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

Everyone knows how to lose weight. Eat less, move more.
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 collapse into gluttony before the end of summer.

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.

A popular example is Body for Life. Author Bill Phillips advised readers to follow his strict high-protein, low-fat plan six 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 program was put to the test in a Skidmore College study. Even with 12 days of anything-goes eating, people on the program reduced their daily kilojoules by 29 per cent and lost an average of five kilograms. But something interesting happened along the way: “Many of the participants grew out of the free-day eating plan early on,” says study author Dr Paul Arciero, a professor of health and exercise sciences at the college. 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 per cent of overweight people who drop at least 10 per cent 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.

Nutritionist 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 – that is, those who 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 own 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.

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 blokes and elite lifters. “You can probably go weeks without one.” How high is “really” high? If you’re under 90kg and your waist is 36 inches or larger, then you’re probably at least 20 per cent 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 tank you’ve emptied,” says Starnes. “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 that’s just one of the problems you encounter when your diet is working.

“When people diet, they overrestrict their carbohydrates, fat, or both,” says Aragon. 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 when you restrict kilojoules, while ghrelin, a hunger-inducing hormone, rises.

Strategic cheating could reset all four hormones to optimal levels and temporarily boost your metabolism. But it’s important to note that no new research has examined the effect of cheat meals on any of these factors. Instead, we have to look 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 calories probably won’t be offset,” says exercise and nutrition scientist Dr Michael Ormsbee. Cheat meals may work best for weight loss only if the noncheating 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, says Aragon. If you’ve been curtailing your fat intake, you want a high-fat cheat – pizza, a big steak, cheesecake. If you’ve been going low-carb, then you want pasta, fries or another high-carb cheat.

But all that is irrelevant if you crave something specific. “The psychological impact of militantly depriving yourself of food you like can sabotage you,” says Aragon. “It gives all the power to the food and takes the power away from the dieter.” In other words, it’s best to 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?
While Starnes recommends one cheat meal a week, Aragon’s approach is more nuanced. His goal for his clients is to have them eat right 90 per cent of the time, leaving 10 per cent of their kilojoules for cheating. He offers three options:

• One huge indulgence a week – “8500-12,500kJ of pure junky goodness.”
• Two 4200kJ-6300kJ meals a week.
• A small indulgence daily. “For most guys, this boils down to 850-1250kJ,” he says, adding that it’s the most popular option.

Arciero’s research points to the same conclusion. He gave participants 15 per cent “free” kilojoules. “The majority chose to spread out the 15 per cent over the week,” he says. “The cheat foods were embedded with healthy meals. It’s a very effective adherence strategy.”

It also suggests a new weight-loss paradigm, one in which it’s perfectly okay to have something fun every day if that’s your preference. After all, at that point you aren’t cheating on your diet as much as following it.

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