The much lauded and slavered over cheat meal has been encouraged and spoken about in fitness since before step aerobics. We'd like to put a big fat question mark over it and here's why:
What we choose to fuel our body with is extremely important for the growth and development of cells, the production of hormones, correct functioning of all the body’s systems and ultimately, the balance of our equilibrium.
When we consume foods devoid of nutrition (dead foods), such as processed junk foods, we overload the body with chemicals it doesn’t recognise and cause it distress. Chemical additives, preservatives, partially hydrogenated fats and sugars have a negative affect on our nervous system, which in turn impacts on the endocrine, lymphatic and digestive systems and over time, the cardiovascular system. Needless to say, a long-term diet high in junk food leads to degenerative disease, but what about the impact of just one meal, or one day of cheat foods?
How does our body’s machinery cope with a sudden influx of sugar, salt, partially hydrogenated fat and chemicals from a huge pizza, followed by donuts and chocolate bars? And will that one cheat day/meal really come with any negative consequences where appearance is concerned?
The first thing we would point out is, if you feel as though you absolutely need to eat junk food and this becomes a routine every week, in order to control (psychological) stress levels, then there is a bigger problem at play. If your brain is making the connection between comfort, happiness and sugar etc., then it's well worth exploring the drivers and emotions behind those cravings. If you routinely crave sweet foods, you may well be suffering from adrenal fatigue. We simply weren’t designed to consume these foods; they give rise to addiction, which results in cravings, mood swings and irritability when we cut them out of our diets.
Still, we understand (to a certain extent) where the average person is coming from with the whole “I enjoy these foods once in a while, they give me a release, I don’t see the harm” and we don’t see a massive problem in doing this… if that's honestly the case!
The popular meme “One bad meal won’t make you fat, just like one healthy meal won’t make you lean” satisfies most minds and thus, the cheat meal is accepted as the great saviour to every Tom, Dick and Sally in gyms across the globe. The problem is, the cheat meal quite often leads to a cheat day, which (due to impact on neurochemistry) leads to a cheat weekend and therefore approaches the fine line between treating and bingeing.
When you consume different nutrients, they produce different effects on physiology, the brain, and behaviour. However, all share certain neural pathways for reinforcement of behaviour, including the mesolimbic dopamine (DA) system and when consumed in the form of binges, this can cause excessive release of DA, which causes compensatory changes that are comparable to the effects of drugs of abuse.
Whilst having a cheat day once a week may not fit the criteria set out in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for binge eating, there is no doubt a fine line between consuming a routinely large hedonistic meal and a pathological binge.
Let’s take a little look at some of the ingredients found in “cheat” foods and the impact they have on your body in the short-term.
Hydrogenated Oils/Trans Fats
Hydrogenation (complete or partial) is a chemical process, which allows vegetable oils to be converted from liquid oils to solid shortenings by heating the oil in the presence of hydrogen and a catalyst (usually a metal such as nickel combined with Kieselguhr – a form of silica). This process adds hydrogen atoms to polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, reducing the number of double bonds and therefore rendering them saturated (complete hydrogenation).
Complete hydrogenation doesn't produce trans fat, but partial hydrogenation vastly reduces the unsaturated fatty acid content and changes anywhere from 5-10 percent to 55 percent or more of the original fatty acids to trans fatty acids and a number of other unnatural fatty acids. So, it’s the trans fats, in the partially hydrogenated oils we need to watch out for. They are used in processed foods to increase shelf life, improve flavouring systems and also in restaurants/takeaways for frying.
Trans fats interfere with cellular communication causing chaos and slowing the ability of muscle cells to use glucose as an energy source. This contributes to an increase in blood sugar, resulting in surges of insulin and increased fat storage. Whilst this may not be a problem for the average gym goer on a cheat day, it must surely be a consideration for the stage athlete, who is trying to remain as lean as possible during the latter half of their prep. If you are at competition level, then your machinery is far more finely-tuned than the average Joe and you will react very differently to invading chemicals and toxins.
This may result in a decrease in enzyme function and immune response, which in our experience, has seen some athletes feeling ill and sluggish over the days that follow a cheat day. Trans fats are known to provoke an inflammatory response and as a result water retention, as toxins trigger a cascade of events whereby white blood cells and cytokines mobilize to protect you. This inflammation causes an increase in heat production and in turn this attracts parasites (these little critters see in infra-red), which feed off your energy and suck the nutrients out of your cells.
Cravings are real!
Consuming foods high in trans fats may also be responsible for activating a nuclear receptor known as PPAR-g (responsible for regulating the burning or storing of fat). This may cause an increase in food intake and weight gain through fat storage, as well as changes in hormone levels. Sudden changes in PPAR-g may lead to quick changes in food intake (increasing intake for up to 3 days afterwards) and increased fat mass. Some of our athletes have reported feeling the need to eat more (and have a particular affinity to the cheat foods they’ve just eaten), in the first few days following a cheat day. They may have resisted the urge to carry on indulging, but the fact remains; they’ve put themselves in this “craving” situation by deviating from the plan and all because of a psychological need to cheat!
Does this then further add to the stress of a competition, rather than taking away from it? Sure you’ve had a cheat day and fulfilled a need, which in your mind has relieved some stress (the true picture of stress impacted by the cheat day itself is another story), but this “reward” is swiftly taken away and often leaves you wanting more, creating further stress.
Sugar & Other Nasties
Let’s not “sugar coat” this, sugar is addictive!! It stimulates the same reward centres in the brain as drugs such as cocaine, heroin and alcohol. This white devil causes the disruption and malfunctioning of neurotransmitters, which results in a break down in cellular communication and impairs the physiological homeostasis of many systems in the body. Worryingly, it’s now being linked to a progressive decline in brain function.
The short-term effects of consuming large amounts of sugar found in cheat meals will be different for everyone, but will almost certainly cause hormonal imbalance, as some hormones become underactive and others become overactive.
At this point, it’s worth mentioning sugar increases estradiol (the most potent form of naturally occurring estrogen) in men. Coupled with the general stress of competition prep, everyday life and environmental factors, the sugar in your cheat meals will leave some of you feeling the affects after just one day.
Other ill effect of sugar include: • Suppression of the immune system • Interference with mineral absorption • Rise in triglycerides • Lower protein absorption rates • Water retention • Decreased testosterone
Processed foods are loaded with salt (the bad kind) and it’s not always labelled and clear just how much. Like protein, not all salts are equal and sea salt or Himalayan pink salt are very different from table salt.
It’s important to understand that a deficiency in sodium slows down metabolism and eventually causes inflammation and degeneration. You might be tempted to think "salt is salt," but the structure of processed salt has been radically altered in the refining process. Refined salt is dried above 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, and this excessive heat alone alters the natural chemical structure of the salt. What remains after ordinary table salt is chemically "cleaned", is sodium chloride, as well as anti-caking and flow agents; these are dangerous chemicals such as ferrocyanide and aluminosilicate. Needless to say, the sodium in table salt is the reason why salt in the diet gets a bad name!
When we eat sugar, white flour and other refined foods, they are absorbed very quickly by the body and bring our blood glucose levels up too quickly to an excessively high level. This sends an emergency signal to the pancreas to bring the blood sugar levels back down, so it releases an excessive amount of insulin to deal with the excessively high levels of blood glucose.
This in turn causes the body to call on the adrenal glands to release cortisol to bring the blood sugar levels back up, because it works in conjunction with insulin to keep blood sugar in balance.
These elements are just the usual suspects found in your average cheat meal. There’s a whole host of colourings and additives that we’ve not even gone into. So why cheat?
Do you really need it? Do you really want it? Or is that how you’ve been told to think?
We spoke to UKBFF regional winner and Team Monkey athlete Louis Brogan about his thoughts on the subject…
“From my experience with cheat meals, I've learned to stay clear or at least reduce my intake of sugary, fatty foods. During contest preps in the past, I've allowed myself a cheat meal where I would indulge in one gigantic carb feast, mainly consisting of pizza (bread/ cheese), then some chocolate or ice cream, which left me bloated for the following three days! Every week I'd have my cheat on a Saturday and would then suffer with bloating and water retention until Tuesday:
“Instead of making progress I’d be taking a step back every week. Not to mention how it interfered with my digestive system. In my last comp I didn't cheat once, but included refeed days consisting of a higher (clean) carb intake and found my condition set in a lot quicker and I progressed a lot further!”
Louis is a natural athlete and therefore the impact of cheat meals will be very different than for an assisted athlete using steroids. To be blunt, if you're using steroids or other PEDs, from an aesthetic perspective there's not much you can't get away with eating.
Cheat meals, it’s your choice and it all depends on you and what your goals are. If you have two cheat meals a week, feel good, look good or are happy with that arrangement, that's cool. We're not wagging our finger and telling you what to do. We want to make sure you're aware of the mechanics and science behind it and how it could potentially be holding you back.
The main question you need to ask, is do I want to take two steps forward and one step back every week?