by Melissa Urban, who will give up french toast when hell freezes over
This weekend, I discovered Nutella. Yes, Nutella – that chocolate hazelnut spread that the jar assures you can be a part of a balanced, healthy breakfast. Now, Nutella marketing people, come on. I’ve read the label. I know there is nothing about Nutella that is balanced OR healthy. But heck if it isn’t delicious between two pieces of French toast. (Put that on the label.) Yes, this weekend I “cheated” on my diet with grains, sugars and processed foods. And that’s the subject of the day – eating dirty.
If you’re reading this blog, we probably have one thing in common. We all try to eat well. We eat Zone proportions or Paleo quality or some other mechanism that we would call a “clean” diet. We know the difference between Real Food and Stuff You Can Eat. We eat real food, natural food, nutrient-dense food. We avoid foods that require additives to be “healthy”, high-tech fabrications designed to replace real food, and food-like products made from ingredients we cannot pronounce. And we do this, day in and day out, for the vast majority of our meals and snacks.
But most of us don’t eat like that ALL the time. A 100% strict diet is mentally taxing, socially restrictive and just plain not fun. So, we “cheat”. We go off diet, eat things that we normally wouldn’t, indulge in things that taste good and satisfy our urges. But looking at the big picture, we always want our diets to tip well to the Healthy side. Which means we need to think long and hard about how we cheat, what we choose to eat and drink during these cheat periods and how often we go off diet.
Let’s first define what we mean by “cheat”. I’m going out on a limb and saying 99% of the time, cheat = high carb, processed, sugary foods and drinks. What else do we cheat with? Certainly not fat. Fat is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. No, we cheat with dirty, dirty carbs. Beer and pizza, nachos and tequila, cinnamon swirl French toast slathered with Nutella. We cheat with insulin spiking, sugar rushing, energy crashing CARBS. (Can I get an “amen” from my Brooklyn boys?)
Now that that’s settled, in this next section, we’ll talk about the physiological benefits of cheating. Surely, you’ve heard that cheat meals or cheat days are a necessary part of your fitness program? They “shock the body”, “keep it guessing”, “jump start your metabolism”, right? So this next section will discuss the science-y details of how going off diet and cheating with things like pizza, pasta, cake and cookies has a positive impact on your physical health, fitness and performance.
This section is short.
To be perfectly clear, a cheat day does not have a single significant, long-term positive effect on your metabolism, your body composition or any other internal science-y factors, despite what you read on the internet. Mathieu Lalonde can step into comments and explain all the reasons that a single cheat day negatively impacts how you look, feel and perform for the next two weeks… but I’ll shoot down some common arguments here.
First… for those of you who eat a bowl of Breyer’s every night before bed and suddenly notice you’re looking leaner… that’s not the Breyer’s. It is, however, a sure sign that you have not been eating enough. The ice cream is giving you a caloric boost, and has jump started your metabolism. Which is great, short term. But keep eating ice cream every night for months on end and tell me how that’s working out for you. Or, I’ll argue, how much better would your fat loss and performance be if you instead ate more almonds, chicken and/or sweet potatoes to get those extra fat and calories in? In short, the “cheat” may have helped short term, but it’s a bad long term solution, and you could do better. (Pay attention to that last part. You’ll hear it again.)
Second, you may pass off your cheats as preventing metabolic slow-down. Serious calorie and carb restrictions decrease the release of the hormone called leptin. Leptin is important to keeping up your body’s metabolic rate. Increasing food intake drastically, even for a short period of time (like with a cheat day), will prevent the drop in leptin that occurs when dieting. But most of us aren’t seriously “dieting”, are we? We’re CrossFitting, so we are at least eating enough to support performance. We may have a slight caloric deficit to prompt fat loss, but we are NOT in starvation mode. Not even close. Our metabolisms should be chugging away like a super-powered bullet train. So, if we are already eating for performance, do we really need to “mix it up” and “jolt our metabolisms” with chili cheese fries and an ice cream sundae? (That’s rhetorical, kids.) And if for some reason you are on a seriously calorie-restricted diet… again, I’ll say that you can pull off a better metabolic shock-and-awe with a higher volume of good, clean carbs than you can eating crap.
How about the idea of “loading” or “refeeding” – essentially, replenishing glycogen stores? Glycogen (the carbs stored in the muscles and liver) is the primary fuel source for intense physical work. When your glycogen stores are low, you won’t be able to train as hard as when you’re fully loaded. For that reason, it’s a good idea to periodically give the body a shot of carbohydrates to keep glycogen stores at least somewhat full. (We do this in the form of a post workout meal.) But again, it comes back to this. You can “refuel” with ice cream and candy… or you can refuel with sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Ice cream supports the basic, fundamental requirement of replenishing glycogen stores… but also messes with a whole host of other body processes, like insulin sensitivity, fat stores and autoimmune responses. Again, you could do better.
So there you have it – a cheat meal or a cheat day does nothing for your physical health and well being that couldn’t be done better with good, clean food. But there are a whole host of reasons to cheat that I DO support – and those are all mental. Your taste buds crave things that taste good. Your brain rebels against the rigidity of “can have” and “can’t have”. Your emotions needs a break from the isolation and social pressures of being the weird eater, the difficult dinner party guest, the one who makes everyone else feel bad about the way they eat. You need a mental break, which means you need to stray from your diet. And I am more than okay with that.
So we’ve established that we want our diets to weigh in on the side of Healthy, but that there are mental and emotional reasons that mean it is absolutely necessary that we go off-diet from time to time. And as you might imagine, I have a few thoughts as to how you do that. Tomorrow, I’ll publish my advice for how to strike the best balance possible while still preserving your mental sanity.
Stay tuned for The Whole9 Guide to Eating Dirty (Part II) on Friday.
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You sound like you've been talking to someone Smart. Or, you are someone Smart. Great post. As you know, I'm a firm believer in eating as consistently clean as you can without seriously jumping into the deep end when you can't take it anymore. Meaning… eat as clean as you can. All the time. Except when you just plain can't. And then, it's fine. But… I suspect that this is what you'll talk more about in Part II. I'm itching to see how you articulate these concpets with 500% more grace and eloquence than I ever could. Thanks for your ongoing contributions.
If you want to be healthy with the Nutella….just replace salsa with Nutella. Ummm, Nutella on tortilla chips, chocolatey, nutty, salty wonderfulness. Then wash it down with a Corona.
Another great article, Melissa. Can't wait for part two!
Mmm… nutella:). My husband likes to eat nutella on nilla wafers. It takes all my will-power to avoid him when he does this or else I'll cave:). Great article! I really enjoy your blog.
Jason Struck, RKC says
this from the princess that refused a chili-cheeseburger?
Jason Struck, RKC says
and why so harsh on Ice Cream?
perhaps it's because you've never had Blue-Bell… the best ice cream in the country.
I can't believe you just discovered Nutella. Have some on a banana immediately! You have to make up for lost time.
That being said, between this and your post on carrots, I was prompted to quit lurking and comment on your approach to nutrition. I think it's right on — sensible and realistic. Plus, it's nice to see it articulated in such a thoughtful way. Looking forward to Part II.
"… the one who makes everyone else feel bad about the way they eat."
I want a t-shirt that says, "I am not the food police."
Seriously, people. Stop staring at my snap peas and club soda. NOW.
Try being "that girl at the office that eats tunafish for breakfast". I'm not making many friends there!
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Jocelyn Mallard says
Interesting post and I must start by stating that I am a HUGE fan of cheat days/meals. I also share your same sentiment that we shouldn't really fool ourselves into thinking it has anything to do with performance. Donuts are just plain tasty that that's all that matters.
BUT… Here's my issue. Somehow people seem to think that yams, sweet potatoes, etc are "clean" carbs and things like ice cream are worse because they mess with your blood sugar and insulin sensitivity. The Glycemic index of sweet potatoes is HIGHER, much higher, than ice cream. Starchy tubers are basically carbs alone, whereas ice cream (the real stuff, at least) has plenty of fat to slow gastric emptying and therefore slow the release of glucose into the blood stream. Peeled, baked sweet potatoes have a GI of 94! NINETY FREAKING FOUR! Pure white sugar only has a GI of 60. Full fat premium ice cream, on the other hand, has a GI of only 37. If we're talking about blood sugar rushing, insulin spiking food, lets not pretend for one second that sweet potatoes are somehow better than ice cream. Sweet potatoes are worse for the blood sugar rush than eating pure sugar cubes.
All the numbers are from the database at glycemicindex.com.
Under no circumstances am I saying that ice cream is health food. What I am saying is that we shouldn't ignore the blood sugar rushing, insulin spiking effect of so-called "clean foods" like yams, squash, sweet potatoes, etc. Sure they have fiber, vitamin c, and other great nutrient benefits. But so does cauliflower, or broccoli except those don't have all the starchy carbs. I could also say that ice cream has calcium, but that doesn't make it healthy either.
I don't want to sound like I'm on the carrot train to crazy town or anything here, but if we're talking about making good choices to control blood sugar and insulin, then there are better options out there for the many, many "non cheat" meals.
If you are trying to cause a big insulin rush in the post-workout out window, then by all means, chow down on the sweet potatoes. Mush them with a little dried egg white and cinnamon and you've got yourself a darn tasty PWO meal! The reason sweet potatoes make an excellent PWO meal is because of the resultant insulin rush.
Melissa Byers says
Please read the last comment, and then take a moment to think about Jocelyn's conclusion: "Sweet potatoes are worse for the blood sugar rush than eating pure sugar cubes." Does this make SENSE? Does it make SENSE that eating sweet potatoes might be worse for you in ANY capacity than eating ice cream, or (holy hell), pure SUGAR?
That is EXACTLY the sort of flawed logic I wrote about in "Carrot-Town". There is a lot of information out there, and if you only consider one small (outdated) piece without taking all the other factors into account, you can be steered really wrong, really fast. I called in the cavalry for this one. Please read the next comment for a super-science-y explanation.
Melissa Byers says
From Mathieu Lalonde (who may be a genius, but still can't figure out how to get the Google ID system to work so he can post his own comment):
"Jocelyn, I can understand where you are coming from, but know that the glycemic index (GI) is outdated and misleading. That is why it was replaced by the glycemic load (GL) years ago.
Why is the GI misleading? Because the values were obtained by measuring the increase in blood glucose that is caused by the consumption of 50g (or 100g) of carbohydrate from a given food. If you look at the GI for watermelon, you get 72±13. Compare that to the GI of jelly beans, which is 78±2 (a GI >70 is considered high, 56-69 is considered medium, and <55 is considered low). Does that mean both these food are equal? NO! It takes very few jelly beans to get 50g of sugar whereas it takes a pound (or two!) of watermelon to get 50g of sugar. The GI is misleading because it uses a fixed amount of sugar and not a reasonable portion size. You can easily go off the GI deep end with jelly beans, but it is much harder to do that with watermelon because of the fiber and water content.
The GI is useful in that it allows you to gauge what type of carbohydrate is in a food, but even that is limited.
Enter the Glycemic Load (GL), where the GI is adjusted for portion size. The GL of jelly beans is 21.8, whereas the GL of watermelon is 4.3. Doesn't that make more sense? (A GL >20 is considered high, 11-19 is considered medium, and <10 is considered low. The average GL of ice cream is 7.9, whereas a sweet potato is 17.1 and a yam is 13.3. Huh – it still appears that ice cream wins. However, we haven't considered the insulin index.
The insulin index was created when scientists realized that certain foods that appeared low in sugar caused significant spikes in insulin. It turns out that the GL and insulin indexes of most foods more or less correlate… with the exception of dairy. Most dairy tends to spike insulin significantly. (This makes sense given that dairy is growth food. You need to shove nutrients into cells in order to make them grow.) It is the combination of proteins and sugars (lactose) in dairy that is responsible for the high insulin response (i.e. skim, 1%, 2%, and whole milk have virtually identical insulin responses). Unfortunately, the insulin index of sweet potatoes is unknown so we can't compare it to that of ice cream, which is 89±13 (high). The insulin index of white potatoes is 121±11. (My guess is that the insulin index of sweet potatoes is lower than that of regular potatoes given their fiber content, which slows down gastric emptying.)
Finally, lets consider the type of carbohydrate. Sweet potatoes are mostly starch and a little bit of fructose, and will be transformed into glucose. Ice cream, no matter what it is sweetened with, will contain a whopping load of fructose. Fructose is far more potent than glucose when it comes to ruining insulin sensitivity or increasing insulin resistance. In addition, fructose also ruins leptin resistance and is excellent at glycating hemoglobin and proteins in the body, creating Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs). If I had to choose, I'd opt for the low fructose choice.
In summary, given ALL of these factors (none of which can be considered independently), sweet potatoes and ice cream are both high carb choices, but one is far more nutritious and less damaging than the other.
Melissa Byers says
And Jocelyn… that is not a dig on you. I completely understand where you are drawing your conclusions from, and I appreciate that you shared your thoughts here. I hope that Matt's explanation makes sense, and please post any follow-up thoughts or comments here.
Thanks for contributing. I hope you are okay with the fact that I jumped on your comment as an opportunity to share more information with my readers.
In my defense, it's not that I can't get the Google ID system to work, it's that I can't remember my fracking password. Typical absent-minded scientist right here.
Kevin Daigle says
Good read….I'm crying over my bowl of edy's slow churned fudge-track ice cream with teenie-tiny little reeses peanut butter cups in it. I'm getting close to eating clean-ER than I have been….But for mental reasons, the ice cream is never going away. ever.
Jocelyn Rylee says
Hey Melissa… I totally appreciate the follow up and no digs taken at all. I don’t mean to be antagonistic in the least and I hope you don’t take my comments as anything of the sort. I love your blog, your philosophy, and your witty style of getting your points across so my apologies for the uproar. One of the things I hate about the internet is how quickly points get misunderstood and people end up off on a tangent arguing about things that are completely beside the point. I feel like if we were having this conversation face-to-face we’d probably understand each other much better. I think we’re actually making the same point, just from different angles: Make better choices where ever you can.
The only thing I was getting at with my first comment was that people tend to underestimate the carb load and insulin impact of “real” foods like yams and sweet potatoes… And other foods too (for the less paleo among us), like whole grains, rice, potatoes, dairy, and corn. Whatever scale you want to measure it by – glycemic index, glycemic load, insulin index – my conclusion is the same. It’s hard for some people to wrap their head around the idea that something in its natural state could cause a similar blood sugar rush to something which everyone with half a brain recognizes as junk food, like ice cream. Even in Matt’s example of the Insulin Index, potatoes are higher than ice cream. Some folks would eat a pile of mashed potatoes without blinking an eye but would suffer a week long guilt attack if they tucked into a pint of ice cream. Please don’t extrapolate my attempt to make this one small point to mean that I think dairy is good for you or you should pop whole sugar cubes as a snack. Nothing of the sort!
Sweet potatoes seem to have become the unwitting target of this debate and they do have some redeeming nutritional value, for sure. But there’s nothing in a sweet potato that you can’t get from another source without the starch. If you’re in it for the nutritional content, then there are better or more “efficient” choices out there in the vegetable world. Same good stuff, less bad stuff.
If, on the other hands, we’re talking about a post workout meal, then absolutely sweet potatoes make a decent choice. The idea in that magic 30-60 time frame after a workout is to drive insulin levels really high in order to “shove nutrients into cells in order to make them grow”, as Matt said. In that case, you’re eating them for precisely the reason that would otherwise make them a less desirable choice – the fact that the load of starch is quickly turned to glucose which quickly stimulates an insulin spike. That magic only works though if you are not inundating your system with starchy or sugary carbs all the time.
Again, sorry for getting up on my little soapbox here. I really only had a small additional point to make on top of your totally solid info. I’m pretty sure we’re basically on the same side!