Are Cheat Meals a Farce? We Asked a Pro Dietitian.
The Rock is famous for his #CheatMealSundays. But how bad are they for the average joe?
Every Sunday afternoon, The Rock posts a photo to Instagram tagged #CheatMealSunday. Sometimes it features nine cookies with a slice of cheesecake. Other times it’s two eight-ounce double cheeseburgers with fries and a double shot of tequila. Invariably, it’s enough food to feed two kindergarten classes, and if you’re one to believe The Rock (we are), he finishes the whole thing.
Normally we wouldn’t consider it our place to meddle in the affairs of Hollywood’s most bankable and good-natured star. But Dwayne Johnson has a preposterous 148 million Instagram followers, so when he appends his posts with the phrase “Enjoy your cheatmeals my friends,” a massive number of people might actually be taking him up on it.
Which got us thinking: Maybe it’s okay for The Rock to eat himself into a drunken Hutt stupor each Sunday (his words, not ours). But for those of us not sponsored by Under Armour or ripping two-a-days ahead of a Jumanji sequel, is this sort of once-a-week — or even once-a-month — Joey Chestnut impersonation a good idea? What kind of effect does it actually have on the body? How much do you have to work out to justify a binge meal, if such a thing is even acceptable?
To answer these questions and more, we enlisted the help of Angela Kuhn, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and founder of The Nourished Way. Find her thoughts on crash bingeing, how it relates to your fitness goals, and the psychology of that exact term “cheat meal” all below.
What’s your gut reaction to The Rock’s Sunday routine?
“This reminds me of going to my local CrossFit gym a few years back and talking with my Olympic lifting friend about what he was going to have for dinner that night: an entire box of Oreo’s and a Big Mac. And he had barely eaten anything that day. He was trying out a new diet where he would restrict during the day, have a hard gym session, then go home and splurge on whatever he wanted. As an RDN, I’m not a fan of this restricting and overeating because it’s not healthy and sustainable for most people long term.”
Assuming you’re relatively fit, is it okay to try a crash-binge once a week? Once a month?
“There is some research that shows periodic overeating can beneficially affect hormone levels for people who are trying to build strength, but this simply isn’t a long-term solution for active, healthy people. What’s important is finding a sustainable routine. I have seen plenty of patients who enjoy counting their macros Monday through Friday, and become more lax during the weekends with their meals. This is perfectly fine, but what doesn’t work for most people is always going from one extreme to the other.”
What does this type of consumption do to the body?
“Restricting calories has been linked to a drop in leptin levels (leptin is the hormone that regulates body weight) and consistently altering your body’s hormone levels can lead to health problems over time, including thyroid issues. By overeating with regular cheat meals, your body is working hard to avoid that drop in leptin levels. But that brings its own problems. Overeating obscene amounts of sugar, carbohydrates and fat during these cheat times creates a spike in blood sugar levels and over time can lead to inflammatory conditions and diabetes.”
Is there a reasonable way to approach cheat meals?
“If you are going to diet, it’s not a bad idea to have a cheat meal plan rather than always restricting yourself. Just use caution when doing so. Instead of approaching it as all or nothing, consider a more intuitive eating approach; listen to your body and don’t feel a need to restrict foods. If you’re dieting all of the time, you are probably viewing foods as ‘bad’ or ‘off limits’ except for during your cheat meals. Instead of doing this, it’s much more sustainable to have an ‘all foods fit’ approach. Think about how you used to eat when you were a kid. You listened to your body, ate when you were hungry, stopped when you were full, and didn’t worry about dieting.”
What would you recommend eating if you had to plan a cheat meal?
“It’s perfectly fine to eat more strictly throughout the week and loosen up a little on a specific day or weekends. This should just be much more mellow than the strict diets and massive cheat meals you see on social media. My advice: eat whatever it is you are craving, in moderation. If you’re feeling like you want to eat EVERYTHING during your cheat meal, you are probably restricting too much during the rest of your meals. At that point, your body is telling you something.”
And what foods should then be emphasized throughout the week?
“Balance is key, so if you’re consuming large portions of unhealthy foods for one day, make sure to get enough whole, natural foods on the other days. This would include lean protein (chicken, fish, turkey, beans), healthy fats (hummus, avocado, cheese, Greek yogurt) and complex carbs (brown rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes). Your body will crave those healthy foods if you start consuming them regularly, and you will feel more energized after eating them.”
“Calorie restricting and binge-eating huge amounts of food with tons of sugar and saturated fat might appear to work for some celebrities, but it does more harm than for most people good over the long run. Our society is so accepting of dieting that it may seem normal and a good idea to do this, but focusing on eating a balanced diet is really where the majority of my clients have found success with weight loss and their fitness goals. In short: don’t view foods as good or bad, listen to your body, and take more of an intuitive eating approach.”