I love ice cream sandwiches. Cool Haus is my go-to favorite, to be precise. I can taste the Tahitian Vanilla Bean ice cream and chocolate chip cookie right now. I also love sharing this delicious treat with my two little ones, Henry and Hawk, and seeing their faces light up just like mine. 🥳 My bottom line on the flex (aka cheat day): Without rewards, it can become mundane to keep a healthy lifestyle day in and day out.
There is scientific backing to why we need flexibility in our routines that may interrupt our cravings and natural inclination to nourish - aka a modern diet. It begins with leptin, a protein produced by fat tissue that helps regulate body weight and fat mass by impacting appetite and the body's energy balance. Almost all effective diets in morphing our biological makeup (reduction in weight and body transformation) come tied to one quantifiable truth: a caloric deficit. With a caloric deficit, your energy will inevitably dip; after all, calories are a measurement of energy. 🔋
A flex or cheat meal provides a caloric surge (or bomb) that will go off, triggering a cascade of systematic physiological responses. That includes surging hormonal levels (here comes the leptin), and in exchange, we may find balance and maintain the energy levels needed to continue dieting and exercising. ⚖️
This surge response is mimicking what intermittent fasting does in signaling to our body. We are not meant to sustain consistent periods of satiety, nor are we to maintain regular periods of famishment. By performing a flex meal/day, we flex metabolically the same way we would in hunter-gatherer times. A meal is collected. There is abundance. We must feast and store our energy for times of famine. Snacking, as a healthy methodology, hasn't been debunked yet on a mass scale. Still, I assure you enough science and experimentation is backing up now that snacking impedes long-term healthy habits. It is, in essence, the opposite of IFing and surging in a flex meal. Keeping yourself satiated throughout the day is keeping a ceiling on your metabolic engine and flexibility.1
Your body still needs a profile and foundation of healthy eating habits, including the three essential macronutrients, protein, carbohydrates, and fat, for energy and to build muscle. One way to approach your cheat meal is a time for you to enjoy "bad" protein, carbs, and fat. That can look like many different things depending on your cravings and, quite frankly, your history of dopamine and oxytocin triggers in food. Some people prefer savory and fatty foods like salty chips and fried foods, other's may enjoy the sweet goodness of cake and ice cream. And still, for others, it's all of the above.
Consider this when deciding to indulge: when you take in the "bad" macros can make a difference. I highly recommend teaching your body that the best time to indulge is earlier in the day, and even better yet, post activity. You send the responses to your 'metabolic mind' that you are storing for immediate window use. When you couple movement and a caloric surge, your system learns to prime the pump when you eat calories early as you naturally burn throughout the day. You allow your system easy access and may utilize more energy on demand. There are, of course, downfalls to energy spikes and dips throughout the day with glucose and insulin spikes, but it bodes much better earlier in the day versus the evening as our rhythm goes into repair and store mode.
Quick Tips on Executing a Flex Day
Eat real food as much as possible. Avoid the more processed treats as they present a double whammy. 💥
Eat slowly to enjoy. The benefit of the flex is to savor flavors and give your brain the reward it craves. Eating slower will achieve the same dopamine response, and you can hit satiety more safely. ☺️
Make it a reward. Reward yourself with the treat post-workout and even better early in the day. I aim for the sun to be up still when I'm doing a flex meal. 🎁
Set your boundaries. If you have a history of poor portion control like me, don't have your rewards in the fridge or pantry. Go to the store to purchase the single ice cream sandwich you might eat. Or go out to a meal as a reward. Know yourself, and think about your approach to accessing your flex foods. ✋
Reflect and share. Whether you write it down or talk about your habits with someone you trust, self-reflection can help bring awareness around your thoughts and patterns. With greater understanding comes greater accountability and future choices with your habits. 🪞
Consider the benefits of a flex meal/cheat day combined with your consistent healthy eating habits for metabolic flexibility and peace of mind.