Cheating with the right meals

By Adeena Nagib


Sticking to a diet is never easy. After weeks of cutting down on sugar, carbohydrates and fats, many athletes who diet await their scrumptious reward — a cheat meal.

Fried chicken, hamburgers and ice cream sundaes make up a typical cheat meal, often adopted by athletes and health enthusiasts alike who need a respite from their dietary regimes.

Even though cheat meals are not part of their diet, such junk food can keep sportsmen motivated and act as an added incentive for them to keep working out.

But consuming too many calories in just one meal can render one’s diet fruitless as the body will gain more weight than it has burnt off.

An active individual is recommended to consume about 1,900 to 2,500 calories a day. An average hamburger with a side of fries carries 1,300 calories.

Cheat meals, usually a weekly or monthly occurrence, tend to upset one’s diet. Without proper discipline, straying from a diet can also lead to overeating.

Ng Choon Yeow, 24, has struggled with keeping to a diet because of the nature of his sport.

As a national weightlifter, the third-year student from Sport Science and Management (SSM) has to change his weight depending on the weight class he has been designated for competitions.

His usual weight class of under 85 kilograms will require Ng to cut his usual weight, incorporating smaller meals to his diet two weeks before weigh-ins.

“I start by eating half of what I normally do and then lay off carbohydrates and eat more proteins,” he said.

“I get so hungry, but it’s the life I chose.”

Ng, who trains six times a week, admits that he does indulge in durian and sashimi on occasion, despite having to work harder in the gym the next day.

But according to Dr Stephen Francis Burns, Associate Professor from National Institute of Education, cheat meals can be detrimental to an athlete’s performance, especially if consumed before competitions.

That said, cheat meals can be advantageous, if certain rules are followed.  

Dr Burns, who has a PhD in Exercise Physiology, encourages dieters to have cheat meals in the off-seasons and holidays.

“It’s pointless to train hard and then break your diet.” he said.

“But if you eat a cheat meal once a month, it would have little impact in the long-term.”

As such, cheat meals have to be planned. They are best eaten on intensive exercise days, at least a month prior to competitions, to create calorie deficits before eating. This means that more calories are burnt before they are consumed. Such days can also be planned on occasions like birthdays or weddings when less healthy food is likely to be consumed.

Daniel Chan, 24, incorporates cheat meals to his diet around important events to so that he “doesn’t miss out” on hearty food.

“I close an eye on my diet during weddings and buffets. I don’t mind the extra calories as long as my stomach’s happy,” said Chan, also a third-year SSM student.

The triple jumper from NTU’s Athletics team is of Peranakan descent, and enjoys his mother’s nyonya cooking of sambal buah keluak and mee siam, although these dishes have high amounts of fat.

“It’s a guilty pleasure. I put my body under great punishment for dieting, so cheat meals let me feel human once in awhile,” he quipped.

Other guidelines for cheat meals include reducing alcohol intake, keeping hydrated, staying away from processed food, and consuming meals that are high in protein and carbohydrates but low in fat.

When done right, cheat meals can also help to increase one’s metabolism as well as overcome weight-loss plateaus.

Leptin, a hunger-control hormone, increases with higher calorie intake, which burns stored fat and diminishes one’s appetite. It also provides a mental reprieve, which in turn helps athletes stick to their diet regimes for longer.

While the general consensus is that cheat meals are loaded with sugar, Dr Burns advocates the benefits of consuming them.

“Simple sugars and high glycaemic index carbohydrates in your cheat meals (can help you) recover more rapidly from exercise,” he said.

“Sugars are also needed by muscles during high intensity exercises. A Tour de France rider, for example, may consume up to 2000 kcal from sports drinks alone in a five hour stage,” Dr Burns added.

Athletes can also opt for healthier choices like salmon nigiri and tuna sashimi, rather than sushi rolls that contain high amounts of fats from their sauces. Nigiri and sashimi contain raw fish, which is a nutritious alternative.