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Cheat Meals & the 80/20 Principle
If you're on point 80% of the time, will you get 80% of the results?
Imagine this: you wake up on Sunday, and you’re 25% body fat. New Year, new you. You work your behind off all week and by Saturday you’re 24% body fat. That is excellent progress, that means you lost 1-2 pounds of pure fat! Then, you celebrate, and wake up Sunday back at 25%.
Alright - that’s it, next week we will take it to the next level. You are so thorough that you reach 23% body fat in the next two weeks. The problem is, it’s your mom’s birthday.
You figure it’s just one meal and a piece of cake, no problem. Plus a small glass of wine. Then you wake up at 25% body fat again. Alright, it’s just water weight. You make it two more weeks of absolute determination, just in time for Valentine’s day, and then it’s your cousin’s baby shower.
Still at 25%.
If you think this is an exaggeration, I would strongly object - this is an understatement. Once you begin a structured meal plan, you will immediately experience the onslaught of events, both planned and unexpected.
I have seen this story or some nearly identical iteration of it play out with almost every single athlete I’ve ever worked with.
If we only count major U.S. holidays and immediate family birthdays, there are 12 events per year. That is to say nothing of unplanned circumstances, unexpected events, friend’s birthdays, graduations, cookouts, weddings, work parties, social pressure, going out to eat with a friend or family member, additional holiday parties or gatherings, and on and on.
The 80/20 Principle
Most athletes begin with me around 20-30%, what I call the “plateau zone”.
Athletes will often think they’re much leaner, but I use a 14-point skin fold assessment which is much less forgiving. Some athletes store fat primarily in their hamstrings or arms, so they think they’re 10% because they have a six pack.
Regardless, they are in this exact situation and simply can’t understand how they’re 80% or even 90% on point and still not progressing.
If you’re 80% on point, shouldn’t you get at least 80% of the results?
Here is the fact:
Once you achieve 20-30% body fat, one cheat meal typically sets you back 2-3 weeks. As you get leaner, the forgiveness continues to decrease.
If we are extremely generous, you have 17 events with “cheat meals” per year. That means 34-51 weeks of setbacks.
With that knowledge it’s clear why remarkable physiques are exceedingly rare.
The 80/20 principle works quite well when you’re well over 30% body fat because something is better than nothing, and 80% is much better than 0%. It works well to maintain an acceptable body composition and I do not want to discourage anyone for that purpose.
however, the 80/20 principle does not work once you achieve an acceptable body composition and want to advance further.
In fact, with only 17 events per year, that means you’re actually 95/5, and you still won’t progress.
A remarkable physique exists at around 8-12% body fat for men, 15-18% for women, with an overweight BMI.
How are you overweight but still so lean? Because BMI is a “Body Mass Index” formula that takes into account only height and weight. Thus, being “overweight” at 10% body fat actually means you have a considerable amount of muscle and a ripped six pack.
Following from experience and the Pareto distribution, I estimate that far less than 1% of the population have a remarkable physique by those standards.
3 Strategies to Maximize Adherence
1. Change Your Body Fat Set Point
For many avid trainees who live the 80/20 lifestyle, it becomes difficult to break out of the plateau zone in either direction. Getting above 30% will require a significant number of unhealthy decisions, and getting below 20% will require serious devotion.
Why this is the case may be due to what is called the “body fat set point” in scientific literature.
It is at it sounds: your body has a set body fat percentage that is most comfortable physiologically.
However, you can change the body fat set point by building muscle, going far below the set point, and reverse dieting into a new body fat set point.
Reverse dieting is not a term I invented, it is also established in the literature.
When you lose a significant amount of body fat, your body is inclined to rapidly gain fat. In fact, your fat cells can divide and multiply as an adaptive mechanism. This may result in a higher body fat set point - the opposite of what we want.
This combined with metabolic adaptation is why when people lose a significant amount of weight they not only gain it back, they gain back more than they lost in half the time.
Thus, the "reverse diet" may actually be the most critical period of a transformation.
To explain the reverse diet as simply as possible: eat in a way that maintains your weight, ever so slightly increasing your intake over time to keep minimal gains in weight. Combined with proper training and other factors, most of the weight gained should be muscle and lean tissue.
The result will be a lean, attractive physique that is more resistant to excessive fat gain.
People will oftentimes follow a strict diet, lose a ton of weight, and then return to the Standard American Diet (SAD) and blame the diet for “not working”. In reality, if you return to the lifestyle that produced an unhealthy, overweight body in the first place, you will likely get the same result.
For this reason, I use the second strategy.
2. Delicious Food
I do not eat a single cheat meal all year. Not even on holidays.
Because I already eat spaghetti and meatballs, cookies, pizza, quesadillas, ice cream… what have you.
I just figure out how to make the foods I love with ingredients that agree with my digestion and fit my goals.
Whatever your dietary needs and goals, I believe you can create or find recipes for basically anything you ever want.
So why would I ever eat something that makes me feel sick or sabotages my goals?
That just doesn’t make sense to me.
Of course, social pressure is one reason, and a tough one for many people. But that’s for another article.
3. Un-Cheat the Cheat Meal
For the most part, even at unexpected events we can assess our options and make one that still fits our goal.
If you fit it into your plan, whatever that may be, you can find a way to get very close.
When the cheat meal becomes a mindless escapade for an entire evening, this is when the significant regressions occur.
As I've written before, extraordinary goals require extraordinary efforts.
The 80/20 principle should be called the mediocrity principle.
If you want a mediocre, acceptable physique, use the 80/20 principle.
And that might be your goal, which is perfectly fine.
If you’re stuck in the plateau zone, I hope this article was highly valuable for you.
If you still have questions, you know where to find me.
Daniel J Furtado, CPT, LMT, Owner of Honor Strength
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