I am literally eating a Taco Bell Chicken Burrito Supreme as I write this. In front of me is a steaming cup of coffee and a glass of ice water. To my right, an open pint of Ben and Jerry’s Ice cream that I’m working on.
Today, in addition to a bunch of chicken and salad, I’ve consumed an ENORMOUS burrito from a hole-in-the-wall Mexican place here in town (that’s actually really delicious; Guy Fieri’s been there), 2 donuts, coffee, a serving of Hershey’s dark chocolate, about 1/3 pint of this coffee ice cream (so far – I’m not done yet), and I’m almost done with this burrito that – yes – I got from Taco Bell.
(My conversation with the taco bell teller:
“What’s the biggest burrito you have here?”
–”Yeah, I’ll have that.”)
Update – I’m now down to about a half pint of this ice cream. The carton says there are 1060 calories in here total.
I know what you’re thinking – is something wrong with me?
Well yes, many things. But not this – the eating is actually intentional.
Let’s talk about cheat meals.
(Or sometimes “cheat days,” “high-carb meals,” “re-feeds”; whatever you want to call it.)
Disclaimer: First of all – whatever you do – don’t do what I do. You’ll get yourself killed.
But do hear me out.
There are actually a few physiological benefits to what we commonly refer to as “cheat meals.” (On top of the very potent psychological benefits, which also shouldn’t be overlooked.)
I was first introduced to this radical idea by Tim Ferriss in his book The 4-Hour-Body. Tim suggests that one cheat day a week could actually be beneficial for fat loss by ensuring that “your metabolic rate (thyroid function and conversion of T4 to T3, etc.) doesn’t downshift from extended caloric restriction.”
Intrigued, I’ve looked into it a little further, and my reading seems to indicate – and honestly, it makes sense – that occasional higher-carb cheat meals reduce cortisol (the stress hormone), increase thyroid hormones (which are crucial for optimal metabolism), and decrease ghrelin (the pesky hunger hormone).
We know that on caloric-restriction diets, cortisol and ghrelin tend to elevate, and thyroid hormones can be negatively affected. Anything that can combat that is probably a good thing, and may help reduce plateaus associated with extended dieting.
Now, I’m not a doctor, I’d still like to do more research into the subject, and I don’t recommend you cheat like I do (I’m also experimenting with all kinds of fasting and fasted running, and in general, I do eat an extremely healthy diet).
But I think we can safely say that when done consciously, and in a somewhat restricted way, occasional “cheat” meals certainly may have some benefits.
A final, important reason that I point this out is that a friend of mine texted me recently, guiltily confessing to downing a serving of pasta (“Italian comfort food,” as she called it, alluding to her familial roots), worried that she had completely derailed her fat loss plan. She seemed genuinely concerned.
I think the guilt and fear many people associate with eating a high-carb meal probably lead to worse effects than the meal itself ever could. (Especially since the “bad” meal might have some benefits.) That guilt and shame could lead you to really beat yourself up, or even spiral downward emotionally and nutritionally.
So if all this post accomplishes is to help people stop and question their “eating guilt” before they start to negatively spiral, I’ll consider it a success.
My recommendation, overall, would be to try to dial in a healthy, nutritious way of eating, that you do consistently, habitually – and then very consciously, fairly occasionally, and quite shamelessly, “cheat”– in a highly intuitive way that feels good to you. (I make a point of eating plenty of lean meat and veggies – like I did this morning – before indulging, and then I drink lots of water while eating high carb meals. Then, I go back to eating my more standard diet.) As a final note, I believe that the more weight you have to lose, the less benefit you get from cheating, and the smaller your cheat meals can be.
In summary, though, not only does it feel good to treat yourself to a cheat meal, but the act of occasionally indulging might be have a few research-based benefits as well.
Oh, and my final bit of evidence: You know how a few posts ago I mentioned losing 10 pounds in 30 days? Last I checked (yesterday) I’m down an additional 5 pounds in the 2 weeks since then.