For me to tell you whether or not you should have cheat meals as part of your diet would be irresponsible. Having a cheat day, meal, or following my personal favorite the 10% meal rule is something you should decide for yourself. If your approach is working then keep on trucking. If not, then maybe it’s time to switch things up.
Today’s article is about cheat meals and whether or not you should include them as part of your diet. For what it’s worth I do not have them. I don’t’ feel they’re necessary. But for you, they could be the right fit. Let’s dive in and figure it out.
Table of Contents
Cheat Meals (or days). What are they?
Most often a cheat meal is a calculated decision to eat something not part of your plan during a certain time period.
Usually, workweek dieting followed by a day of eating whatevs. A few other known aliases.
- Free meal
- Reward meal
- Relax meal
- Flex meal
- Pizza and ice cream
It doesn’t matter what you call it. They all pretty much mean that you’ll be eating something not consistent with whatever meal plan, diet, or nutritional approach you’ve decided to follow.
If you’ve ever dieted before it was probably pretty restrictive and I bet you felt deprived. You probably missed eating certain foods you enjoy but felt they were not healthy enough to be included in your plan. These would be your cheat foods.
Why do people have cheat meals?
Proponents of cheat meals will say they give you a psychological or physiological break from the “diet” that you’ve decided to follow.
The physiological part
As we know, a consistent calorie deficit over an extended period of time is needed to reduce body weight and body fat. Over time, the body begins to adapt to the lower calorie consumption. It does this by preparing for famine. This is known as metabolic adaptation.
Now let’s be clear, this is NOT starvation mode. Starvation mode is a pile of manure that has unfortunately made its way around the internet.
To sum it up, as you lose weight you require less energy (calories) to keep it running efficiently.
Some other things that occur during metabolic adaptation:
- Your basal metabolic rate declines as your body require less energy
- Exercise can become more challenging due to lower energy intake (calories)
- You expend less energy during exercise (less calorie burn)
- NEAT is reduced
- Digestion can slow
When you reduce calories and the body loses weight you require fewer calories to maintain your new weight. Thus, to keep losing weight you would need to keep reducing calories. Not ideal if you like food.
Those encouraging cheat meals will argue that cheat meals can “boost” your metabolism. While this is true to an extent the “boost” that you get turns out to be 3 to 10% over a 24 hour period (1) (2). If you have a 1,000 calorie cheat meal that means you’re looking at a “boost” of about 30 to 100 calories. Most of which is from the thermic effect of food anyhow. So this boost is pretty insignificant.
To get an actual “boost” in metabolism it would take you eating maintenance calories (or coming off your diet) for about 1 to 2 weeks.
A second argument for having cheat meals is that dieting can lower your levels of leptin, a hormone responsible for maintaining energy balance, and weight loss. The argument is that with cheat meals you can reverse this.
As leptin levels decrease your appetite can increase, and your metabolic rate can slow down. As you eat more calories, leptin increases, and your appetite decreases, and metabolic rate increases. So yes, a bump in calories from cheat meals may do this. But again, it’s only going to be for a very short time (24 hours maybe) and then levels will go right back to dieting levels.
A third argument for having cheat meals is when dieting there is less T3 and T4 thyroid production which is important for metabolic rate. A cheat meal may increase energy expenditure by 9% and for up to 24 hours. So again, not a very significant increase. Plus, it’s a relatively short period of time.
The psychological part
I think we can all agree that dieting isn’t that much fun and can take a toll on us psychologically. While there is a certain level of discipline, restriction, and tradeoffs that come with reducing weight and body fat. In my coaching experience, most people approach dieting with too many rules and restrictions.
So yes, I do think there is a mental benefit when having cheat meals. But if you understand calorie balance and how dieting works you’ll discover that cheat meals are not really necessary. All foods can fit into your diet and you can still lose body fat and weight.
If you feel like you need a cheat meals it may be time to look at your diet. Are you overly restricting yourself?
Understanding calories, energy balance, and how weight loss and gain happen
Calorie deficit, calorie surplus, and calorie maintenance. These are the only 3 diets that matter. And the only 3 diets that guarantee results.
- To lose weight, you must eat fewer calories than your body needs. This is a calorie deficit.
- To gain weight, you must eat more calories than your body needs. This is a calorie surplus.
- To maintain weight, you must eat the calories your body needs. This is calorie maintenance.
If you’re not losing weight you’re eating too much even if you think you’re not. Not gaining weight? You’re not eating enough even if you think you are.
When it comes to weight loss, maintenance, and weight gain it’s important to understand calorie or energy balance. If we eat more calories than we need, regardless of the foods we eat, we will gain weight. If we eat fewer calories than we need, regardless of the foods we eat then we will lose weight.
Now, this doesn’t mean the quality of food does not matter, it absolutely does. But it’s also a nice reminder that eating uber clean all of the time isn’t necessary or sustainable for most of us. One of the biggest mistakes I see with potential coaching clients is too many food rules and restrictions. They’ve assumed that “clean eating” alone will lead to weight loss and long term weight management but that’s just not true.
Many people still believe that you can’t get fat eating clean, assuming that calories don’t matter and that eating clean alone will help you lose fat or build muscle better or faster.
The futility of dieting and ongoing debaters of diets distract people from what really creates sustainable weight loss. That being a consistent calorie deficit over time. And balancing whole foods with the not so whole foods so you don’t go bat shit crazy. As you can see, typical “cheat foods” can be a part of your diet without having to consider them “cheat foods.”
The biggest issue I see with having cheat meals
As mentioned earlier most dieters do a great job during the workweek. They create a calorie deficit and are on their way to weight loss. But then the weekend comes and they Yolo and eat their face off, consuming enough calories to balance out the deficit from the week. If your progress is stalling this may be something to look into. Are your cheat meals simply too many calories?
Second, using the word cheat. By doing this you’re labeling food as good and bad and therefore creating unnecessary rules, anxiety, and fear around them.
YOU’RE EVENTUALLY GOING TO HAVE CHEAT MEALS
No matter how dedicated, motivated, and inspired you are to follow your diet there is going to come a time when you “cheat” on it. You may be at a party and taste test one of the desserts. You’ll forget to prepare a meal or 2 and be forced to pick something up on the run. Quesadilla anyone?
Your buddies or girlfriends will peer pressure the shit out of you and eventually, you’ll crumble and drink a few beers or some fruity drink with an umbrella in it.
It’s going to happen – you’re going to cheat.
Food isn’t just fuel. It should be fun, enjoyable, and social. It can add great joy to your life and that’s ok.
The key to this is to recognize what your domino foods are. Domino foods are the ones that are nearly impossible for you to eat a reasonable amount of. Winnie the Pooh has honey, the Cookie Monster has cookies, and I have Almond Butter.
After talking to clients I’ve found that some common domino foods are:
- Baked goods
- Flavored nuts
- Peanut butter
- Ice cream
These are the foods that you’ll want to be on the watch for. It’s best not to keep these at home but instead to enjoy them while out. It’s harder to eat too much of them when you don’t have a large supply or are not alone.
SLOW DOWN YOUR CHEAT MEALS
It takes roughly 20 minutes for your gut to signal to your brain that you’ve had enough to eat. If every meal you consume lasts 5 minutes that’s 15 extra minutes you can keep eating until you actually know that you’ve had enough.
Do you know how many scoops of ice cream I could eat in 15 more minutes? A lot!
Because most of us eat the majority of our meals in less than 20 minutes we’re eating past the point of fullness. Essentially, we’re eating more than our bodies actually need.
Yeah, but is eating slowly really going to make a difference?
You bet your butt it is. Studies are showing that just by slowing down when you eat you’ll consume fewer calories. Enough to lose 20 pounds a year without making any other changes.
In a University of Rhode Island, study researchers took a group of people and served them a giant plate of pasta with red sauce and cheese. All of the participants were told to eat until they felt comfortably full. However, half of the group was told to eat as quickly as possible while the other half was told to eat slowly and to put utensils down between bites.
What they found was this:
- Fast eaters consumed 646 calories in 9 minutes
- Slow eaters consumed 579 calories in 29 minutes
That’s right. Slow eaters ate 67 fewer calories in 20 more minutes of eating. That might not seem like much but extend those 67 calories from one meal over the course of a year and that comes out to 24,445 fewer calories consumed.
Eating slow actually gives you a chance to enjoy your food. I mean hell, that’s one of the reasons we eat right? Because it provides a little bit of pleasure – and there’s nothing wrong with getting pleasure out of eating despite what you’ve read. Eating should be fun, social, and enjoyable.
Let’s look at this in 2 ways real quick:
- Would you rather eat food like cheesecake in 1 minute or to enjoy all its goodness over 15?
- Would you rather sit down with friends for 5 minutes and shovel down a healthy salmon salad or chat and eat and enjoy each other’s company for 20 minutes?
Eating slowly gives you an opportunity to enjoy what you’re eating. The textures, tastes, and smells – even if you’re “cheating” on your diet. So have that cheesecake, just eat it slowly.
Eating slowly also helps you to digest what you’ve consumed. Digestion actually starts in the mouth and the more you chew your food the easier it is for the stomach to turn it into chyme. This means that more of it goes to nourishing and replenishing your body’s energy stores and less to sitting like a brick in your gut.
Eating fast doesn’t even feel good. I don’t know about you but when I’m eating too fast I often feel lethargic, foggy-brained, and sometimes even grumpy. Eating slowly also helps to keep your blood sugar stable and reduce insulin spikes. This may reduce the desire to eat shortly after a meal
So if you do decide to do cheat meals – do it slowly. Bow-chicka-wow-wow
Here are a few cool apps that can help you with this.
Or you can just use the timer on your phone.
SO SHOULD YOU HAVE CHEAT MEALS
It’s totally up to you. But I recommend asking yourself this question, “how’s that working for you?”
Are cheat meals helping you get closer to your goals and do you like them? Cool, go for it. If not, it’s probably time to do something differently.
But if you do feel like you need them I would do a quick check. Do you feel like you need them because you’re being overly restrictive? If so, try these three things first.
1). Purposely overeat. If you’re already fairly lean once a week eats at maintenance or slightly above maintenance calories. If you still have some fat to lose stretch this out to once every 10-14 days.
2). Take a diet break. Spend an entire week or 2 eating maintenance calories. I recommend this for most people that have been dieting for a while.
3). Forget cheat meals or diets altogether but work on self-compassion
HEALTHY EATING ISN’T ABOUT PERFECTION
Following a diet is tough. They usually include ridiculous rules that are difficult to follow and set you up for failure.
- A certain number of meals per day
- Specific amounts of carbs, proteins, and fats
- Avoid sugar
- Eat this many calories
- Has to be gluten-free
Things like those above make it difficult to enjoy food, be social, and to succeed.
You’re going to forget to bring a healthy meal with you. You’re going to be at parties where healthy options are not available, and you’re going to want to have a beer or mixed drink every once in a while.
Healthy eating doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s not about being allowed to eat this and not allowed to eat that. There is no such thing as good food and bad food. Healthy eating is about doing your best with the options available in whatever situations that you’re in.
So where do you stand? Are cheat meals working for you or are they not part of your nutrition plan?