If you want to know the truth about cheat meals and how cheat days affect your body, then you want to read this article.We all know that proper nutrition is essential to getting the results we want from the hours spent in the gym each week. But, there comes the point when even the most ardent "clean" eaters need a break from the proverbial (or literal) plates of grilled chicken, brown rice, and broccoli. Be it pizza, a double cheeseburger with fries, or an extra helping of momma's classic five-layer lasagna, we all have a craving for something that isn't exactly "kosher" with our normal diet plan. This is where the concept of cheat meals (or for some, cheat days) comes in. Ahead, we'll discuss the ins-and-outs of cheat meals, whether you should have cheat meals vs. cheat days, and how cheat meals affect metabolism. Let’s start at the top.
Cheat Meal Vs. Cheat DayTo this point, most of you that have been a part of the health and fitness culture have been with us when discussing the topic of cheat meals. If you’re new to the concept, here’s a crash course. A "cheat meal" is a scheduled meal(s) in your diet plan that includes wild or indulgent foods that wouldn't normally eat on your nutrition plan. In other words, cheat meals typically contain "dirty" foods. Based on this, a cheat day is a day in which you allow yourself to consume any foods that you want to over an entire day, not one calorie tracked, or one macro logged. The idea of cheat meals or cheat days has been around for decades. Mostly, you follow your nutrition plan ("eat clean") for six days of the week, and then you pick one meal on the seventh day (or the entire day) to loosen the reigns (and your belt buckle) and eat what you please -- no food or snack is off-limits (including processed and/or fried foods).
How Cheat Meals Affect MetabolismCheat meal proponents will float the idea that the high-calorie meals help boost metabolism and/or reset leptin levels, both of which could be beneficial for those in prolonged, continuous calorie deficits (e.g., physique competitors). But, is this really how cheat meals affect metabolism or is this slick marketing hype? Well, as much as we’d like to hope and believe that eating more calories would force our bodies to rev our metabolic furnaces and churn through calories like crazy, that’s not quite how things work. Yes, indeed, your metabolic rate does temporarily increase after you eat. However, if you consume 1,000 calories above your daily calorie needs, your body’s metabolism doesn’t ramp up an equivalent amount just because you went ham at the pizza buffet. In other words, if your weekly cheat meal causes you to overshoot your calorie needs massively, you will gain body fat. Additionally, the claims that cheat meals “reset” leptin levels are also largely unfounded. It’s true that prolonged dieting will depress leptin levels, which is why you tend to feel less satisfied after a meal when dieting. However, the physiology is not so sensitive that a single meal can reset weeks of low-calorie dieting. If you are looking to help recalibrate leptin levels, then what is more likely needed is an actual diet break, where you consume your normal maintenance calories for a week or two before heading back into a deficit. This trick is particularly useful for physique athletes who spend months in an energy deficit. These "breaks" help ease the mental and physical stress on the body and may even help break through a weight loss plateau. <2> It should be noted though that if you just started dieting, the chances that you need a diet break are slim to none like the previous months and years of not closely watching your diet were the break you had.
How Often Can I Have a Cheat Meal?Let’s be real. While the thought of crushing an entire buffalo chicken pizza with a side of ranch sounds like a dream, the way you'll feel in the hours afterward will be the stuff of nightmares. Plus, when you take on those epic cheats, you're also so stuffed that you're likely to sit on the couch the rest of the day wondering why in the world you thought it was a good idea to pound an entire pizza in the first place. Successful cheating ultimately boils down to how effectively you can stick to your nutrition plan, resist temptation, and stave off instant gratification, knowing that your cheat day is coming up. However, not everyone can exercise the same degree of self-restraint when it comes to cheat meals. Some individuals can abide by the straight and narrow during the week, have their once-per-week cheat meal, and then resume their normal diet at the following meal. Others, however, aren't able to do so, and their cheat meal turns in a day, which turns into a week and completely ruins their weeks of hard dieting. This is why we suggest that cheat meals should be planned. They shouldn't be taken willy nilly, and while they are considered "untracked," they should still be of reasonable size and calorie content. You don’t want to undo an entire week of hard work with a single meal, do you? Furthermore, research has found that "obesity-prone" individuals (as identified by an individual's and family history) who embraced a "cheat"-style day were less likely to move the rest of the day following their "epic" cheat meal. <1> Ultimately, how frequently you have a cheat meal highly individualistic. If you're someone who can embrace a cheat day full on and then immediately resume your pre-cheat pattern of eating, you can have it fairly regularly (i.e., 1-2 times per week). However, if you're someone who doesn't quickly recover from a cheat meal (e.g., you end up going off the rails on your diets for days afterward), then you might benefit from not having any cheat meals at all. What you might want to do instead is to schedule a few smaller indulges a few times during the week (i.e., a scoop of ice cream or piece of dark chocolate before bed a couple of times during the week). By permitting yourself to embrace, as well as scheduling in, these indulgences, you never really feel that you have to "cheat" on your diet, and you are therefore more likely to stick to your normal diet without going off the rails or sabotaging your hard work.
TakeawayCheat meals can be a tool used as a reward for a hard week’s worth of proper dieting, or as a way to provide some relief from the rigors of prolonged energy deficits. Regardless of how you incorporate them into your fitness regimen, they should be planned and kept within reason. By doing this, you help prevent overeating, ruining a whole week’s worth of dieting, and unwanted fat gain. What do you think of cheat meals? How frequently do you have them, if at all? Let us know by engaging with us on social media here!
- Schmidt SL, Harmon KA, Sharp TA, et al. The Effects of Overfeeding on Spontaneous Physical Activity in Obesity Prone and Obesity Resistant Humans. (2013). NIH Public Access, 20(11), 2186–2193. https://doi.org/10.1038/oby.2012.103.
- Byrne NM, Sainsbury A, King NA, Hills AP, Wood RE. Intermittent energy restriction improves weight loss efficiency in obese men: the MATADOR study. Int J Obes (Lond). 2018;42(2):129–138. doi:10.1038/ijo.2017.206