To Abstain or Not to Abstain?
There's been a controversy brewing in the field of drug and alcohol rehab for years.
Most experts on alcoholism like to preach "once an addict, always an addict." If you're an alcoholic, you'll always be an alcoholic, even if you've been sober for 20 years. That means you can never drink again, not even a little bit socially, not even a once-a-week glass of wine with your wifey on date night.
But a newer theory says something different. In a nutshell, it says that after a period of abstinence (as well as developing other behavioral coping mechanisms), the alcoholic can go back to being a social drinker, like having a beer at the ballgame, and he'll be just fine.
Now, obviously, the worry here is about the slippery slope effect. Does that one glass of Pinot Grigio lead to two, then a whole bottle, then a quart of tequila before breakfast? It depends somewhat on the individual: some folks can handle a social sip, others can't.
But what does that have to do with diet, fat loss, and staying lean?
Fat Guys and Cheat Meals
Binge eating is now the number one eating disorder. In the bodybuilding world, a form of this is often encouraged: the cheat meal. Sometimes there's even lots of science to back it up.
But this physiological science has lead to a lot of people never reaching their fat loss goals. Why? Often because of psychological science: you rationalize eating lots of shitty foods, and after a point you can't out-train your crappy diet.
A few questions to ask yourself:
- Do I start fantasizing about my Saturday cheat meal on Monday?
- Does every other healthy, goal-oriented meal taste bad?
- Do I often try to "undo the damage" of the cheat meal with excess exercise?
- When I have a cheat meal, do I find it hard to stop? Do I eat to the point of feeling sick and the next day want to do it again?
If yes, you might have an issue. You might be a cheatmealoholic.
Bad, Bad Bugs
But it's not just a mental thing. We now know that the balance of your gut bacteria greatly affects your cravings. In short, those bad bugs demand to be fed and they can actually affect your brain and trigger ridiculously strong cravings.
The problem with cheat meals is that, once a week or so, you give this bad gut bacteria everything it wants and you help build the colony, which then pillages the village of good bacteria. And that means your cravings for junk never subside. In fact, they get worse.
How do you kill or at least reduce the hungry gut bugs? Well, you starve them. You abstain from cheat foods.
Oh, they'll fight you. There's a very real addiction thing going on here. And you'll have to suffer for a bit until balance is restored. But then the cravings go away. If you find yourself wanting the healthy foods and not being tempted by the junk foods, you've turned a corner. Staying lean will now be much easier.
So Can You Ever Cheat Again?
Like the alcoholic, this depends on the individual and time. If you abstain from the body-wrecking foods for long enough, you'll probably have full control when you do cheat. Look at those questions above again. Can you now answer "no" to them? Then you're probably fine.
How long does this take? That may depend on how fat you are... or were. If you spent years as a fat guy (like I did) it will take longer. There's no firm answer here. You have to work at it and be what I call "body aware."
But here's a rule of thumb to follow: Before you have a cheat meal, ask yourself, "Am I relatively lean? Do I have at least a couple of visible abs?" If the answer is yes, then you can probably handle a cheat meal. But if you're still fat, then skip it.
I'll say it more boldly: Cheat meals are for already-lean people.
Harsh? Yeah, but as a guy who hampered his progress for years by buying into the cheat meal idea, that's been my experience. And it's what works for the vast majority of people.