You’re headed to your favorite restaurant with your best friend. She orders the Southern-fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. And you…do the same. “I’ve been so good,” you tell yourself. “One cheat meal won’t hurt.” Or, “I’ll work out extra hard at the gym tomorrow.” But what if cheat meals do hurt? And can the gym really “undo” everything you ate? We asked Registered Dietitian Courtney McCormick for some truths.
“While cheat meals here and there will not necessarily undo all of your weight loss efforts, including them often may hinder your efforts,” says McCormick. That’s because cheat meals are made up of unhealthier food choices (those higher in calories, unsaturated fats, refined carbs and added sugars). You gained weight because of those “cheat meals.” The last thing you want to do is fall back into the habit of eating sugar and refined carbs and develop an addiction all over again.
So what about the makeup workout? Can you “undo” those cheat meals with some intense cardio? “Theoretically, if you burn the extra calories from a cheat meal off by working out extra hard at the gym and burn the same amount of calories as you consumed, you will balance out your calories in versus calories out,” McCormick says.
Sounds good, right? Well…weight loss is never really that simple. “People often overestimate how many calories they burn while working out and underestimate how many calories they consume from their meals,” McCormick says. Case in point: A 2010 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that men and women overestimated expenditure by as much as four-fold. When participants were asked to eat back all the calories they burned after exercise, they ate two to three times more than what they expended.
According to Harvard Health, if you weigh 155 lbs, you’ll burn around 223 calories when walk/jogging for 30 minutes. Elliptical trainers are a little more effective, helping you burn around 335 calories in 30 minutes. But order the Eggplant Pam at your favorite restaurant and around 1,000 calories may arrive on your plate. Treat yourself to a slice of cheesecake at a popular dessert joint, and that’s around 800 calories. Even if you walk/run or use the elliptical for one hour, you won’t burn off either of these “cheats.”
Further, research is showing that some people get hungrier after a workout. “That could lead to even more foods being consumed,” says McCormick. One reason post-workout hunger happens is because you exercise on an empty stomach. If it’s been four or five hours since you’ve eaten, you’ll run out of fuel. When you finally call your workout quits, you’re more likely to eat an entire pizza yourself because you’re too hungry. South Beach Diet advocates eating six times a day so you won’t feel hungry and so you have sustained energy all day.
What’s the best way to avoid cheating? Plan. “Plan out your meals and have healthy snack options easily accessible so when hunger comes, you’re prepared,” McCormick says. But let’s say you’re headed home for the holiday and your grandma makes her famous apple pie. The best thing to do is to enjoy a small slice. “Remember that all foods can fit into a healthy diet; just enjoy indulgent treats in smaller portions,” she says. “The key is to really enjoy the food you want: savor it, eat it slowly, don’t be distracted by your phone or the TV.”
If you make a mistake—and maybe even two mistakes—don’t throw your hands up and quit. Get right back on track: Drink plenty of fluids, load up on extra fruits, veggies and whole grains (so as to not reestablish a taste for fatty, sugary foods), and last but not least, exercise.