In our last article we covered the first 3 myths when it comes to weight loss and they were centered around calories and energy balance. In this article we are going to dispel the infamous “Cheat meal” and how it magically helps with body composition, where fat is lost first on your body, and the pervasive “metabolic damage” or “breaking your metabolism”.
“YOU CAN EAT/DRINK WHATEVER YOU WANT IN A ‘CHEAT MEAL’ AND STILL LOSE WEIGHT”
First, I think we need to define what a “cheat meal” is so we know we are talking about the same thing. A “cheat meal” is something dieters have used for years to relieve physical hunger and psychological stress/cravings. It involves eating whatever you want, in whatever quantity you want as long as it’s within that sitting. Most people look at it as a no holds barred, eat and drink until you are physically sick type of meal.
The “cheat” concept can be used very strategically and be a very useful tool in your weight loss journey but people that aren’t losing weight typically “cheat” completely wrong. Yes, there is a correct way to go about “cheating”.
For instance they often cheat too frequently. Remember the first law of thermodynamics. Calories in vs. calories out. Well if you overeat 4 or 5 times in a month you can easily erase the calorie deficit you have been in between those “cheat” meals.
Another mistake is having a no holds barred “cheat day”. In one meal you can really only do so much damage, maybe 2,000 calories but in a whole day...I can eat 5-6,000 calories and that can severely slow your weight loss if done 2-3 times a month.
The last two problems with having no structure to your “cheat meals” have to do with more complicated physiological processes. The first one is eating too many calories in the form of dietary fat. Dietary fat is easier to store as body fat due to its chemical structure and it’s low thermic effect (between 0 and 2 percent of its energy goes to digestion). Protein and carbs are chemically dissimilar to body fat so they require a lot more energy to process and our bodies prefer to use them for energy and tissue repair/building. The second one is alcohol. Not only does it lower your inhibitions, it also takes priority in the digestive process so all fat burning is stopped forcing your body to store carbs and dietary fat as body fat. Basically it’s not the calories in alcohol that make you fatter, but all the calories you eat when you are drinking that give you a beer belly (or beer butt).
“YOU CAN BURN FAT FROM THE PLACES YOU WANT”
This is where magazines, social media, and the endless core workouts brainwash you into thinking you can spot reduce fat from your waist or any other body part. You can’t slim your thighs, eliminate back fat or make your jiggly arms toned by just working that underlying body part. Yes, you will bring blood flow to that part of your body but fat loss is a whole-body experience. Once you create the proper environment through diet, exercise and lifestyle (calorie deficit), then your body starts reducing fat stores all over. The general rule is you lose fat in the last place you put it on first and lose it on the first place you put it on last. So no amount of crunches will give you abs if your body fat percentage is 25 or 30%.
“YOU CAN ‘DAMAGE’ YOUR METABOLISM BY DIETING”
“Metabolic damage” refers to a condition where various physiological systems have been disrupted resulting in your metabolism burning less energy than it should. Basically it’s a hypothetical state where you burn fewer calories than you should according to your weight and activity level. You may also hear that once this “damage” has occurred, it can take months or even years to repair.
The common causes are believed to be dieting for too long (staying in a calorie deficit), cutting too many calories (starvation diet), and doing too much cardiovascular activity (running, elliptical, biking, walking, etc..). Therefore, when you stop losing weight for no apparent reason, or when you start gaining weight after a period of dieting, people will say you have metabolic damage that you need to repair.
I couldn’t find any real science behind this and when it’s talked about it’s usually stories of people not losing weight on less than 1,000 calories a day while doing intense cardio routines. This leads to people becoming convinced that dieting has screwed up their body and the only way to fix it is with a special diet.
Several studies have shown that metabolic decline associated with dieting, including long periods of very low calorie dieting, was at the most 15%. Furthermore, it took at least a 10% drop in body weight to produce the double digit decline in metabolic rate. This research was also produced with people making the dieting mistake trifecta of eating too few calories, too little protein, and not doing any resistance training to build muscle.
So yes, metabolic adaptations happen as you diet because our bodies are smart and they want to preserve body fat and yes, they can persist long after weight loss has stopped but they can also easily be mitigated or eliminated by raising your calories to maintenance for short periods of time with nutritional periodization, lifting weights, and eating adequate amounts of protein.
This applies to everyone, even if you have gone to extreme measures in the past to get lean. No matter what you have done, if you start doing things correctly, research shows you can even improve your metabolism over time and with weight loss.
“DIETING SENDS YOUR BODY INTO ‘STARVATION MODE’”
The myth behind “starvation mode” is similar to metabolic damage and it goes like this: If you are too aggressive with your calorie restriction, then your metabolism will adapt to a snail's pace, making it basically impossible to continue losing weight.
The way most people hear about these two problems working in unison with each other is:
You try to lose weight too fast, you eat minimal calories and lose weight too fast.
Your body responds by going into starvation mode and weight loss stops.
You counter with eating even less, moving more and that is when the metabolic damage occurs.
The longer you remain in starvation mode, the less and less weight you’ll lose, and the more damage your metabolism will incur.
Then we hear, the only way to lose weight is slowly through moving more, very minimally restricting calories, and avoiding metabolic damage and starvation mode. There is only one problem with this hypothesis...The Minnesota starvation experiment. Of course we can’t repeat this experiment in this day and age but the results were over a 25% loss in body weight in everyone and everyone continued to lose weight until their calories were returned to maintenance levels. No starvation mode or weight loss stopped even after 6 months of severe calorie restriction, but there was metabolic down regulation as their bodies tried to preserve what little body fat and muscle they had left. The best part is they all regained their metabolic function by returning to maintenance calories. No long term damage to their metabolism. Moral of the story about this myth, if your weight loss program includes periodization and adequate protein with resistance training, you will be healthier day after day as you progress towards your body composition goal.
Our body is smart, it will do what it needs to in order to preserve health whether we are abusing it by eating poorly, eating too much and not moving, under eating, doing the wrong kind of exercise, and not getting enough protein. The formula doesn’t change, to lose fat you have to be in a calorie deficit first and foremost. Resistance training, eating enough protein, and drinking enough water all expedite the process and will keep your metabolism healthy and efficient. The bottom line is the healthier you are, the more muscle you have and the less body fat you have, the more efficient your metabolism will become. More efficiency technically means slower so don’t make your goal to “speed up” your metabolism, make your goal to maximize your metabolism’s efficiency because that means you are healthy and fit.
As you are gaining knowledge and arming yourself with the truth about these common myths, spread the word, spread the truth. Forward this to a friend or family member that could benefit from this knowledge. Let's make getting healthy, being happy and looking good easy!
Look out for the next article to wrap up the truth on the top 10 myths and mistakes regarding fat loss before we get started on the top 10 myths regarding exercise and building muscle. Thanks for all your support and let me know if you have questions about the world of fat loss, exercise and/or nutrition.
Eat Smart, Live Smart