheat meals can help to keep you sane by allowing some flexibility within an otherwise restrictive diet plan.1 They have also been said to help rev your metabolism after a period of calorie-restriction. But does adhering to a strict diet, followed by a no-holds-barred, eat-what-you-want meal, set your metabolism up for success in the long term or does it do more harm than good?
Understanding Your Metabolism
Your metabolism is the sum of all of the biochemical reactions that occur in the body. It’s through the building up and breaking down of molecules that your body gets the energy it needs to fuel your day. The rate your body uses energy (aka how quickly you burn calories) is called your metabolic rate.
When we restrict our food intake, our metabolism goes into survival mode and slows down as a way to conserve energy. In times of plenty (like when we consume a cheat meal), it gets the green light to fire up again.
You may see nothing wrong with a little bump n’ grind, as you continuously slow down and rev up your metabolism through cycles of calorie restriction followed by feasting, but your hormones beg to differ.
Since hormones are the primary regulators of your metabolism, it doesn’t work so well when your endocrine (hormonal) system is stressed. When you’re cycling through a schedule of restricting calories, shortly followed by an intake of an excessive amount of food, it causes your hormones to become unbalanced.
Go Cars Go
Leptin is the hormone that sends a message to your brain when you’re feeling full. It plays a crucial role in metabolism2.
Imagine your metabolism is a car. Leptin is your brake and gas pedal. When you’re restricting calories, leptin slams on the brakes and your metabolism slows down. When you have your cheat meal, leptin puts the pedal to the metal, and your metabolism speeds up.
Now imagine this repetitive cycle happening over and over again. For your body, it’s like the clunky stop-start-stop of someone who is just learning to drive. It’s not only unsafe, but you have a pretty high chance of wearing out your gear shift.
Your metabolism likes a smooth ride (aka balance), and your leptin levels are like that gear shift. The repetitive highs and lows can be destructive to leptin and your overall endocrine system3, especially if you aren’t eating a high-quality diet, sleeping properly, and managing stress effectively.
5 Expert Tips to Fuel Your Metabolism
How can you eat in a way that helps you reach your diet goals without causing your hormones to go out of whack? Glad you asked! Here are my top five ways to stay balanced and get after your goals:
- Be more intuitive with what you’re consuming. Honour and take notice of what your body needs versus what you’re craving4. Ask yourself if you’re actually hungry or if you’re just bored or dehydrated. If you do have a misstep, don’t let the guilt consume you. Accept it and move on – we’re all human!
- Eat the rainbow. Reach for whole foods like dark leafy greens, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, fruit, vegetables and protein. These foods provide the real fuel that your body deserves.
- Make space to enjoy your meals. Stay away from screens (phone, television, computer, tablet), so you can focus on the meal in front of you. Chewing your food while you’re away from distractions can help you be more in tune with when you’re feeling full.
- Get adventurous and have fun. A lot of diet plans can be strict, repetitive and boring. Pick up a new cookbook or scour the internet for some fresh recipes from health food bloggers that fit within your eating plan. Variety is the spice of life and if you’re having fun in the kitchen, why would you need to cheat?
- Connect with a sports nutritionist or naturopath. If you are interested in creating a diet that helps you reach your fitness, training, or personal goals it is always best to work with an expert. They will help to craft a plan that ensures you are eating enough calories, in the correct macronutrient proportions to achieve success. They can also provide you with some great tips and recipes, so you don’t feel like you are depriving yourself.
Playing the Long Game
As humans, we tend to live in the ‘now.’ We don’t tend to think about how our diet and nutrition choices will impact us down the road. When you consume a cheat meal, you’re only cheating yourself5. Keeping your nutritional choices consistent, in moderation and balanced sets you up for success in a more natural, sustainable way. When your hormones and metabolism are working in harmony, everyone wins. So, jump into the driver’s seat and take control of where you’re going and how you’re getting there. Let’s make the cycle of restriction and binging a thing of the past and focus on intuitively listening to our body to better achieve our goals!
If you have more questions about nutrition, diet, or sports nutrition find a store near you and come chat with one of our experts! You can also find us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. We are #ReflexNation.
About Your Author: Meg Clark has a B.Sc in Kinesiology, is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and a health and fitness fanatic based in Vancouver, BC. You’ll find her running on the seawall, sweating it out at a new fitness studio or eating at a local restaurant. You can follow her @megemclark.
Bean, Anita. The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition. Bloomsbury, 2013.
Haas, Elson M., and Levin, Buck. Staying Healthy with Nutrition. Random House Inc, 2006.
Marieb, Elaine N. Essentials of Human Anatomy & Physiology. Pearson Education Inc, 2015.