Sure, I Cheated, But Only Because I Love You.

Two-piece Chicken ComboI had a two-piece fried chicken combo with mashed potatoes and gravy with a biscuit at Popeye's today. This may sound like a confession, a moment of weakness that may put my relationship with healthy eating in peril. However, there are some perfectly valid reasons why the occasional cheat meal actually help improve my relationship with healthy eating.

Healthy eating, love of my life, please stop glaring at me like that, and give me a few minutes to explain.

For one thing, it's not like I cheat on you everyday. I cheat no more than once a week, and even then, I don't cheat all day, just a single meal no more than one day a week. I can tell by the fire in your eyes that I am starting off my explanation rather poorly. Now, before you send me packing, let me elaborate.

There is a physiological reason why cheating is actually good for me, good for both of us. It's because of hormones. 

I need to cheat on you to stay faithful to you.

Healthy living, I love you. I do! But the thing is, restricting my calorie intake and avoiding carbs on a regular basis results in lower levels  of leptin and higher levels of ghrelin. Leptin is a protein produced by fat tissue. It actually helps to suppress appetite, and that makes it much easier for me to stay faithful to you.  Ghrelin, a peptide hormone produced in the gastrointestinal tract, increases hunger. Having the occasional cheat meal helps me to increase leptin levels and decrease ghrelin levels, making it easier to stay on track with a healthy lifestyle.  So, you see, I need to cheat on you to stay faithful to you.

Healthy living, if you were a woman, I'd expect you to be angry with me for that last statement. While it's true that you complete me, you are not a woman. So, if you don't mind, I'd like to drop the metaphor and address my readers.

To sum up what we have learned so far, dear readers, healthy living means restricting your calorie intake and ideally, keeping your intake of carbohydrates low. This leads to a hormonal imbalance that increases your hunger. Having a cheat meal once a week corrects that hormonal imbalance, and helps to curb your appetite. In addition to helping to suppress your hunger, cheat meals also increase thyroid function, which increases your metabolism. A higher metabolism means that you body's ability to burn calories is increased. The boost in metabolism can last for days, so even after you resume your restrictive diet, your metabolism can keep chugging along, preventing your body from going into fat-storing mode. So cheat meals can actually help you to lose weight.

Now, I do not want to give you the impression that this is a reason to strap on your feed bag and head to the nearest buffet . Cheat, but cheat wisely.

Look for foods that are higher in calories than the healthy meals you eat normally, high in both protein and carbohydrates, as opposed to sugary sweets. Think steak, potatoes and veggies, not a banana split. Other good cheat meals are a cheese burger, bun and all, a couple slices of pizza, with toppings if, you like, spaghetti and meatballs, or any other pasta plus protein dish, nachos grande with ground beef, or stir fried chicken with noodles or rice. The fried chicken, biscuit and mashed potatoes with gravy that I had today may have been going overboard a little bit, but damn, it was good.

So how does a cheat meal fit into eating five meals a day? The rest of your routine should remain unchanged. You should still have five meals a day. It's just that the remaining four meals should be low in calories and carbs. If you are eating three meals a day, have your cheat meal, and make the other two meals healthy meals. And remember, you should only have one cheat meal a week. The idea is to boost your calorie intake. Cutting back on what you would otherwise normally eat could undo the benefits that a cheat meal provides. Are you going to go over your calorie goal for the day? Probably, but don't sweat it. The rewards outweigh the weekly excess.

I have a word of caution, something I learned the hard way. You body is very adaptive. If you routinely eat poorly, your body gets used to it. Even though your body may be negatively impacted by a bad diet, a bad diet may not make your feel sick, because your body becomes accustomed to foods that are bad for you. Conversely, if you are eating healthy, your body gets used to that as well. So when you go overboard and really indulge yourself for your weekly cheat meal, you can throw your body for such a loop that it can make you feel sick. After eating certain cheat meals, I have experienced extreme fatigue, difficulty breathing and nausea. Through some trial and error, I have found that Popeye's is about the only fast food place that doesn't make me feel sick. You are better off eating at a diner or restaurant, or cooking one of your favorite dishes at home.

One last thought: there is a psychological benefit to having a cheat meal. Know that you are doing something good for your health. It is not only a well-earned reward for all your hard work, but can act as a way to improve your health. Do not feel guilty. Do not think of it as cheating. What should you do? You should enjoy it, that's what!