I had approached her about writing this article, because I feel as though binging is something that everyone has fallen victim to, and there is a tremendous amount of guilt surrounding it. This article should give you peace of mind that you can still stay on track towards achieving your goals despite bumps in the road.
The Benefits of Cheating & How to Bounce Back After a Binge
People binge and eat foods that are blatantly bad for them all of the time, whether they have an excuse to do so or not. Those who work hard and eat healthy tend to turn to "cheat" meals or days to grant them a time to indulge in their favourite treats and/or shove as much food in their faces as they possibly can.
Whether you enjoy the powerful taste of something unhealthy or you sometimes want to just stop counting the calories, going into your mouth for once… it’s okay. I’m not saying it’s okay or healthy to binge eat and consume hefty amounts of salt and sugar all day, every day, or even very often. What I am saying, is that once in awhile it’s completely okay, and maybe even necessary, for you to take a break from ‘healthy’ and just enjoy yourself.
One meal or even one day of binge eating or sugary snacks will not set you back or completely throw off your progress. It can if you let it, but as long as you stay aware and in control of what you’re doing, you don’t have to crush yourself with guilt every time it happens.
The Benefits of Cheat Days
Breaking a Plateau
When I say some cheating may be necessary, I’m talking about people who are very persistent in their quest to dramatically change their body in some way or another. Those people, who eventually reach a plateau in their weight loss or gain, need something to shock their system into cooperating again.
That "shock" is a nice dose of hormones released from the body, and can be triggered by various things. The hormones insulin and leptin are a few whose release is driven by what you eat and when you eat it. They aren’t just controlled by food consumption, but that’s one of the easiest ways we can purposefully prompt that release.
Leptin and insulin are companion hormones, and the rising and falling of one can trigger the same for the other. Insulin release is triggered by the consumption of glucose, which is found in carbohydrates. Glucose is more concentrated in simpler carbs and sugars, and the shorter chains are absorbed faster, thus they have a much faster impact on blood sugar.
As insulin is released into the blood to prompt the storage of glucose, leptin is slowly released as well. Leptin is, most simply put, our feeling of fullness and hunger. As more insulin is released and more fuel is stored, leptin levels rise to tell the brain that you are satiated. Eventually leptin levels lower again when we start taking from those fuel stores, which prompts hunger and food seeking behaviour.
Leptin does not exclusively rise with insulin though, and it is heavily affected by our routines. For instance, the body suppresses your appetite while you sleep or when you get stressed out by releasing leptin, which lowers your metabolism. That way the focus can be put on your rest and recovery or a fight or flight response, instead of your hunger.
Whatever you decide to put your body through in order to get the results you’re looking for, eventually your hormones will adjust and your body will get used to your routine. These hormones are one of the main reasons that we reach plateaus, and in order to move past them, that routine needs to change. The stricter your routine and the harder you are on your body, the stronger it will fight back to adjust, and the more often you will have to throw it off course.
Strict eating habits can stress you out mentally. Having a day where you allow yourself to not worry so much about what you’re eating can be a psychological break for some people. Unfortunately, it can have the opposite effect on others. Instead, simply including a treat into their scheduled macro intake may be a bit less stressful and more rewarding, rather than breaking their normal routine measurements.
Using cheat days and meals as a reward and a source of motivation can be thin and shallow, but if you are starting up a new habit, sometimes rewards are necessary to keep you going. Shallow motivations involving rewards and punishments can be fragile, but if it keeps you going long enough to solidify that habit and find stronger self-improvement goals to motivate you, it’s better than not making any improvement at all.
But what if something happens and you end up eating too much when you and your friends spontaneously go out to eat? Or you break your normal routine because you spotted your favourite dessert and couldn’t resist?
Regardless of whether you orchestrated a cheat or the cheat jumped you in an alleyway, if you feel like you’ve failed yourself by cheating on your carefully constructed meal plan, don’t. Dwelling on something that’s already happened is pointless, and the most best thing you can do is to focus on what you can do to recover now, and put yourself in control for next time, building a better relationship with your cheat meals.
Cheating Without Cheating
Small indulgences can be a lot easier on the body and mind to begin with, and require a lot less recovery afterwards. However, it can be difficult to change the definition of a cheat from ‘binge eating’ to simply doing something you wouldn’t normally do.
Cheating doesn’t have to be three pizzas or the whole container of ice cream–it can simply be something outside of the normal rules you hold for yourself. Have a fancy coffee with a bit higher sugar content at the end of a stressful work day. Have a drink or two at a special dinner with friends. Schedule in a day where you skip one workout to have an important bonding day with a significant other or a friend.
You can even press the definition of a cheat even further by simply adjusting your macronutrient ratio a few times a week to keep things interesting, or try a new type of exercise like swimming or sports that may not guarantee you burning the same amount of calories or using the same muscles you’re used to working. The key is to not limit yourself to just sugary and salty foods. Get creative in the ways you treat yourself, and have fun!
Although gentler and non-food/activity related cheats may not work to shock the system for those who are intent on breaking a strong plateau, they can be used as an alternative on days where you shouldn’t be cheating, but you’re craving something different. As long as you are in control and aware of what you’re doing there should be a decrease in stress, not an increase!
If your control breaks, or your cheating sessions get really intense, it’s important to focus on your physical and mental recovery afterwards. Physically, it can be rough on your body to heavily spike sugars and hormones and mentally it can be difficult to stop the overwhelming guilt when something happens that you feel you had no control over.
An eating binge can be just like a drinking binge, and drinking lots of water (both during, if possible, and after) can help clear and balance the salt content in your body and combat any sort of dehydration. The best thing to do for your organs is give them a ton of fluid to flush your body. If your pee is clear, you’re doing a good job. Thirst can feel like hunger, so don’t start shoving any food in your face until you’ve had your fill of water first.
Coffee can help in a couple ways, and it’s the better option if you’re feeling stressed out and leaning towards a laxative. Don’t take a laxative. Resorting to abuse of anything that could be used for medical reasons is a terrible idea. It doesn’t matter how ‘natural’ the ingredients are. Unless it’s caffeine from normal coffee or tea, don’t play with laxatives to solve your problems.
Eat Well, Don’t Stress
Some will feel the need to overeat, because the energy from any simple, quick fuel may be long gone. Others may have little to no appetite at all. Some will be craving healthy to find balance, others will want more sugar and salt to continue feeding their cravings.
If you’re feeling like salty and sweet, stave off or have lighter versions, lightly salted nuts, fruit for sweetness. If there’s no appetite, force yourself to eat something small, and if you are able to, you can eat a bit heavier in the evening to meet your macronutrient requirements or replenish your energy stores.
Don’t overcompensate for anything you did during your cheat meal or day. You body is built to adjust, and it will return to normal on it’s own. For those who are hungry, you can rely a bit more on fats and proteins for your energy needs, but don’t cut out carbs completely. Going from a blood sugar high to a blood sugar low isn’t balance, and your goal is to restore that balance.
If you try to balance the scale yourself, you’re just creating more problems for your body to sort out, so try your best to simply return to your normal routine. It’s important to do what you need to do to mentally stabilize yourself. The less stress you make for yourself after a binge, the easier it is for your body to focus less on dealing with that stress and more on recovering.
Though some people may be able to jump into a heavy workout the next day, others may find that impossible. The same goes for exercise as it does for food: don’t overcompensate, and let your body focus on recovering. Even if you just put on your workout clothes and do 15 minutes of exercise a light workout can be very beneficial.
Getting your body moving and your blood flowing can wake up your system and start your engine up again. It can also ease some of the mental anxiety about overeating, but again, for those who feel overly guilty, it’s important not to go overboard and exhaust yourself at the gym. Starving yourself to “burn off what I ate yesterday” will only serve to add more stress to your body and will extend the time needed to recover and find balance again. If you intend to do a full workout, ensure you are fueling yourself properly both before and after. No excuses.
Physical and mental health are important. Failing is not the end of the world. Take care, take control and enjoy yourself!
- Hall, John E., and Arthur C. Guyton. Textbook of medical physiology. Elsevier Inc., 2006.
- Margetic, S., et al. "Leptin: a review of its peripheral actions and interactions." International Journal of Obesity & Related Metabolic Disorders 26.11 (2002).
- Patterson, Christa M., and Martin G. Myers. "How Leptin Controls the Drive to Eat." The Korean Journal of Obesity 24.2 (2015): 69-77.
- Van Praag, H., Fleshner, M., Schwartz, M. W., & Mattson, M. P. (2014). Exercise, energy intake, glucose homeostasis, and the brain. The Journal of Neuroscience, 34(46), 15139-15149.