Everyone knows how to lose weight. Eat less, move more, and buy new khakis. What could be simpler? Except it's not really that easy. For one thing, weight loss isn't linear. The more you lose, the more your body fights back by slowing your metabolism and increasing your hunger.
That's why so many diets that start as New Year's resolutions drown in pitchers of green beer on St. Patrick's Day, if not sooner.
Logically, there's no reason why a diet should end with a single slipup. What's the worst that can happen? It sets you back a day or two. If your goal is permanent weight loss, what you do 6 days a week should matter more than what happens on the seventh.
In fact, some in the field suggest that a good diet plan should include wiggle room. In other words, you should plan to give yourself an occasional break—in the form of a cheat meal.
The most popular example is Body for Life. Author Bill Phillips advised readers to follow his strict high-protein, low-fat plan 6 days a week and then use the seventh as a "free day" to eat whatever they wanted. Pizza, pancakes, "a Big Mac or two for lunch"—it was all on the table. Those free days, Phillips wrote, "may help convince your body that it is not starving." But even more important is the psychology behind a break. "You don't want to create standards you can't meet," he added.
The 12-week Body for Life program was put to the test in a Skidmore College study. Even with 12 days of anything-goes eating, people on the program reduced their daily calories by 29 percent and lost an average of 11 pounds. But something interesting happened along the way: "Many of the participants grew out of the free-day eating plan early on," says study author Paul Arciero, DPE, a professor of health and exercise sciences at Skidmore. After the first couple of weeks, they were happy with a single cheat meal or an occasional dessert rather than a full day without rules. Although it was impossible to say whether the call to cheat was crucial to the participants' success, Arciero was intrigued; he decided to follow up with several longer-term studies. What he's finding could lead to new and less militant weight-loss strategies. Answer these questions and outsmart the flab monster.
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Do cheaters win by losing?
A Brown University study estimated that 80 percent of overweight people who drop at least 10 percent of their body weight regain some of it within a year. So it's reasonable to ask if a diet that includes some kind of release valve—a way to fudge on the plan without giving up entirely—might work better than one that doesn't. Men's Health nutrition advisor Alan Aragon, MS, points out that a strict all-or-nothing approach to dieting has been linked to such problems as overeating, weight gain, and anxiety. Conversely, people who take a more flexible approach—that is, those who slip up occasionally but then quickly jump back on track—may have more success.
The goal is what researchers call "flexible restraint," or the ability to stick to the plan most of the time without forcing yourself to refuse cake on your own birthday. But that still doesn't answer the question of whether a planned cheat meal works better than waiting for your urges or the environment to sneak up and blindside you with a plate of nachos.
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Who needs to cheat?
"If your body fat is really high, then you don't need a cheat meal," says Shelby Starnes, a nutrition coach and bodybuilder who has spent the past 7 years working with everyday Joes and elite lifters. "You can probably go weeks without one." How high is "really" high? If you're under 200 pounds and your waist is 36 inches or larger, then you're probably at least 20 percent fat, which suggests you've enjoyed quite a few cheat meals already.
The guy who most needs to cheat is the one who's doing exhausting workouts while adhering to a strict diet. "It's like a gas tank you've emptied," Starnes says. "You use cheat meals when you're depleted and your metabolism starts to drop a little bit." A slowing metabolism is an obvious handicap to someone trying to lose weight. You have to do more to accomplish less. But that's just one of the problems you encounter when your diet is working.
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