Science Behind the Cheat Meal

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By Arin Barry

This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 7 of VARSITY.

 

The cheat meal… The idea seems counterintuitive, because why would you stick to a strict diet all week, only to undo it all in a single meal? Surprisingly, it is actually beneficial to your diet to indulge your sweet tooth every once in a while.

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Let’s get down to the science aspect of it all.

To keep your weight constant, there must be an energy constant – energy intake needs to be equal to the energy expended. So, it seems logical that if you want to lose weight your energy intake needs to be less than the energy you expend.

What I didn’t know was that two hormones – ghrelin (hunger-stimulating hormone) and leptin (appetite-suppressing hormone) – play a HUGE role in controlling our hunger pangs. So, when we follow a strict calorie-restricted diet, we can cause our ghrelin levels to rise and our leptin levels to fall. This is obviously problematic as these changing hormone levels can cause you to feel incredibly hungry.

So how can a cheat meal help? By increasing calorie intake (temporarily!), we allow our bodies to regulate these hormones, which causes our appetites to be kept in check. Research shows that leptin and ghrelin levels can change significantly within 24-72 hours of fasting, and the effects of a cheat meal can last up to 24 hours, so a scheduled cheat meal may be beneficial if you want to take advantage of these time periods. Unfortunately, the exact frequency of how often a cheat meal should occur doesn’t exist. It depends on the person and the type of cheat meal they want to indulge in. For most people one or two cheat meals a week is the recommended amount as that would benefit them the most in regard to changing their hormone levels.

So, eat that piece of chocolate you’ve been craving, just don’t go overboard with it.
 

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