Sunday, September 09, 2007

Any cheaters out there?

I'm a big fan of planned cheating of the dietary sort. Most of the really decent programs include some sort of cheating. Body for Life has Free Day, Tom Venuto calls it the 'splurge' meal, Precision Nutrition refers to the '10% meal' (because you can deviate on 10% of your meals... yep), Lyle McDonald has both the 'free meal' and the 'structured re-feed' and, most commonly, on forums and in articles, you will read about the 'cheat' meal or cheat day. Knowing how to deviate from a structured plan and then get right back on with it is a skill that has to be mastered for long term success with fatloss. It took me a long, long, embarrassingly loooong time to get it right.

Before my first attempt at Body for Life I was actually fairly sane with food and felt that I had beaten my ED demons. I had been on The Zone diet for about 3 years and was in quite decent shape because I was working as a Sports Masseuse - try massaging the knots out of the humungous, rock-hard legs of a professional rugby player and tell me that's not a real workout!. I knew nothing about training with weights and had not a clue what HIIT might stand for, but I did have my proteins, carbs and fats under control and knew exactly what to do if I strayed. The Zone is very clear on this. If you eat something un-zoney, then you just fix it up at the next meal or snack and you are back in the Zone from that point. You are never more than one meal away from being 'back on track'. Not only that, but there are ways to fit all your favourite foods into a zone meal. Once you know if it's a protein, carb or fat, you just work the rest of the meal around it and keep right on zoning. It's a very intelligent approach to eating and cheating that acknowledges the fact that sometimes..cake happens, no big deal.

In a Body for Life challenge, the approach is a little different. You are strict with yourself 6 days a week and then on day 7, you have FREE DAY where you let the reins of discipline hang completely loose and you inhale junkfood from 1 minute past midnight until you can't possibly stuff yourself any more and fall into a sugar coma. You wake up promising to God that next week you will be more restrained but, once the carb-over wears off, you start fantasising about the next Free Day. This approach did actually work for me at first. Eventually a few hard facts began to filter into my consciousness. 1. My results came to a standstill and I realised that it IS possible to undo a weeks effort in one day. 2. As an ex-binge eater, free day was not going to work for me in my immediate 'snout in the trough' interpretation of it . It occurred to me that Bill Phillips did not write Body for Life with the specific needs of the Eating Disordered in mind. What's more, he (probably) does not have a binge eating disorder and it may not have occurred to him that some binge eaters may use free day as a weapon of self abuse. By the time I realised that I'd better change my tactic, I had developed a real binge eating disorder and it just wasn't that easy to get my sanity back, especially as I'd become (rightly) convinced that high calorie days are a good way to keep the metabolism going and maintain energy levels when you are in fatloss mode. Every time I tried to bump calories up for a day, it would be like a 'FREE DAY' switch would go off in my head and I'd find myself in an unattractive 'stuff my face' autopilot. Now, I'm not saying 'BFL gave me binge eating disorder' because that's not true. I already had a history of food problems and used the structure of BFL to legitimise some disordered eating behaviours. Yes.. Free Day did not work for me and nor did most other organised systems of cheating. Now I have an approach which doesn't really conform with any system but is most in line with both the '10% meal' structure of PN and my old Zone diet. I probably veer closer to 15% meals that are more 'zone' than PN (i.e. they include starchy carbs at times when I'm supposed to be eating veges and fruit as my carbs) and I have two or three meals that are true 'free' meals which may be a moderate splurge or may involve stupid amounts of wine and chocolate... it depends on my mood and on the situation. I may run them together and have an indulgent sort of afternoon. Some interesting research by Lyle McDonald (the undisputed king of the precision re-feed) suggests that keeping your body in an overfed state for at least 5 hours has the best physiological effect towards reversing the hormonal and metabolic problems of a hypo-caloric diet. This effect is most pronounced when the overfeeding is from low-fat carbs. I personally am not too concerned about reversing the problems of dieting because I'm not really dieting and my calorie deficit is very small, but this is useful to know if you run a large calorie deficit and want to make the most of your cheat meals. My reasons for taking a more flexible approach and for the free meals are primarily because I'm diet-traumatised and need some leeway in order to be consistently healthy. It sounds contradictory but it's really very... contradictory. What can I say? Perhaps I'm just complicated and my research (emails I get from YOU nutters) suggests that being complicated when it comes to food is not exactly rare.

The point with deviating is to create something that has a positive effect, both psychologically and physiologically. You want to fulfil your psychological need to 'button off' and eat something without it having to conform to any damn rules. Physiologically you want to bring your calories up to maintenance or above so that your glycogen stores get replenished and your hormones perceive an abundance of food and do a lot of useful things like crank up your metabolic rate and turn down your appetite. You want to do this in a way that leaves you feeling empowered, not out of control. Done right, cheating is highly motivating. If I know that on Friday night I'm going to make the best pizza in the world and eat as much of it as I like, followed by the best chocolate cake ever (with the ingredients of: chocolate, butter, sugar, eggs and rum), then I don't feel deprived when I'm eating my salmon salad. Not just because I like my gourmet salmon salad, but because I know that eating salmon salad doesn't mean I never get to eat chocolate cake.

So, I finally get it. Duh. Use it, don't abuse it.

Just in case you think I'm kidding about that chocolate cake, look here. Scroll down to the Flourless Chocolate Cake. My one had $15 of dark chocolate in it and after two slices I was completely chocolated out. This was fortunate or I might not have been inspired to share....


  1. Perfect timing - I seem to be fielding "but why can't I have an entire free day?" questions left, right and centre at the moment. Now I can just be lazy and send them all a link to your post! :o)

    And you know how much I love Bill P, but in my experience free days DON'T work for a far greater proportion of people than for whom they DO work.

  2. Love this post! That's the one thing I struggle with. My 10% meals started as very controlled and moderate, then lately they've become hoggy ho free days squished into 1 "meal". Not good. I spent yesterday in a carb coma and am back on track today with my #1 goal being to have more frequent, planned cheats. More 10% meals (2 or 3 instead of 1 huge one) but less food at each of them. It's true... my eggwhite omelet is good, and if I know I get wine and ice cream on Saturday it's even better. I think I'll print this post out and put it in my journal. :)

  3. I don't understand the word "cheat" = what are we cheating on?

    Liz N
    (who has never done BFL)

  4. Have a look at this website -
    Its good for a giggle.


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