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Should you allow yourself a low carb diet cheat day or meal? It seems pretty innocent. But, will the cheat set you back on your goals?
It might be tempting to cheat once in awhile. But should you really allow yourself a low carb diet cheat day or meal?
Is it okay to have a low carb diet cheat day?
For the obese, diabetic, pre-diabetic, hyperglycemic, or insulin sensitive
The answer to the question: can I have a low carb diet cheat day? An emphatic, unambiguous “NO!”. Would it be ok to give an alcoholic a cheat day? Just a tiny shot-glass-worth of beer would be fine, right? Of course not. And would it be ok to give a long-time pack-a-day cigarette smoker a cheat day? Let’s say Sundays are ok to have two cigarettes. Two cigarettes are better than 20 a day. That’s only two cigarettes per week compared to 140 per week. What’s the harm, right?
Of course alcoholics and smokers shouldn’t be allowed cheat days. And neither should those with a chronic disease like diabetes (or those that are on the path to type II diabetes). Sugar addiction should be treated like a serious disease much like alcoholism or drug abuse. Being addicted to sugar and high-carb foods is not merely a poor lifestyle choice for some people. There are psychological and physiological factors that may be responsible for the sugar addiction.
Can a formerly prediabetic person who went low-carb have a cheat day? If they’ve managed to reduce fasting blood glucose to under 100 mg/dl why not have a low carb diet cheat day? Well, why would they want to? Why risk having your blood sugar levels rise if you previously had danced with the diabetes devil, nearly becoming diabetic. It’s a scientific fact that sugar raises insulin levels. If your body had been at one time, or still is, insulin resistant, it’s best to not have a low-carb diet cheat day.
(This study concluded meals containing high carbohydrates interfered with metabolism in obese men.)
For the mostly healthy individual, is a low carb diet cheat day bad?
Take a group of individuals with normal blood sugar levels. Their triglycerides are normal. They have no sign of insulin resistance. They get regular exercise for the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal benefits. They also understand that regular exercise helps burn up the stored glycogen (blood sugar) in the cells. There are no signs of disease in this otherwise healthy group. This group is on a low-carb diet. The majority of their carbs comes from vegetables. They also get some carbs from low-sugar fruits like berries and green apples.
Would it be ok for the people in this low-carb diet group to cheat?
The answer: probably … but why would they want to? This group has probably learned through experience what foods make them feel the best. So why would anybody in this group want to eat something that would make them feel lousy?
We already know that added sugars are bad for health. But what about carbohydrates that are starchy but natural? Take white rice for instance. If you eat two servings of white rice at a meal, that’s 90 grams of carbs. But if you’re healthy and of normal weight is it ok to cheat by eating rice? Same would go for other grains that aren’t simple sugars but have lots of carbs per serving.
Someone who exercises regularly and doesn’t have problems with weight gain would probably be fine cheating. But again, why would they want to? High-starch carbs rapidly convert into sugars. If lots of protein and natural fat are to be eaten with the rice, the insulin spike wouldn’t be as rapid. But it would still be there.
And isn’t that the whole point of being on a low-carb diet … to avoid the spikes and dips in blood sugar? And to avoid having excess blood sugar stored in our cells, which if not burned get stored as body fat?
If you’re going to cheat on low carb with sugar, start small
If you can go just a few weeks without having any sweets (cakes, cookies, dried fruit, candy, soda, sweetened ice tea, etc.), you’ll be amazed at how you can reset your taste buds. If you used to love eating sweets, the taste of the sugar felt normal (and perhaps you got used to the rush from sugar). But go at least 21 days without having any sweets. To satisfy your sweet tooth in the meantime, you can bake with almond flour and sweeten with zero-carb stevia or monk fruit.
After the three weeks, go ahead and cheat a tiny bit. Do this by taking a little bite of a snack that’s loaded with sugar. There’s a good chance you’ll want to immediately spit it out. That’s what happens after your taste buds are reset. You’ll fall back in love with natural sweetness. You’ll be amazed at how sweet a piece or organic fruit tastes. A handful of berries becomes magically sweet and delicious.
The longer you go without having any processed sweets, the more you’ll feel disgusted when you taste them. So go ahead and cheat a tiny bit. Especially if you’ve recently started cutting down or eliminating added sugars. It’s almost worth it to cheat with a tiny morsel so you can be reminded of why you went low-carb in the first place. But if you know in your heart of hearts you’re a sugar addict, it’s best not to flirt with temptation.
Boost protein and natural fat intake
If you’re craving carbs, try having a large glass of water before a meal to curb hunger. (This study and others concludes that drinking water before a meal can reduce feelings of hunger.)
If your meal has adequate amounts of low-starch vegetables, protein and natural fat, chances are high that you won’t feel hungry after the meal. And you probably won’t crave high-carb foods.
Add a generous portion of grass-fed butter to your broccoli or spinach. Have a generous portion of wild salmon. Eat a salad with sunflower seeds, avocado and olive oil and you will very likely not miss out on the carbs. Allow yourself a square of dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa) for dessert. Even better if the chocolate is eaten with a handful of nuts to further reduce sugar’s impact on insulin response. Feel like a cheat day? Then have two squares of dark chocolate for dessert.
If you eat like this all the time, you’ll feel great after the meal. You probably won’t ever have a desire to have a low carb diet cheat day. If you absolutely need a cheat day on low carb do it with a cup of high-fiber/high-protein grains like quinoa (technically it’s a seed of a fruit, not a grain). Eating a grain that has lots of fiber reduces the net amount of carbs you’re cheating with.
What do you think … is it ok to have a cheat day on a low carb diet? Share your thoughts….