If you’re like most people, as soon as you begin dieting you will probably start craving something that is not on your scheduled meal plan. While I personally believe in dieting on as many calories as possible, and as wide a variety of foods as possible, there are certain things that simply won’t contribute directly to your success. Even if you’re on a flexible dieting program, having too many off-plan items can make it difficult to get all the nutrients your body really needs within your targeted caloric range, whether or not it fits your macros.
That being said, we are not machines. Trying to rigidly stay within the confines of a plan can not only lead to more cravings, but also emotional triggers that can make your fitness progress more of a challenge. For many, the more you feel you can’t have it, the more likely you are to crack and have 2-3 times the amount that you planned. A strategy that has proven successful for many and that I regularly use with my client is the “cheat meal”.
Cheat meals (aka “treat meals”) are not the same as “refeeds” (that’s a conversation for a different time). Cheat meals are a planned off-meal designed to give a bit of a mental and physical break to make it easier to remain diligent with the rest of your diet. Also, having that occasion caloric boost can help combat the natural slowing that occurs when you are constantly eating to create a caloric deficit.
The body can only change so fast and will only lose body fat so fast. Pushing the calories too low won’t make you lose fat faster, just adapt sooner to having lower calories. A weekly or bi-weekly cheat meal can help you keep your diet focus and your weekly caloric intake at the upper end of effectiveness. A cheat meal is not a cheat day! There needs to be some structure as to how much food or how many calories are consumed or else you will simply be spinning your wheels. What you don’t want is to erase the progress you’ve made during the week by overindulging on that one meal.
A cheat meal can be a whole meal off or just an item or two like dessert or a few cookies. It depends on your current situation as to how much or how often you can indulge. If you’re at the end of a prep period where your body is getting stubborn, a cheat meal might be something you need to avoid. You may be better served simply upping your calories within your planned food intake if you (or your coach) decide you need a caloric boost. Some people can benefit more than others. If you’re the type of person that has no trouble staying on the plan and your body is responding, then you don’t need to force a cheat. If you are always having cravings, having a small amount of something or a controlled meal off can benefit your long term progress by taking the stress of the cravings away. If you’re the kind of person that having a cheat simply triggers you to want more and more off plan items, you need to be very cautious of that a well.
The majority of my clients have one cheat meal, either weekly or bi-weekly, based on how they are progressing. A few lucky ones have two a week or a full off meal and a planned fun snack. For some I will allow them to have whatever they want for that meal, for others I will control their options. Your body will quickly tell you if you over did it. Pizza or burgers may be fine for some, too much for other. A “cleaner cheat” like Sushi night may be ideal for some, but still be too much for others without some limits. Yes, your weight will probably be up for a few days, especially if you had a high sodium option. But after that, if done correctly, you should drop not only back to your pre-cheat weight, but even lower. Throwing that extra log on the metabolic fire should give your metabolism a bit of support to fight the normal adaptations that come with dieting. For many, having that fun-food break makes it easier to stay true to their diet with less craving and greater energy and enthusiasm.
Cheat meal frequency can also be extended to only once every 3-4 weeks, or only when you’ve seemed to hit a progress wall and need a mental and physical break. If you’re not hard in training, or following a structured diet, the cheat meal concept really doesn’t apply. It’s a meal off, and cannot simply be part of your normal daily intake. Signs you might need a cheat meal are; fatigue, excessive cravings, low energy, lack of progress based on your caloric intake and expenditure, too rapid of a weight loss (there is such a thing- more likely you will need a program adjustment than one meal), extreme lack of enthusiasm, etc. Simply wanting one doesn’t mean you need one. The effect of that meal for the next day through to the next week needs to be monitored. It’s a strategy to help you progress or keep you progressing, not a strategy to keep you the same, or cause you to lose ground.
The great majority of people who are successful in reaching their desired leanness level practice some sort of cheat meal strategy. On the extreme end, someone like Fitness Pro Tracey Greenwood has pizza and ice cream every Saturday for the duration of her prep period and always shows up ripped onstage. More commonly, the bi-weekly meal out with the family, the few cookies or desert you had after dinner, or the one or two slices of pizza you have once a week, can qualify. It depends a lot on your body type, rate of progress, length of dieting period, and the effect it has on you. Feedback is important. Always remember, the body is in charge.
Dieting to lose can be a tedious process. Utilizing a cheat meal can be an effective way to help you stay on your diet more successfully. It can help you mentally, emotionally, and physically. Don’t be mislead by the guideline diet you see many top fitness professional list that they follow. The majority of them all eat off-plan on occasion, I’ve seen them do it, even going into a show or event. But you need to be cautious and not over do it in terms of frequency or amount. Your body is always speaking so be mindful of the feedback it gives you. It won’t lie to you, you just have to know how to listen.