When it comes to cheat meals it can either feel like they’re your saving grace or your ultimate downfall. Either way you’re right. Cheat meals, treat meals, indulgence meals, whatever you want to call them, it pretty much means eating “off-plan” for one meal.
The problem that most people run into, is turning that one cheat meal into an entire cheat day, or even worse a cheat WEEKEND! A cheat MEAL can help you reach your goals. A cheat DAY can sideline your progress and make you feel terrible mentally and physically.
You might be wondering if you should just skip your cheat meal altogether if it could potentially result in you falling off the wagon. Not so fast! When you cheat right, it’s not cheating at all.
First let me explain exactly why cheaters prosper and then I’ll tell you how to do it without sabotaging your success.
WHY YOU NEED A CHEAT MEAL
If you’re a “cheater” (someone who stays on track but eats one off-plan meal every once in a while) then you know how amazing a cheat meal can be. Chances are you’re already thinking about and planning your next cheat! Staying on track all week can be challenging but when you have a light at the end of the tunnel to look forward to, it feels so much more doable.
One thing that I love about having one singular cheat meal is that it becomes a real treat that you can seriously cherish! Ice cream has never tasted so sweet, mashed potatoes never felt so comforting, a bowl of pasta never seemed so savory. Every bite is more enjoyable because of the anticipation and value that you’ve built up.
But besides your increased enjoyment of eating the foods you love most, there are some major and very real benefits of eating a cheat meal.
PREVENT METABOLIC ADAPTATION
When you go on a diet to lose weight or fat, you’re putting yourself in a calorie deficit. That basically means that you’re eating less calories than your body burns in order to force your body to use up its stored fat.
But the thing is, your body is not a fan of losing weight. In fact, your body will do everything in its power to stop you from losing weight! Which is one of the reasons why you get such crazy cravings when you go on a diet.
One of your body’s methods to prevent weight loss is by slowing down your metabolism. A real jerk move if you ask me. Instead of continuing to burn just as many calories as it did before you started your diet, your metabolism will slow down to compensate for the amount of calories you’re now giving it. Your weight loss and fat burn will slow down with it because even though you’re now eating less calories than before, your metabolism has adapted to the new norm and is also burning fewer calories.
That’s when you’ve hit the dreaded plateau.
The worst thing you can do when you hit this plateau is to keep dropping your calories just because you want to see the numbers keep dropping on the scale. This will only make the problem worse, teaching your body to adapt to fewer and fewer calories.
This is where a cheat meal comes in handy. By indulging in a high calorie meal and varying your calorie intake your body won’t have a chance to adapt and adjust. Yeah you heard me right! Eating a high-calorie meal once a week will actually help your metabolism. It might seem crazy, but science agrees!
“By occasionally boosting your caloric intake, you encourage your body to burn calories more rapidly instead of allowing it to adjust completely to the lower calorie lifestyle,” said Jillian Guinta, professor in the Health and Physical Education Department at Seton Hall University.
BOOST LEPTIN LEVELS
Remember those crazy cravings I mentioned earlier? You might feel like it’s in your head; every time you start dieting you get crazy cravings. While the cravings might be crazy, you’re not.
There are two hormones in your body that control hunger, cravings, and satisfaction: leptin and ghrelin. Ghrelin is a hunger hormone. It’s mainly produced in the stomach. High levels of this hormone will make you seriously hungry. Basically ghrelin makes your stomach growl.
Leptin is also a hunger hormone. It helps your body regulate energy so that you stay fueled. Not only does leptin control your hunger, but maybe more importantly, it controls your satisfaction. When it comes to leptin levels the higher the better. High levels of leptin mean your satisfaction is high and your cravings are low.
So, how do you affect these super important hunger hormones? You guessed it: a cheat meal!
“Weekly cheat meals that are higher in calories and carbohydrates can help raise leptin levels and lower ghrelin,” said nutritional scientist Eva Lana, MSc.
When you eat a higher-calorie meal it helps to reset those hunger hormone levels to lower your ghrelin and raise your leptin. By reducing hunger and cravings it becomes so much easier to stick to your meal plan and keep seeing results.
STAY SANE AND LOVE THE PROCESS
Sticking to a meal plan can sometimes be tricky, especially if it’s full of boring bland food. Eating what feels like the same thing day in and day out can make you want to go crazy and fall off the wagon, HARD.
That’s why cheat meals are so important. When you’re trying to transition to a new, fit lifestyle you need to love it. If it’s something that you can’t wait to finish, it’s not really a lifestyle change, is it?
If you know me at all, you know that I talk about loving the process all the time! Loving the process means not only loving your results but loving HOW you got there too. That’s why cheat meals are so crucial. Living a fit lifestyle isn’t about completely giving up the foods you love. That’s just not realistic.
A cheat meal is a great way to find balance between the things you love to eat with the body and lifestyle you want. And really, when you incorporate an indulgent meal with foods you love into your meal plan, it’s really not cheating at all. It’s just part of the plan.
Trying to completely avoid junk food and carbs makes it seem like you have to either choose fitness or food. That kind of ultimatum will only leave you miserable no matter which side you end up on.
HOW TO CHEAT (MEAL) AND WIN
Now that you know the benefits of cheating, here’s how to do it right!
Planning out what you need to eat and when you need to eat it is a big part of what makes me and my clients so successful at achieving results. When you make cheat meals part of your strategy, you need to plan that too (when, where, what, etc.).
Hone in on the thing that you’re craving the most. This is the fun part! Not only will you get to enjoy a meal that satisfies a craving but it also gives you something to look forward to.
Only cheat once a week, MAX! It’s easy to tell yourself that because you did so good all day you can cheat all night and it’s ok because you NEED a cheat meal. A cheat meal is only effective when you limit how often you do it, otherwise you’re doing more harm than good.
Coach Kaytlin likes to say that you get to have anything you want, not everything you want. Depending on your goals I usually recommend aiming for 600 calories or less.
Here are my three, go-to cheat meal strategies:
1. Go Out to Eat
I love eating out for my cheat meals because it automatically limits my portions. You order your food and that’s what you get. No going back for seconds. Now if it’s a super ridiculous portion (*cough* Cheesecake Factory *cough*) then consider splitting with a friend. You could also ask for a to-go container when you get your meal and put half of your food away to start with.
2. Set the Clock
If you plan on eating your cheat meal at home it’s really important to set a window of time. Give yourself an hour or two to enjoy dinner and dessert (or whatever it is) and your cheating is done when the window closes. Without planning your cheat window you run the risk of having an “open kitchen” mentality where you’ll continue snacking and eating.
3. Limit Your Plates
This strategy comes in handy when you’re at BBQs, buffets, cocktail parties, etc. A time frame won’t really work here because giving yourself free reign on a buffet for an hour could end in disaster. Instead decide ahead of time how many plates of food you’ll eat. For example you might decide you can have one plate for dinner and one plate for dessert.
HAVING YOUR CAKE AND EATING IT TOO
Cheat meals are a great tool to help you continue burning fat, getting fit, and seeing results. One of the biggest benefits is being able to take a break from dieting to treat yourself.
But you don’t need a cheat meal to LOVE your meal plan! In fact the best meal plans let you have your cake and eat it too.
Eating healthy foods that are yummy is the best way to support your goals long-term. Personally I have “dessert” every night before bed. For me that means enjoying a super yummy IdealLean Protein dessert using some of our delicious recipes. My cravings are satisfied and I can stay on track even while eating 100% healthy.