Wouldn’t it be nice to eat whatever we want and still lose weight? Would you believe me if I said you can? Let me elaborate.
Firstly, it is true that you will lose weight without cutting out foods if you achieve a calorie deficit. Meaning, the amount of calories you consume is less than the number of calories you burn. This adheres to the “calories in versus calories out” model.
Easier said than done, right? You may be able to lose weight using this model, but is it healthy? Not always. Calorically you can eat that whole king size bag of M&Ms, but those calories contain very little nutrients and probably account for a good portion of your total calories for the day. However, that doesn’t mean you have to avoid them altogether.
If you’re like me you’ve tried many diets and approaches to eating. I’ve tried everything from The South Beach Diet, Mediterranean Diet, and counting macros to eating completely vegan on Engine 2. I’ve lost weight and had success with each of these.
However, I always gained the weight back once I stopped “dieting.” Additionally, I found each of these diets too restrictive to maintain on a long term basis because most require that you completely omit certain foods.
I longed to eat like the French. They have such deliciously rich food and manage to enjoy it all and still maintain a healthy weight. From what I understand, as a culture they are taught from a young age how to enjoy everything French cuisine has to offer, but in moderation. I believe this is the secret.
This resonated with me. No more dieting. A permanent lifestyle change is what I was looking for. Thus began my journey of learning to balance healthy eating with the occasional cheat meal while losing weight and developing a way of eating that is sustainable for a lifetime.
In this article, I’ll cover some nutrition basics and then I’ll share the method I’ve used to lose over 25 pounds and maintain a healthy weight all while eating whatever I want, in moderation of course.
Calories In, Calories Out
As stated above, the most basic principle and science of eating 101 is the calories in versus calories out model. It simply states that we maintain a consistent weight by matching the number of calories we eat with the number of calories our bodies burn.
Before we delve deeper into the nutrition part, I want to preface with the fact that I’m not a dietitian. The nutrition information I’m sharing here is based on this highly cited article from Healthline. Before you embark on any big change to your diet, consult with your doctor or a registered dietician.
Let’s continue. According to Healthline, our bodies use three main processes to burn calories; metabolism, digestion and physical activity.
Our bodies use most of the calories we get from food to perform basic functions like our heartbeat and pumping blood. This is commonly referred to as BMR or basal metabolic rate. Another 10-15% of calories are used for digestion or TEF (thermic effect of food). Lastly, any remaining calories are used as energy for physical activity such as walking and everyday tasks (including workouts).
Our weight will remain stable as long as the calories we get from food matches the number of calories our bodies burn maintaining our metabolism, digestion, and physical activity.
When the number of calories we eat exceeds the amount of calories we burn, we gain weight. We lose weight when we burn more calories than we eat. That is it in a scientific nutshell.
But Wellness is More Than Just Calories
Calories in, calories out may sound pretty cut and dry, but not all calories are the same. Some are much better for our health than others. How can we make sure we are getting enough of the right calories and what are the right calories?
This is an important question. Eating well and being healthy is at the top of my list. I’ve made it a priority to make sure I’m giving my body the nutrients it needs to support proper hormone balance and optimal health, to the best of my ability at least.
So what does this look like? How does the source of calories impact our hormonal balance?
Foods affect our hormones is different ways. Just because two foods have the same amount of calories doesn’t mean our bodies metabolize them the same. For example, the Healthline article compares glucose and fructose. They are both simple sugars and have the same calories per gram, but they way our bodies use them is vastly different.
Added fructose can cause all sorts of health issues when consumed in too large a quantity, while the natural fructose in whole fruit can have none of the negative effects when consumed in moderation.
In addition to sugars, the types of fat we consume also have differing effects on our hormone levels even though the amount of calories in grams may be the same for each. For example while saturated fats should be avoided, unsaturated fats have been shown to lower the risk of heart disease.
Fiber & Protein
The nutrients in food and nutrient density can also vary and affect how full you feel and how long your feeling of fullness last. For example, a serving of beans will make you feel fuller and satisfied longer than a serving of candy containing the same amount of calories.
This is attributed to the amount of fiber and protein a food contains. Foods higher in both fiber and protein are more filling they keep you feeling fuller for longer.
The nutrients in food also determine how the fullness centers in our brain are stimulated. Foods containing high amounts of simple sugars don’t signal the brain in the same way a food rich in protein or fiber does.
When we consume these foods, our brain is not triggered to recognize we are full. We also find it more difficult to maintain our energy. This is the energy crash that often comes after eating sugary processed foods.
Rate of Metabolism
Lastly, the nutrient contents also affect our bodies rate of metabolism. Some are rapidly digested and absorbed while others take longer. This rate of metabolism is measured as TEF (thermic effect of food). Foods with more TEF require more work to digest. Foods high in protein fall into this category, while fat has the lowest TEF.
The higher the TEF the more calories our bodies burn. This is why eating more protein can boost your metabolism.
This is also why the recommended healthy diet commonly includes lots of unprocessed whole foods such as vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and fruits.
Do Cheat Meals and Cheat Days Work?
While I don’t do full cheat days, I have discovered that allowing myself cheat meals or treats throughout the week has been a game changer.
The idea behind this strategy is that you are more likely to stick to a prescribed way of eating the majority of the time if you allow yourself to indulge occasionally.
Some people argue that this occasional indulgence keeps your metabolism on its toes so to speak and causes you body’s level of leptin to fluctuate resulting in maintained weight loss. However there hasn’t been any research that confirms this.
The common agreement among health professionals at the moment is that it is sticking to a healthy eating plan most of the time that is the key contributing factor.
While health professionals do acknowledge many people are able to find success using this method, they also caution that not everyone has the ability to make it work.
Some people find it motivating and are able to resist temptation by using the upcoming cheat meal as motivation while others may not be able, or want, to regulate their meals in this way. An inability to maintain self-control with a cheat meal or day can then have the opposite effect and undo your weight loss efforts.
Cheat days and meals work best when they are planned ahead and not viewed as a free ticket to indulge on a whim.
Should you Incorporate Cheat Meals or Days?
The answer is going to vary from person to person. This is one of the areas of diet and weight loss that fall into the psychological realm. The attitude you take towards food and whether or not you have enough self control to regulate your eating has to be taken into consideration.
Additionally, does the idea of “cheating” or “indulging” have negative connotations for you? Do you tend to feel guilt after allowing yourself a treat?
While this question can sound trivial, a study actually showed the way we frame our association with food can affect our weight loss success. Those in the study who viewed the treat food as a celebration were more successful than those who viewed it with feelings of guilt.
The researchers concluded that people prone to emotional eating may have less success using the strategy. This is because they are more likely to associate it with feelings of guilt or hopelessness after indulging versus viewing it as a reward.
If you think you are an emotional eater, it doesn’t mean you can’t succeed using this method, but I think you really need to consider the term you use for it and how you frame it in your mind. Instead of calling it cheat meal or cheat day maybe you frame it as a reward or even as a type of food.
For example, you may decide you only eat pasta on Fridays for dinner so it just becomes Pasta dinner or Italian dinner. Even though it is still an indulgence you’ve removed any connotations that could make you feel guilty afterwards.
Of course this is just an example and you need to figure out what works or doesn’t work for you.
How I Eat a Balanced Diet and Still Cheat
Ok, it’s reveal time. So how do I do it? Believe it or not, it’s Weight Watchers! Apparently Oprah and Kate Hudson know a thing or two. For many years I never gave Weight Watchers a thought. Then I saw a good friend of mine that I hadn’t seen in a while and she looked fantastic. When I asked how, she revealed it was Weight Watchers.
Honestly, my initial reaction was, meh – I don’t want to do another diet. She started talking about points and I thought it sounded like a gimmick. I had also just started my own journey towards attempting to eat like the French and I was convinced I could do it on my own. I was going to eat smaller portions of nutrient dense “real” food, eat 3 meals a day with no snacking, eat sourdough bread made with European flour, and eat it with organic grass fed butter.
So I passed on Weight Watchers. Fast forward a few more months and I saw my friend again. In that time I hadn’t lost any weight and had in fact gained several pounds. However, she looked even more fantastic. She had reached her goal weight, had been keeping it off and was telling me all this while we sat eating ice cream in a waffle cone from a popular ice creamery.
It was at this point that the lightbulb came on for me. What I admired about the French was their ability to indulge in high calorie foods, but eat sensibly most of the time. While I had failed to figure out how to balance this way of eating, here was my friend successfully using Weight Watchers to do this and enjoying ice cream in a decadent waffle cone. I signed up for Weight Watchers the next day and haven’t looked back.
Just so you know this article is not sponsored by Weights Watchers and I’m currently not affiliated with them in any way. I just genuinely think they have the best program for losing weight and keeping it off as well as providing a sustainable framework for a lifetime of healthy eating.
Is Weight Watchers for Me?
There are many considerations before starting any new way of eating and the same goes for Weight Watchers.
One of the things I LOVE about it is that nothing is off limits. It really isn’t a diet. It is a framework that will help you balance what you eat. This makes the program extremely flexible and workable for every type of diet and way of eating.
- Vegetarian or Vegan? ✓
- Keto? ✓
- Paleo? ✓
- Low carb? ✓
There are no restrictions.
This can also be a downside. Because there are no restrictions it is up to you to make sure you’re eating balanced meals and not spending your points on garbage. That is another consideration. You count points versus counting calories. You are given a daily amount of points based on your age, current weight and gender. You track what you eat throughout the day and the points of the foods consumed are subtracted from your daily points balance. If you’ve never tracked what you eat or counted calories, you may struggle with this part.
On the upside, if you can manage the point tracking, you also have a batch of additional weekly points which allows you to enjoy treats and the occasional cheat meal which is what makes Weight Watchers a winner for me.
If you are wondering if it may also be a good fit for you, give the Weight Watchers Quiz a try.
This is just my first article regarding Weight Watchers. I plan to go more into the details of how I eat healthy balanced meals that keep me full and satisfied on a daily and weekly basis. I also plan to provide useful meal planning and WW tips I’ve discovered along the way. Additionally, I have a Recipes section coming soon which will prominently feature WW friendly meals so please stay tuned.
Have questions or comments? Share them below.