The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Cheat Meals

You’ve been dieting for days, weeks, or even months.

You’ve been consistently eating lean meats and veggies on the regular.

You crave a taste of something new.

Your taste buds begin salivating at the pure thought of what’s to come.

Two words that bring more joy, hope, and excitement than you’ve ever thought possible—cheat meal.

Hi I’m Sean Torbati. For years I’ve centered my life around helping people achieve optimal health and wellness.

As a longtime nutritionist, I’ve seen my fair share of dieting clients. One of their most frequently asked questions is Can I have cheat meals as part of my diet?

Like many questions in life, the answer is it depends.

While some people claim cheat meals can improve their diets, they can impede weight loss progress if you’re not careful.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of eating cheat meals.

What are Cheat Meals?

Cheat meals are designated “free meals” that allow dieters permission to temporarily break dieting rules. The thought behind this diet strategy is that having brief periods of indulgence will help you stick to your diet in the long-run. 

People will choose a meal (or sometimes a day) where they are free to eat what they enjoy without restrictions. Cheat meals will vary significantly from person to person. Some may want pizza while others want cheeseburgers. One commonality is that the food choices typically will contain high calorie meals. 

While there are no rigid requirements set in stone, most people will choose a specific meal on a certain day. Cheat meals can be beneficial to dieters but there can be downfalls if you’re not careful.

The Pros

Weight management can be a complicated process. Many people believe weight loss is a linear process where you gradually drop pounds. The opposite is actually true as weight fluctuates up and down, day-by-day, week-by-week. 

Cheat meals can be a valuable tool when it comes to weight loss. You can hit plateaus if you keep your body in a caloric deficit for an extended period of time.

Let’s take away all modern day forms of food and sustenance and look at this from a biological perspective. When you’re in a caloric deficit, your body loses weight as you’re burning more energy than you’re consuming. Eventually, the body thinks it is being starved and metabolically begins to adapt to a lower caloric intake.

Intermittent periods of higher caloric intake can help boost metabolism by increasing leptin levels. Leptin is a hormone that can help suppress feelings of hunger by helping to prevent overeating (1). As you intake more calories, it can help reset your metabolism as the body no longer thinks it's starving.

Another benefit of cheat meals is the mental aspect. Dieting over a long period of time can be mentally draining. Having a cheat meal here and there can give you something to look forward to. Even just a couple of slices of pizza can go a long way towards keeping you mentally sane while on your weight loss journey.

Having a meal to look forward to can help keep you on track over the long-term.

The Cons

Cheat meals don’t work for everyone due to one main reason—some people tend to indulge too much. If people are unable to regulate and control their cheat meals it can lead to a number of potential problems. 

Some individuals believe cheat meals can be a free pass to simply eat whatever they want in whatever quantities. They may overeat to an unhealthy extent to the point where it causes devastating effects. Eventually people may begin binging on food, which can doubles the individual’s risk of developing depression (2).

Studies have even shown people sometimes use food as a coping mechanism to deal with negative feelings (3). Some research has even indicated food can have addictive properties similar to illegal substances and drugs (4).

The key is keeping cheat meal intake within moderation. Although there are no steadfast rules when it comes to cheat meals, many recommend not consuming more than 500 calories above their typical caloric intake.

This slight surplus will cause positive metabolic changes while preventing an unhealthy relationship with food.

Should You Be a Cheater?

Cheat meals can be an effective dietary strategy when implemented properly as part of a well-balanced diet. Keep your cheat meal to a single sitting per week while still practicing moderation.

You should never go into a meal with the mindset of stuffing your face until you throw-up. This can lead to unhealthy relationships with food and potential eating disorders. Another option is to simply practice flexible dieting by allowing yourself to eat foods you enjoy everyday as long as you meet macronutrient goals.

In the long-run the best diet is the one you can stick to. Short term and temporary solutions never help you reach your end goals.

In short my answer to the original question is—YES you can incorporate cheat meals into your diet if you practice moderation and don’t go overboard. It’s really as simple as that.

If you have any additional dietary questions feel free to reach out to me. I want to know what your current goals are, so feel free to let me know.


 

Kindest regards,

Sean Torbati

 

References

(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23801147

(2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22525111

(3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25169880

(4) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21464344

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