How to Enjoy a Cheat Meal Without Derailing Your Diet

Life is meant to be enjoyed. Take that with a grain of salt, though. Eating “the good stuff” that fuels your body properly will ultimately contribute to a better life, whether that’s by preventing chronic illness, promoting longevity, or making you feel energized in the short term.

But, like all things, there ought to be balance. Food is also an experience that we should savor. Today I want to discuss a question I get often: Where do “cheat meals” fit in? I LOVE my cheat meals and I will never give them up. Letting loose occasionally has been a secret weapon for my ultimate goals; I’d love to share why I feel that way and how I use cheat meals to my advantage.

What is a cheat meal?

A loose definition is a meal that doesn’t fit into a healthy diet. Cheat meals mean enjoying some indulgent food and letting our guard down for a meal or two. No regrets, no tracking, just enjoying.

My Philosophy is Balance

More specifically, about 80% straight-and-narrow and 20% "cheating". That’s the ratio many dietitians advise and it’s one that makes healthy eating a whole lot less restrictive.

So what does that mean? Eighty percent of the time, I’m consciously making healthy choices: either eating my meal prep or choosing menu items that are balanced. Twenty percent of the time, I’m enjoying some extra sugar, carbs, or fat eating things like nachos, pizza, or icecream.

Cheat meals can be a GOOD thing; here's how.

Cheat Meals Decrease Cortisol and Prevent Weight Loss Plateau

Dieting for an extended period of time can cause stress and stress raises cortisol levels. When cortisol is elevated, fat loss becomes very difficult. A mental break enjoying a cheat meal can help to reduce cortisol.

When your calories have been restricted, your leptin levels will drop and your metabolism will slow to adjust to managing a calorie deficit. This is why many people who diet strictly for extended periods can stop seeing progress. The body will make adjustments in metabolic function and hold on to fat so that you die at a slower rate. It's a protective mechanism our bodies use to survive.

In a way, the extra calories in a cheat meal serve a physiological purpose to help increase fat burning by reducing diet stress a bit, telling the body it's not in starvation mode anymore, and increasing leptin. Cheat meals "remind" your metabolism to get back in the game and start performing efficiently again.

My Best Advice for Choosing and Using Your Cheat Meals

PLAN AHEAD

This is a mistake that so many people make: They cheat on their diet with unplanned or average food. Someone brought leftover cake to work so you cut a slice. You stop at Burger King for a #3 even though your house is two miles away, etc.

Cheat with intention! Stop wasting calories on food that’s just okay.

My cheat meal is a planned experience: I know that on the weekend, I’m going to order a fat plate of garlic fries with all the sauces and a craft beer… or maybe two. That’s what I want most and what I look forward to eating.

I’m not going to settle for McDonalds fries, I’m not going to replace that cheat meal with the stale donuts in the breakroom. I’m not even going to order a domestic beer instead of a craft beer. I’m treating myself to exactly what I’m craving. That’ a successful cheat meal because it hits the spot! I’m satisfied and ready to hop back onto meal prep the next day.

DON’T THROW PORTIONS OUT THE WINDOW

In a perfect world, a “calorie surplus” is only about 300 extra calories than you’d normally eat. Even if you don’t track calories, there’s a takeaway here.

If you consume too much in a cheat meal, it will start to affect your week of progress. A pound of fat is made of ~3,500 calories. If you’re cheat meal turns into a cheat day, the scale isn’t going to budge. Sorry. A cheat meal isn’t a license to binge eat.

FUEL A WORKOUT WITH THOSE CALORIES.

Don’t waste all that energy just sitting around. Get up and move! I love using my weekend calories to fuel a heavy leg day on Monday. Not because of food guilt, but because calories are energy. There’s a reason runners load up on carbohydrates before a race: to obtain more energy. I recommend planning a challenging workout the day after a cheat meal, something like:

  • A distance run or a lengthy hike

  • A HIIT cardio circuit

  • Lifts that challenge max strength (heavy lifts)

DON’T TURN A CHEAT MEAL INTO A DERAIL

Savor your cheat meal. Enjoy it without regret. But whatever you do, don’t let your cheat meal trigger a cheat week. Jump back on the train and keep your eyes on the prize.

If you think eating a cheat meal will trigger binge eating and derail your progress, you may want to reconsider cheat meals. Some people have better success with other motivation strategies such as:

  • Treating yourself to new shoes (or a non-food treat) after hitting a milestone

  • Having an accountability partner or challenging a friend to the same goal

  • …or another method that works with you instead of against your efforts

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Cheat meals allow many people to stick to their long-term goals, boost metabolism, and turn down foods and situations that might ordinarily derail their diet. If you think this approach right for you, enjoy that cheat meal! Anticipate it before you eat it, savor it while it’s happening, and own it once it’s done. Then get back on your horse in the morning.