I was a pro at short-term dieting.
I had zero problems sticking to my prescribed calorie and macros for a few weeks, but then–out of nowhere–a night would come where I couldn't stand it anymore...
My urge to throw back an entire package of Oreos and top it off with a creamy pint of B&J's Ice cream was too strong, and I would give in.
(and if there was B&J's "Americone Dream" available, it was GAME OVER! Easily the best flavor of ice cream.)
I would sometimes binge on 5,000-7,000 calories in one sitting - completely undoing a week (or more) of progress.
I've seen this same struggle in others, too.
Before working with me, many of my clients struggled with taming their inner foodie-monster.
They'd work hard all week (usually following a diet and exercise protocol that was way too strict) and felt so depleted by the weekend that they'd say "EFF IT” and scarf down everything in sight.
If you’ve been dieting for any significant amount of time, then you’ve probably experienced some of the undesirable effects of eating in a calorie deficit.
Lower energy levels, depleted willpower, increased hunger, and greater temptations towards sweets are all a part of losing weight...
and these feelings will intensify the longer you diet.
In response, dieters and fitness coaches will sometimes implement planned increases in calories, commonly referred to as “Cheat Meals.”
The cheat meal is meant to reduce stress from dieting and provide a "mental break" from regularly eating in a deficit. Plus, it can serve as a small reward for the hard work of following you fat loss plan consistently.
Some people thrive on cheat and get positive psychological and physiological benefits that can increase their mood, energy, workout performance, and even decreasing their hunger!
But for others, cheat meals have the potential to do more harm than good.
Some folks find that cheat meals awaken the “Bingeing Beast” inside them, and their controlled increase in calories turns into a game of “How many Pop Tarts can I fit in my mouth at once!?”
(...my record is six.)
So which is it? Are cheat meals good or bad?
And more importantly, should you use cheat meals while dieting?
In this article, you’ll learn:
- The Good Side of Cheat Meals
- The Potentially Not So Good Side of Cheat Meals
- How to Decide if a Cheat Meal is Right For You
- and finally, Best Practices for Implementing Cheat Meals into Your Diet
The Good Side of Cheat Meals
Before we get into the good of cheat meals, we need to clear up a common misunderstanding people have. Many people mistakenly assume that a "cheat meal" is the same thing as a "cheat day."
I do NOT recommend having an entire day where you eat whatever you want.
An entire day of cheating can quickly get out of control and undo weeks of hard work.
Cheat MEALS are more controlled. They are meant to increase your adherence and provide mental benefits that make dieting more enjoyable without setting back your progress.
Quick note: I don't really like the term "cheat meal." It implies that you're doing something wrong or dirty, which is not the case. I'll use the term "cheat meal" since that's what most people refer to them as, but know going forward that it's not a bad thing when controlled and used with purpose.
Like stated earlier, cheat meals are a fantastic way to combat the adverse effects of dieting.
Anecdotally, I've found that many of my weight loss clients will be more likely to adhere to their diet and workout plan when they have a scheduled cheat meal for later in the week.
But there are always going to be some food cravings that won't comfortably fit into your daily calories...
(Trying to fit a 1,000 calorie slice of Cheesecake Factory Reese's PB cheesecake into your 2,000 daily diet calories is next to impossible!)
In this situation, controlled and occasional cheat meals can allow for bigger indulgences without causing too much damage when it comes to fat gain.
Cheat meals provide physiological benefits as well, with the most notable is an increase in the hormone leptin.
If you’ve never heard of leptin before, the no worries - I didn’t know anything about it before I got into all of this fitness mumbo-jumbo. 😀
All you need to know is that leptin plays a role in regulating hunger, metabolism, appetite, motivation, and libido.
One side effect of prolonged dieting and calorie restriction is the downregulation in hormones like testosterone, thyroid hormone and, you guessed it, leptin. Low leptin levels can cause your metabolism to slow down, your hunger levels to shoot up, your motivation to whither away, and your mood to turn sour.
When we eat more calories from a cheat meal (specifically from carbohydrates), our leptin level increases and our metabolism, satiety, motivation, sex drive, and mood follow suit.
There is even some evidence that the occasional boost in leptin will lead to more fat oxidation (a.k.a. fat loss) for the few days following a cheat meal!
However, the verdict is still out for whether the benefits from short-term boosts in leptin will translate into long-term fat loss results.
In this case, "The juice is probably NOT worth the squeeze."
Here's the Takeaway:
A planned cheat meal can have psychological benefits for some people. It could also potentially provide physiological benefits for individuals who have been dieting for an extended period (usually a few months) or who are trying to get very lean.
There is one caveat, though...
If you are severely overweight or obese, you probably don’t need to worry about using cheat meals to boost leptin. Excess fat can cause leptin resistance, which essentially means that your body doesn’t respond to the signals leptin is sending.
Leptin is trying to signal you’re full, but your mind and eyes say otherwise.
You'd be eating more calories to boost leptin, but since you have resistance to leptin's effects, you'd just be eating more calories and slowing down your fat loss progress.
Don't fret, though, one of the advantages of losing extra weight and fat is that it can help to restore proper leptin function!
Most of us just want to get to a healthy body fat and gain some muscle in the process. For that, a refeed is probably unnecessary.
(And in all honesty, the only people who should be worrying about boosting leptin and using a "refeed" are professional athletes or bodybuilding competitors looking to get stupid lean.)
The Not So Good Side of Cheat Meals
The biggest problem with cheat meals is that–to be effective without screwing with your progress–they need to be monitored and controlled.
At least to some degree...
You see, a planned cheat meal only needs to be ~500 calories to boost leptin and provide other physiological benefits. However, a surplus of ~500 calories is basically nothing and won't provide the mental benefit for most people.
Because of this, I usually set a cap of around 1,000 calories max for cheat meals.
But even a 1,000 calorie surplus can creep up quickly–and often quicker than most anticipate.
If you sit down for a cheat meal with the mindset that you can eat anything and everything in sight, you might just spill over that 1,000 calorie recommendation.
What started as a well-intentioned fat loss spark can quickly turn into a 3,000+ calorie splurge.
This leads to feelings of regret and the infamous "EFF IT” moment. Next thing you know you're "food drunk" and confessing your love to pizza...
Okay, maybe it's not that intense, but you get the point.
When I have cheat meals, I go in KNOWING that I'm setting myself back a day or two. With this mindset, I tend to have more control and get the benefits of a cheat day without feeling guilt and letting my eating get out of control.
(Instead of scarfing down 6,000-7,00 calories, I'll only eat around 2,000-2,500 calories which is much easier to recover from)
Here’s the Takeaway:
If you have a cheat meal, go in knowing that it's a meant to be a reward and that you are setting yourself back a few days at most. It'll help you control your intake, so you don't overdo it.
How to Decide if a Cheat Meal is Right For You?
It’s really as simple as identifying what type of person you are...
Are you the sort of person who does well with moderation and limiting yourself in tempting situations?
If so, then a cheat meal every couple of weeks that is somewhat controlled (no more than a few thousand calories over your dieting calorie goals) will probably work.
Are you the kind of person who struggles with moderation and control in situations where you are allowing yourself to splurge?
If so, then weekly cheat meals are probably not a good idea. Instead, reserve them for special occasions, or don’t have them at all.
There’s no right or wrong answer, but it’s important to identify where you stand. In my experience, most people do best sticking to their regular diet plan and occasionally (once every 2-3 weeks) allowing for a cheat meal that puts them 1,000-2,000 calories over their goal for the day.
Best Practices for Implementing Cheat Meals into Your Diet
Have some moderation
Cheat days are fun and rewarding. They're meant to be a break from meticulously tracking and weighing food. But if you’re not careful, your small and manageable surplus of calories can quickly turn into an uncontrollable feeding frenzy–effectively undoing all of your fat loss progress.
To avoid this, try keeping calories around ~1,000 above your normal range for the day of your cheat meal. This way you don't set yourself back more than a few days.
For example, if you are dieting on 1,600 calories, try not to go beyond 2,600 calories for the day. (this would allow you to eat around 1,000 calories at your cheat meal on top of your normal deficit)
Only use a cheat meal every 10-21 days
More frequently and you'll slow down your fat loss progress.
Only using cheat meals when you feel you need them. If you can go longer (2 or 3 months) before needing a cheat meal, do it.
Eat mostly protein and veggies earlier in the day
If you're like most people, you'll probably be planning your cheat meal for the evening. You can help keep yourself on track by eating mostly protein and veggies early in the day.
This way you ensure you get some micronutrients in and hit your protein goals before going to town on sugary carbs and fats from ice cream, brownies, go-gurts, or whatever else the kids are snacking on nowadays.
Strategically plan cheat meals around special events
Have a birthday party or wedding coming up?
Timing your cheat meals around special events can serve two purposes. You’ll get the benefits of a cheat meal AND be able to enjoy yourself without being over-zealous about your diet.
Keep it to one plate
I mentioned how cheat meals can quickly get out of control if you don't practice some type of moderation. Limiting your cheat meal to a single plate of food can help lessen the chance that you go crazy on the calories.
Plan it on a training day
The benefit here is that you can utilize some of the extra calories and carbs from your cheat meal to aid in recovery from your workout.
Take it easy on the funny juice
Let’s be honest. If you're going out for a cheat meal, then there will probably be a few alcoholic beverages included. The problem is that alcohol can lower your inhibition and will undoubtedly increase your chance of overdoing it.
If you drink, then limit yourself to 2-3 drinks and try to keep them low-calorie.
Opt for lighter beers, dryer wines, and spirit mixes.
My favorite drink is called a "NorCal." It's tequila, club soda, lemon, and lime.
Don’t succumb to guilt
If you feel guilty or ashamed after a cheat meal, you'll only increase your chances of binging.
The last thing you want is for your ~1,000 calorie cheat meal (which only sets you back a few days) to turn into a 6,000+ binge (potentially undoing weeks of progress).
Don't let negative emotions get involved. Be in the moment and know that you're rewarding yourself for the hours of hard work you put in sticking to your fat loss plan.
Avoid the scale for a few days
Don't expect to hit a new low weigh-in the day after a cheat meal.
All of the extra calories, carbs, and sodium will cause you to retain water and may increase the scale weight by 4-6 pounds...
But this is temporarily.
If you weigh yourself every day, be sure and wait 2-3 days to let the water flush from your system before resuming your usual weighing routine–especially if you react negatively to scale weight fluctuations.
Cheat meals can be a fantastic tool for providing a mental break from dieting. But if you’re not careful, they can quickly get out of control and undo weeks of hard work.
Keep it positive and use the tips in this article. DO that, and your cheat meals will be fun and rewarding–as they should be!
Still searching for a solid fat loss protocol?
If so, then check out my FREE Fitness Plan. You'll learn exactly how to eat and exercise to lose fat and build lean muscle. If you follow the plan as it's outlined, you'll get the results you're wanting–guaranteed.
(You can even throw in the occasional cheat meal too 😉 )