Can healthy eating include treats? Yes! Even fitness models use treats as a fat-loss strategy. Here's how it works.
You might think that fitness fanatics eat nothing but lean protein and green vegetables all day long, 7 days a week. That's the only way to get and maintain a shredded physique, right? Not quite. Many fitness fans enjoy a treat here and there, and some actually use treat meals to turbo-charge their fat loss.
Yes, it's true, treat and cheat meals can actually be a strategic part of a fat-loss plan. Here's how to fit treats into a healthy eating diet, and the best treats to choose.
The theory behind using treats as part of a weight loss plan is rooted in science. When you diet on reduced calories, the hormone leptin (which is key to regulating energy balance in the body) is affected. Overtime, this can lead to leptin working more slowly, making it actually more difficult for your body to lose unwanted body fat. The leaner you are, the less leptin your body produces, so the hungrier you feel. Not helpful when you're dieting to lose weight!
Eating a planned treat (or "cheat") temporarily boosts leptin, resetting your hormone levels and encouraging your body to continue giving up fat stores for fuel, so your weight loss doesn't plateau.
So, if you control calories during the week, eating to a set diet plan or fat loss plan, you put yourself in a calorie deficit. This is good, because it means you'll lose body fat. But carry on in a deficit for too long and your fat loss may slow down, you'll feel hungry, and this could lead to a plateau, or to uncontrollable cravings and unplanned overeating.
Here's where those treats come in. Fitness fanatics use pre-planned treats as part of their wider fat loss eating protocol, to strategically boost leptin, and to provide a much-needed psychological boost from dieting.
How often should you have a treat? It depends on a few things: how lean you are (the leaner you get, the more often you can use this strategy), how fast you are losing weight (more treats mean a slower rate of loss), and how well you think you can adhere to a treat before jumping back on the diet.
If you have a weekly date night, use it as your treat time. Or if you meet your friends once a week for a coffee, you could use that time to get a slice of cake, boosting leptin and ensuring your diet doesn't affect your social life. Don't fall into the trap of abusing treat meals. They are a strategic part of a fat loss diet and should be planned, monitored and scheduled just like the rest of your plan.
Some people can get away with huge cheat meals of burgers, chips, pizza and an entire cheesecake but bear in mind that such people have been genetically blessed to carry a huge amount of muscle mass (and just might be using performance-enhancing drugs, too). If you're a natural, drug-free athlete, and really want to lose fat, start with just one treat meal every 7-10 days. Monitor it just as you do the rest of your diet. Otherwise a treat can easily turn into a whole day of overeating, and that will certainly offset the calorie deficit you so carefully created in the week!
Nutrition as well as many other areas of Health and Fitness are covered on our PT course, why not take a look?