Many fitness professionals allow their clients to have cheat meals or even entire cheat days during a hypocaloric diet. I’m sure you can guess what the reasoning in doing this is: keeping yourself sane while limiting a lot of the food that you would LIKE to eat all the time. I tend to agree with using some form of cheat meal or cheat day for number physiological and psychological reasons. In this article I will focus on the how how a caloric restriction can effect our reinforcing value of food.
What is the reinforcing value of food. According to Epstein et al “A reinforcer is a stimulus that increases the rate of a behavior that it follows. For example, when a dog learns a trick to get a dog treat, the treat is the reinforcer.” Or in the case of a cheat meal, one might engage in an extra hour of cardio in order to consume a chocolate bar.
This can be used to one’s advantage under supervised or incredibly meticulous conditions. For instance in studies, which research just this subject, the researchers will feed their subjects, or have them record their food for a certain period of time. So they have a somewhat accurate picture of the caloric intake of their subjects.
In the real world, clients (at least mine) will follow a habit-based nutrition ‘program’ or a meal plan. Depending on their adherence (especially in the meal plan) to the ‘diet’ they will provide me with an accurate depiction of their caloric intake. If I know what they are putting in their mouthes, then I can alter their food intake to allow for something that would be considered cheating while they lose fat. I do this simply by replacing calories from other foods with calories from their cheat meal.
I know many people think that if they eat a piece of chocolate they will inflate to a fat-body. In this study one group of obese, premenopausal women consumed limited quantities of dark chocolate everyday for 18 weeks. The other group did not consume dark chocolate, but the caloric intake was the same in both groups. Here were the results: Women in both the dark chocolate snack and non-chocolate snack groups, respectively, experienced decreases in body weight -5.1 vs -5.1 kg, hip circumference -5.8 vs -5.4 cm, waist circumference -5.7 vs -3.5 cm, fat mass -3.9 vs -3.6 kg, and body fat percentage -3.4% vs -3.1%, with no change in lean mass.
Pretty cool if you ask me. Another study sought to measure the relative-reinforcing value of food under varying levels of food deprivation and restriction. They discovered that food deprived participants found food to be more reinforcing, but that this food reinforcement decreased over time. However, in food restricted participants had no change in the reinforcing value of food.
So if you continuously deprive yourself of a food or foods that you enjoy, you will feel better and better when you consume this food. If you have a large reinforcement of food, you may or may not go off the deep end when you consume it. This is where have a level of constraint and discipline comes in. If you diet hard, you deserve to reward yourself. You have to make sure that you don’t over-reward yourself though.
If you reward yourself with one chocolate bar you will be fine. If you reward yourself with 10 chocolate bars in a sitting you will end up going in circles. So if you do decide to use cheat meals, just try and be conscious of what you are consuming.