Within fitness there seems to be an ongoing difference of opinions when it comes to treats, cheats, cheat meals and cheat days.
The most conservative groups out there believe in eating “clean” all the time, with no exceptions. Then on the other side of the coin there are those who believe everything is OK in moderation. Within that camp there are those who believe in having the occasional treat here or there, those who believe one or two cheat meals a week is good, and others who advocate a whole cheat day every week.
So, who’s right and who’s wrong?
Obviously, from a purely physiological point of view, eating the right foods (if indeed there is such a thing) in the appropriate amounts all the time has to produce the best results in the shortest time. After all, adding junk food, for example, to an otherwise healthy eating program has to have some negative effect, regardless of how small.
But the problem is, people are not machines. You simply can’t disconnect the psychological aspect of the diet from the physiological, as much as you might like to think you can. As a matter of fact, due to the fact that, at the end of the day, it’s your mind that’s calling the shots and making all the decisions, the truth is that the psychological aspect is probably the more important of the two.
It’s the same with fitness in general. Most people fail because they quit, not because their diet program wasn’t perfect or their workout program wasn’t ideal. It’s their mind that determines whether they succeed or fail.
So does that mean that allowing yourself lots of cheats, to keep your mind happy, is the best choice? Well, it depends.
It’s been over two years now that I have been training specifically for competition. During my first year, I was on a diet program which can best be described as clean eating. It was very strict, with only certain foods prescribed.
We were allowed one so-called cheat meal each week though. I say “so-called” because it wasn’t a cheat meal where you could have anything you wanted. Instead, we had a choice of a handful of different foods. So it wasn’t so much a treat as it was a momentary departure from the usual strictness of the diet.
So, in a nutshell, the diet was pretty extreme.
After one year on that program we learned about and started to implement an IIFYM (“if it fits your macros”) approach to eating, otherwise known as flexible dieting. We began tracking my macros, and as long as my daily food choices fit my macros (along with several other constraints) they were acceptable.
The whole concept of IIFYM made sense to us. Of course we researched it a lot before adapting it and we saw what amazing results many top competitors were achieving through flexible dieting, without having to deprive themselves of some of their favorite foods. We also understood that restricting yourself to a handful of supposedly clean, acceptable foods was nutritionally crippling.
But anyhow, this post isn’t about the physiological arguments for and against different eating practices, but rather the psychological.
On my new, IIFYM program I instantly felt much freer and happier. It meant that not only was I enjoying a much wider variety of foods, I could also have some of my favorite things from time to time, like ice-cream, sweets, and so on, by working them into my macros.
People that support eating treats in moderation or having scheduled cheats make the argument that if you deprive yourself of something, then it’s going to cause you to crave it more and more, simply because you can’t have it.
I always believed that was true, after all it makes sense. But after doing flexible eating for a while, I found that the opposite was true for me.
I found that having treats around the house like ice-cream or garlic bread tempted me. It made me think about them all the time, that they were there waiting for me. And when I worked them into my macros so that I could enjoy them from time to time, it was very difficult to stop at the prescribed portion amount once I had a taste of something.
For me, I found that a treat was almost like a drug, where if I had a taste of it, I started to crave it more and more, and it became difficult to stop.
So, does that mean that the people who believe in all things in moderation are wrong? Of course not. It just means that what they believe is not necessarily right for everyone.
No one way is right for everyone, because we are all individuals.
For me, I have found that the best way is in fact to deprive myself of my favorite treats. I allow myself some maybe at Christmas time and other special occasions, but those times are so infrequent that their disruption is minimal. Once the occasion is over, I move on and get back into my training mindset.
If I were to allow myself a treat every week, my life would be a misery of constantly battling to keep control.
As it is, when I’m in training mode, eating lots of lovely and varied foods, but none of my favorite treats, my mind is at ease.
I have no cravings and I never even think about them. I can even see ice-cream and other treats and they have no effect on me. It’s like a switch flicks in my head where they no longer interest me. Because in my mind I know that they’re off limits for now. They’re for another time, so there’s no temptation.
I think that it’s rare for a trainer or a nutritionist to tell you to deprive yourself of your favorite treats, even if it’s in moderation. It would be a very politically incorrect thing to say, and they would fear being criticized or looked down upon for it. No one wants to be labeled an extremist.
But the truth is, as I’ve found through my own experience, that sometimes depriving yourself works fine. Not necessarily for everyone, but for some. I’m sure that many people would in fact crave something more by depriving themselves of it.
What works best for you?
Only you can answer that. Just don’t blindly follow other people’s opinions or recommendations that are based on political correctness, or you may never know. Try things for yourself, and you may just find that you unexpectedly stumble upon an easier and smoother road to success!