I guess I should start out this post by saying that I don’t really just love the term “cheat meal”. Mainly because, from the beginning of my weight loss journey, I have always fully intended on including more indulgent meals into my meal plan twice a week. I scheduled them deliberately, for many reasons that I’ll explain. So for me, and my plan, I wasn’t cheating. For me, they were “Mental Sanity Meals”, so from here on out, I’ll just call them MSM’s.
Last Saturday morning, I hit a new low weight! 137.2 pounds, a weight that I’ve not seen since probably 6th grade. And while I was excited to see that number on the scale, I knew it wasn’t going to last, because Saturdays for me, are a scheduled MSM day. And man, we did it right that day! I woke up, went to the gym, drank my protein shake, ate my normal breakfast, and then for lunch, we made a trip to Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen. When you walk into a restaurant that sells chocolate bars wrapped up like butter in the lobby, that’s when you know you’ve hit the mother load of MSM’s.
As suspected, it was delicious. I’ll spare you the details, just in case this is not your MSM day, lest I cause you to drool. Normally, on a diet, this would’ve meant for me that I had failed. I blew it. I have no will power, and I’m weak. However, the more I researched about MSM’s, the more I realized how necessary they are for most people, and that there are actually some great scientific and mental benefits to scheduling them into your week.
First, let’s talk mental benefits. Most of the time, when we’re on a diet, we look at food as either “good” or “bad”. We’ve been told that to be successful, we need to be 100% consistent, and to really commit. So what normally happens, is that we do okay for a few weeks, depriving ourselves, normally at a large calorie deficit, and then something happens. Somebody brings food to work, or there’s a birthday party, or we just simply don’t have time to go home and get our meal prepped food. We’ve been in such a large calorie deficit for several weeks now, that inevitably, our body starts to rebel. Mentally, we can’t take it anymore. We finally cave, we stuff ourselves until we’re ready to explode, and then feel horrible. Guilt sets in and we feel like we have to fix it. So what do we do? A lot of times, we restrict ourselves even more to make up for overindulging. And then, we start the whole cycle over again. Restrict, binge, back and forth. But what if you didn’t start out a diet starving yourself? What if you started eating enough calories to still be in a deficit, but not feel like you could eat the paint off the walls? What if you could still work some of your favorite foods that you craved into your meal plan, and know that you only had to follow it for 4-5 days until you could have a scheduled MSM? Ahhh, so much better for my mental state, and so much easier to sustain long-term.
Mentally, the benefits are wonderful, but there’s also scientific reasons for why we mentally struggle. As I said in my previous post all about macros, I am not a doctor or nutritionist, this is just what I’ve learned by doing my own research on this topic and I want to share with you what I’ve learned.
Leptin, Gherlin, and Glycogen
Leptin is the appetite suppressing hormone. After being in a calorie deficit for an extended period of time, leptin levels start to decrease. Which is why after being in a calorie deficit for a few weeks, your cravings are out of control. It’s not because you’re weak, or because your will power is horrible. It’s because your body is doing what God designed it to do, it’s trying to not let you starve. It’s telling you that your body is in a deficit, and it’s dropping your appetite suppressing hormones to scream, “EAT SOMETHING!”
At the same time our body is dropping leptin levels, it is rising our levels of ghrelin, the hunger stimulating hormone. While I can imagine both of these natural body processes are amazing if you’re a nomad, searching for food as your job everyday, when you’re actually trying to lose weight, they can be a real kick in the teeth.
Glycogen, also discussed in a previous blog post, is how our body stores carbohydrates for energy in our liver. After eating a low carb diet, or being in a calorie deficit for an extended period of time, our stored glycogen gets depleted. When this happens, we generally have low energy and feel sluggish, especially during workouts.
Looking at these 3 things, it’s easy to see how a MSM can be beneficial not only mentally, but biologically. When you eat a meal higher in carbs and calories, you’re signaling to your body that you’re not starving. The hunger hormones, leptin and ghrelin stabilize, and glycogen stores are replenished. Which basically means, your cravings are in check, you’ve given your metabolism a little jolt, and you have more energy to keep moving forward with your meal plan for another 4-5 days until it’s time to replenish again.
As you can probably tell, I’m a firm believer in the MSM. I have allowed myself two a week, for the entire length of my weight loss journey, and have been able to keep losing weight steadily for the last 18 months, but I do have some general guidelines for them:
- They are scheduled meals, not spur of the moment, emotional decisions. I know my schedule for the week, and don’t justify moving my MSM unless it is absolutely necessary because of something out of my control.
- I have whatever I’m craving, which is usually carb-rich, fatty foods, like fajitas, pizza, or pasta.
- I don’t use it as an excuse to “Binge”. This one is still a challenge for me sometimes, especially if I’m eating at a restaurant with huge portions. Not only because I’m eating one of my favorite foods and I want to inhale it, but also because I don’t take home leftovers. Restaurant leftovers can quickly turn my one cheat meal into 2 or 3.
- This is a big one. VERY IMPORTANT! A MSM is ALWAYS a meal I didn’t have to cook. This is very key!
- I eat whatever I want on the menu, and then I forget about it, and go straight back to my meal plan until the next MSM.
What to Do After a MSM
After a MSM, the most important thing to do is to move on. Don’t worry that you’re not making progress or that you’ve set yourself back. All you’ve done, is tell you’re body that you’re not starving it, that you’re fine, and that when you start feeding it in a deficit again tomorrow, it’s okay to continue dropping body fat. It is true that you’ll most likely gain a couple of pounds of water weight, but you won’t gain actual body fat. In my experience, the water weight from the increase in sodium usually goes away after a couple of days. After a MSM, one of the big things I do to help things along, is to just continue drinking lots of water to help flush things out. Other than that, I don’t restrict my diet, I just go back to eating my regularly planned out meals.
I hope this helps you somewhat understand the reasoning and actual biological benefits to scheduling yourself some indulgent meals into your meal plan. It truly does help your body keep going, while in a deficit, for so much longer than if you just try to white knuckle it, dropping those leptin levels until you crack. Learning this information helped me be so much kinder to myself also, because I realized that if I was craving a MSM, it wasn’t because I was weak or because I didn’t have enough will power. My body was just doing what it is naturally designed to do in times of famine. My job is to reset my hormone and glycogen levels, and then get immediately back to work. As of this morning, a week after my big cheat meal with Paula Deen, I’m at 136.6 pounds! Long term weight loss, is about learning to work with your body’s natural processes, not against them.