Cheat WEEK!? Have I gone crazy?
Cheat day, reward day, treat day, splurge day, binge day – there’s lot of names for it, but we all love it. So what happens if the day becomes a week? And why would anyone ever think of taking an entire week off slow carb? Find out not only the results of this bizarre experiment, but also why I think there’s something to be gained from this madness. Jump the fence and find out what life’s like ‘over there’.
Though it may be a little irresponsible of me to do this, I’m going the share exactly what I’ve been up to lately.
Now, I don’t want you to think, even for a second, that every one of my weeks looks like this, but the truth is that a recent week was exactly as I’m about to describe to you, complete with fruit, chocolate, sweets, bread, pasta and potatoes.
It started as a fairly regular week, following the slow carb method to a T, with cinnamon, lemon juice, beans, chicken, tuna, spinach and broccoli. I was coming off the back of a few weeks of experimenting with intermittent fasting, cycling between low carb and carb refuels, and some different workouts. Needless to say, the last few weeks had been interesting, and I was very happy to be back to the standard slow carb routine.
As the week went on, I started noticing something – the slow carb food wasn’t as satisfying, it didn’t taste as good, and I was feeling a little more hungry than usual. I had done some incredibly intense weights sessions in the last couple of weeks, and I took these feeling about my meals as a fairly clear sign that I wasn’t rested completely after that phase. So, I decided to take on a new challenge.
Having spent over 12 months now adhering to the slow carb guidelines, or a modification of them according to my goals for workouts and muscle gain, I decided it was time to jump the fence.
But I didn’t want to do it on the spur of the moment, and I didn’t want to make it a random on uncontrolled experiment.
Having recently measured my bodyfat percentage (with a BodyMetrix device), and taken measurements at various locations, I knew where I was starting from. I also had a clear perspective on the goals I had in mind.
Goal number one was to check and see what I thought of ‘normal food’ these days, to see how it sat in my stomach, whether I enjoyed eating it, and what the results in energy and other related factors were.
Goal number two was to see if ‘normal food’ had an effect on my weight, and fat percentage.
Goal number three was to see if all my efforts with slow carb meals, cinnamon, coffee, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and ensuring protein, legumes and veges were eaten at each meal were actually doing something – I figured I could test this by not using these methods, and seeing if there was any difference in two factors – muscle growth, and fat gain – both are processes controlled by insulin, and all of the above mentioned practices are designed to limit insulin. Therefore, not following those practices should result in higher insulin levels.
I decided I didn’t need a huge cheat day on the weekend, but instead did a workout, and started my cheat week with a mixed meal of starches, meat and then followed this with some yogurt, fruit, and cereal.
For the next 7 days, I followed my past food patterns in selecting what I considered to be a fairly typical diet that a lot of friends do – lower fat, some grains, starches, with vegetables and occasionally some fruit. I added to that some ‘healthy’ nuts, some yogurt, and a little bit of protein powder for workout days. I also added milk to protein shakes.
I maintained a fairly keen routine at the gym – the ‘forgotten split’ workouts – with 1 day of rest between each gym visit. This meant I was in the gym 3 days out of 7. I also had a 1.2 mi walk to and back from my gym, so that was part of my week too. As well as this, I walked to my local shops twice, which is a 2 mi round trip, and I walked to a local train station – around 1.5 mi. Other than that, I spent a lot of time working on a computer, and some downtime reading.
Over the week, my standard meals were loosely based around the slow carb schedule of eating once every 4 hours, though I found I needed to change this quite a bit, due to an increase in hunger (or perceived hunger), or the fact that some things I was eating just didn’t give me enough energy.
On to the food.
At first I really enjoyed the change. I went for eggs in the morning, sometimes with toast and tomatoes. Other times, eggs with lentils, as I just can’t give up the flavor. I was less likely to include spinach, but did occasionally.
I usually got through the morning, though some days I would have a cup of yogurt with some protein powder mixed in. The yogurt I was using was a ‘diet’ variety with some fruit flavors. I chose this because it’s typical of friends who work office jobs.
Lunches I found were pretty easy, with some cooked meals involving pasta and meat, with tomato bolognaise sauce, and other times I would use some beans (not as much as usual), brown rice, and some meat with vegetables.
Afternoons I found myself heading for more yogurt, perhaps some toast, with butter, or a banana.
I made a point of really loading up on food around workouts, as I wanted the most from each one. With a workout I would have a protein shake, made with about a cup of milk, and a big scoop of unflavored whey protein concentrate powder.
After a workout, I would focus on higher carbohydrate, lower fat options, like rice chips, a small banana loaf bar, some cereal with yogurt, pasta with meat, crispbread with strawberry jelly, and sometimes a protein bar.
Dinner was a fairly typical combination of meat, with pasta, or sweet potato, sometimes some beans, and other times some brown rice.
I found I would be quite hungry in the evening, and I would generally head for a snack like peanut butter, yogurt with cereal, or a flavored tin of tuna. Again I was keen to mimic how I used to eat, and combine it with how some of my friends eat regularly.
Evenings were interesting actually, because I would find my hunger really spark up around 8 or 9pm, even if I had eaten a couple of hours earlier. And if I had yogurt with cereal, the hunger would be back again around 10pm. I might splurge on some sugar free dark chocolate at this point.
What was it like?
All in all, not so different from another week. Except for the fact that I was thinking about what I would be eating, often.
I also found that I wanted to head for the food more often in general. This was a behavior that I wanted to resist, but after a while it was a bit overwhelming, and I decided (logically I thought) that this was due to the intense workouts I was doing.
I found that once I started with the carbs during the day, especially, that I was heading for the cupboard or the fridge more often than I expected. And other times, I would eat what seemed like a ton of food, only to be feeling like having more a little while later. This was strange, and unexpected. Quite frustrating at times, because I felt like a ‘bottomless pit’. So before anyone accuses me of this not being a cheat week – let’s just say there was white chocolate flying, a couple of great take-out food evenings, mixed in with plenty of tasty treats during the days.
Having been maintaining the same weight for quite a while (with an exception for the intermittent fasting and carb cycling experiments), I wanted to see if I could seriously gain some muscle, while training hard. This was part of the reason why I first thought of this experiment; plenty of bodybuilders focus on gain/cut cycles, to maximize insulin’s job of stocking away glucose into the muscles (and of course into the fat too).
During the week, I started to find that I was getting into routines – where a yogurt came a couple of hours after a meal, and where cereal came in the evening. It was very easy to find these new grooves, and they came quite naturally.
I had to stay focused, because my gut reaction was to go for a meal of beans and protein, plus veges, but I wanted to stay clear of that recipe for this week.
Instead, what I found was that quite a lot of the meals left me feeling unsatisfied, so much so that then I ate some beans just to feel like I was good to go.
Another interesting byproduct of the change was my energy levels. I immediately noticed a difference when I ate brown rice during the day, though I wasn’t consuming larger meals (which you might imagine could slow you down for a while). In fact, while I expected the yogurt, fruit, and grains to really perk me up, it seemed they did the opposite. I expected a rush of energy, but didn’t get it, instead, I got slowness, fatigue and lack of interest in getting things done.
Add to that the fact that by the end of the week I was waking up in the night feeling hungry, and heading for some peanut butter, and its fair to say I was starting to head down a confusing path.
According so my food logs, I averaged around the right number of calories for my size, muscle weight and level of activity. I was working out a few times a week, and therefore needed some extra calories to develop muscle. I used Tim’s calculation for calories as a basis, but reduce this goal a little lower, based on some other reading I have done. Effectively, I was aiming to keep my calories at a point where fat gain didn’t have to be inevitable.
The result on the scale was pretty clear – 3lbs in 1 week. Having not really done a bit cheat day, and having not been on a small-portion slow carb regime prior to this week, I expect that very little of that was water/muscle glycogen regain. The majority of this was fat, and some was muscle.
Just how much is difficult to measure, however according to measurements, I estimate around 2 lbs fat, and 1 lbs muscle.
Weird and strange effects
I expected to start getting food cravings, and I expected to feel hungry from time to time, because I know what blood sugar changes can do in this regard.
What I wasn’t ready for was an actual pain or tenderness the day having my post-workout meal sessions – and the pain wasn’t in my muscles. It was in the fat sites that were gaining mass – my belly, love handles, inner things and back of my upper arms. All locations for fat storage, and all of them tender to touch. This won’t happen to everyone, however it turned out to be an excellent indicator of where and when I was gaining fat. This occurred in a noticeable way 3 times over the week, and I could attribute each time to a day that had higher than usual carbohydrates, be they cereals, sugars, grains, or veges like sweet potato combined with other carbs in a day.
This was a little off putting, but I stuck at it ‘in the name of science’. I wanted to find out what reality was.
The really crazy part
I actually decided to keep this up for another week. This time with less carbs, like brown rice, and less yogurt, but keeping only to slow carb around 50-60% of the time, which would definitely not lead to fat loss. I wanted to see how this went, and what it felt like.
What I discovered
I think it’s easiest to summarize this as bullet points, so here goes:
- Once your fat level hasn’t changed for a while, a slight change is very noticeable – and you actually feel the extra fat around your body
- It can be very mentally challenging to see fat being added
- Having a goal like muscle gain can alleviate the worries that comes with an experiment like this
- After opening up the playing field of food, there were still just a few go-to foods that I preferred, like regular breakfast, usual lunches, and a couple of take-out options
- Trying to manage food intake like this gets incredibly complicated, very fast
- I never felt the clear energy that I normally do with slow carb meals
- I very quickly started going for more and more sweet foods
- I found that evenings had an endless hunger that really only stopped when I went to bed
- Doing workouts with milk plus protein did help strength gains
- Gaining muscle by really spiking insulin responses worked well, and I saw strength gains the following week which confirmed this
- I definitely prefer carrying less bodyfat, but I understand how difficult it is to add muscle without adding fat
- I eventually got really tired of the ‘cheat’ foods and in fact it was just a new routine – nothing that special about any of what I was eating
- The foods I went for gave me less energy on the whole, though I kept going back to them
So effectively, it seems like this was worthwhile.
I was reminded, clearly, of what I was like to try to manage a higher protein, but lower fat diet, whilst trying to keep calories at ‘the right level’ for what I wanted to do. Basically, it was very difficult. And with just 3 weights sessions, and no specific cardio sessions, it seemed very difficult to keep fat off too, even though I was by no means bingeing on food every day.
The reality was that it was easy enough to go with those ‘healthy eating’ guiding principles that the journalists, and friends share from time to time, but realistically it didn’t give me the energy I wanted, or the stability I needed.
Having gained a substantial amount of fat in a short time, I recognize how much of a battle you, or other people may have been (or are) going through, just trying to maintain weight while following a ‘healthy diet’.
Where to now?
Realistically, the mental challenges of getting away from thinking a blueberry friand is fair game in the middle of the week is a little more difficult than simple switching back some meal routines. It’s fair to say that just a couple of weeks could easily blow out the strategy, for good. And indeed, I’m sure this happens a lot.
So how could I possibly think this is a good idea?
Though there’s risk involved, I always saw this as an experiment – a deviation from slow carb. Seeing it this way gave me the freedom to get into it, and not be concerned with whether or not I was losing my way. It was a controlled experiment over a controlled period. I think too, after over a year of slow carb meals, I was starting to wonder what I was missing out on, and needed to find out for myself.
Better yet, I got to see the proof – the results were undeniable, and they really reminded me of some simple facts that were a distant memory – that trying to eat a ‘balanced healthy diet’ is really difficult, and it can be very time consuming and overwhelming to do. More than this, that those times when I was thinking the food on the other side of the table at a restaurant looked better than what I had ordered, the reality was that no taste or texture could outweigh the empty hollow and lack of energy that can come from a higher carb meal, like I was eating. Food should be enjoyed, but I don’t think it should be at the expense of how you feel later – and I’m certain now that my delicious slow carb meals are the best choice.
Following slow carb in general then really looks like an even better choice with this recent refresher course in food cravings and low energy behind me (thank goodness!). Now that my cheat weeks are over, I’m looking forward to slow carb leading me back to great energy, a good frame of mind, and some reduced bodyfat in a month or two.
Cheat week was in fact not nearly all that I had hoped for. Though it showed me that there’s some delicious food out there, that food left me feeling empty, tired and frustrated. So, pretty quickly I actually started going of what I thought I would really enjoy.
Even if you’ve been following slow carb for 6 months of more, I don’t see any conceivable benefit to following this course of action – you can sample anything you want on cheat day, and really limit the fat gain and other problems that come with it. Extending this period to a week, or even a few days, will most likely result in you really seeing these treats in a different light – one that shows them for tasting good, and then not delivering on the promises their taste makes. I was frequently yawning in the mid-afternoon, and some days just couldn’t get on with the work I had to do.
Stick with cheat days, make the most of them, and enjoy and appreciate slow carb during the week – it’s better than you might have imagined when you started!
What do you think? Would you ever do a cheat week? Could it possibly help you, or would you be worried about its outcome?
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