This weekend, I discovered Nutella. Yes, Nutella – that chocolate hazelnut spread that the jar assures you can be a part of a balanced, healthy breakfast. Now, Nutella marketing people, come on. I’ve read the label. I know there is nothing about Nutella that is balanced OR healthy. But damn if it isn’t delicious between two pieces of French toast. (Put that on the label.) Yes, this weekend I “cheated” on my diet with grains, sugars and processed foods. And that’s the subject of the day – eating dirty.
If you’re reading this blog, we probably have one thing in common. We all try to eat well. We eat Zone proportions or Paleo quality or some other mechanism that we would call a “clean” diet. We know the difference between Real Food and Stuff You Can Eat. We eat real food, natural food, nutrient-dense food. We avoid foods that require additives to be “healthy”, high-tech fabrications designed to replace real food, and food-like products made from ingredients we cannot pronounce. And we do this, day in and day out, for the vast majority of our meals and snacks.
But most of us don’t eat like that ALL the time. A 100% strict diet is mentally taxing, socially restrictive and just plain not fun. So, we “cheat”. We go off diet, eat things that we normally wouldn’t, indulge in things that taste good and satisfy our urges. But on the Healthy/F Off Scale, we still want our diets to tip well to the Healthy side. Which means we need to think long and hard about how we cheat, what we choose to eat and drink during these cheat periods and how often we go off diet.
Let’s first define what we mean by “cheat”. I’m going out on a limb and saying 99% of the time, cheat = high carb, processed, sugary foods and drinks. What else do we cheat with? Certainly not fat. Fat is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. No, we cheat with dirty, dirty carbs. Beer and pizza, nachos and tequila, cinnamon swirl French toast slathered with Nutella. We cheat with insulin spiking, sugar rushing, energy crashing CARBS. (Can I get an "amen" from my Brooklyn boys?)
Now that that's settled, in this next section, we’ll talk about the physiological benefits of cheating. Surely, you’ve heard that cheat meals or cheat days are a necessary part of your fitness program? They “shock the body”, “keep it guessing”, “jump start your metabolism”, right? So this next section will discuss the science-y details of how going off diet and cheating with things like pizza, pasta, cake and cookies has a positive impact on your physical health, fitness and performance.
This section is short.
To be perfectly clear, a cheat day does not have a single significant, long-term positive effect on your metabolism, your body composition or any other internal science-y factors, despite what you read on the internet. Mathieu Lalonde can step into comments and explain all the reasons that a single cheat day negatively impacts how you look, feel and perform for the next two weeks... but I’ll shoot down some common arguments here.
First… for those of you who eat a bowl of Breyer’s every night before bed and suddenly notice you’re looking leaner… that’s not the Breyer’s. It is, however, a sure sign that you have not been eating enough. The ice cream is giving you a caloric boost, and has jump started your metabolism. Which is great, short term. But keep eating ice cream every night for months on end and tell me how that’s working out for you. Or, I’ll argue, how much better would your fat loss and performance be if you instead ate more almonds, chicken and/or sweet potatoes to get those extra fat and calories in? In short, the “cheat” may have helped short term, but it’s a bad long term solution, and you could do better. (Pay attention to that last part. You’ll hear it again.)
Second, you may pass off your cheats as preventing metabolic slow-down. Serious calorie and carb restrictions decrease the release of the hormone called leptin. Leptin is important to keeping up your body’s metabolic rate. Increasing food intake drastically, even for a short period of time (like with a cheat day), will prevent the drop in leptin that occurs when dieting. But most of us aren’t seriously “dieting”, are we? We’re CrossFitting, so we are at least eating enough to support performance. We may have a slight caloric deficit to prompt fat loss, but we are NOT in starvation mode. Not even close. Our metabolisms should be chugging away like a super-powered bullet train. So, if we are already eating for performance, do we really need to “mix it up” and “jolt our metabolisms” with chili cheese fries and an ice cream sundae? (That's rhetorical, kids.) And if for some reason you are on a seriously calorie-restricted diet... again, I'll say that you can pull off a better metabolic shock-and-awe with a higher volume of good, clean carbs than you can eating crap.
How about the idea of “loading” or “refeeding” – essentially, replenishing glycogen stores? Glycogen (the carbs stored in the muscles and liver) is the primary fuel source for intense physical work. When your glycogen stores are low, you won't be able to train as hard as when you're fully loaded. For that reason, it's a good idea to periodically give the body a shot of carbohydrates to keep glycogen stores at least somewhat full. (We do this in the form of a post workout meal.) But again, it comes back to this. You can “refuel” with ice cream and candy… or you can refuel with sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Ice cream supports the basic, fundamental requirement of replenishing glycogen stores… but also messes with a whole host of other body processes, like insulin sensitivity, fat stores and autoimmune responses. Again, you could do better.
So there you have it – a cheat meal or a cheat day does nothing for your physical health and well being that couldn’t be done better with good, clean food. But there are a whole host of reasons to cheat that I DO support - and those are all mental. Your taste buds crave things that taste good. Your brain rebels against the rigidity of “can have” and “can’t have”. Your emotions needs a break from the isolation and social pressures of being the weird eater, the difficult dinner party guest, the one who makes everyone else feel bad about the way they eat. You need a mental break, which means you need to stray from your diet. And I am more than okay with that.
So we’ve established that we want our diets to weight in on the side of Healthy, but that there are mental and emotional reasons that mean it is absolutely necessary that we go off-diet from time to time. And as you might imagine, I have a few thoughts as to how you do that. Tomorrow, I'll publish my advice for how to strike the best balance possible while still preserving your mental sanity.
Stay tuned for The Byers Guide to Eating Dirty (Part II) on Friday.