Cheat meals or cheat days as part of a healthy/weight loss eating program is something that almost everyone has an opinion on. And these opinions can often vary quite dramatically, even among coaches and dietitians.
Recently I’ve seen a bit of discussion here and there online about this topic, some of which I have to say I found very frustrating. There are a lot of people out there who have simply being misled and misinformed about cheat meals, which is really a shame because more often than not these same people are working their butts off in the gym in pursuit of results.
So what’s my take on cheat meals?
Well, let me say right up front that whenever you have an extreme view on something, be it cheat meals, exercise, hydration, food choices, and so on, you need think very long and hard about whether they’re really in your best interests. Because 99% of time, they’re not, and they’re doing you more harm than good.
The extreme conservative view on cheat meals is that you shouldn’t have any – period. And the extreme liberal view is that you can have one cheat day per week, where anything goes.
As you’ve probably guessed, my view lies somewhere in the middle of these extremes. I believe cheat meals are OK, as long as they’re controlled. But more about that in a minute. For now, let’s talk briefly about what I don’t believe in.
First of all, I don’t believe in denying yourself the occasional favorite treat, for two reasons. Firstly, it’s unnecessary. Simply put, having a so-called “bad food” every now and then is going to do you little to no harm whatsoever when you do it in a controlled way.
And secondly, it has psychological benefits that will make you far more likely to stick to your program. I’ve heard people claim that not eating any of your favorite treats will lead to a mindset of scarcity in your brain which will in turn cause your body to hold on to fat.
Quite frankly I think that’s new-age nonsense, but I do believe that being so strict that you can never experience a treat will most likely lead to your resolve weakening over time until you inevitably quit altogether.
So what about the opposite end – having a whole cheat day each week?
Well, one whole day represents 14% of your week. But if you think that by having a cheat day each week your program is progressing at 86% efficiency, think again. Here’s why.
Let’s look at a simple example where you currently have a maintenance calorie level of say 2,500 calories a day, where you’re neither losing nor gaining weight.
Let’s assume your daily calorie intake is actually 1,500 calories because you’re in the process of trying to lose weight, so you’re creating a daily calorie deficit of 1,000 calories. Over the course of 7 days, this is a deficit of 7,000 calories, which equates to a fat loss of about 2 pounds per week, in theory.
Now let’s assume that you decide to have a full-out cheat day on the seventh day. Realistically, by bingeing on high-sugar and high-fat foods (which are very calorie dense), you could quite easily consume up to 5,000 calories or even more, especially after being “deprived” for the past 6 days.
So the 6,000 calorie deficit that you earned from Monday to Saturday would then be offset by a 2,500 calorie surplus (5,000 – 2,500) on Sunday, leaving you with a net calorie deficit for the week of just 3,500. That’s half of what you achieved without the cheat day.
In non-mathematical terms, what this simply all means is that the damage you do from one cheat day is enormous compared to the good you do over the preceding six days. And in reality, in many cases it can be enough to offset it completely.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you will necessarily make no forward process at all by having one cheat day per week. You absolutely can.
You simply need to decide whether that cheat day is worth all the extra work you need to put in at the gym as a result. Only you can make that decision. But perhaps you should ask yourself that question while you’re drenched in sweat with your heart pounding against your chest during your next cardio session!
People who believe in cheat days argue that because they’re still getting results while using them, they must be OK. But like everything else in fitness and weight loss, people often get results in spite of what they do. The real question is, how much better would their results be if they did what was optimal?
But of course there’s more to this matter than just the calorie balance alone. If particular foods are harmful to you because they adversely affect your cholesterol level, blood sugar level, rate of fat storage, and so on, they won’t cease to be harmful simply because you’re eating them on an allocated day.
Eating these foods freely on a weekly basis is certainly better than doing so every day, but it’s nevertheless unhealthy to a significant degree. In my opinion, too high a degree. At the end of the day however, each individual makes their own choice as to what they’re prepared to allow into their body.
One final important drawback to uncontrolled cheat days is that they simply promote unhealthy eating behavior by reinforcing bad habits in your subconscious mind. One of the goals of a healthy lifestyle is to be free of cravings and addictions and to gain control over your eating patterns rather than being a slave to them.
Cheat days, on the other hand, create a situation where you feel deprived of your favorite foods for six days and then allowed to suddenly overindulge in them in an uncontrolled binge. They therefore set up a distinct pattern of behavior that encourages eating disorders.
So what’s the best way of incorporating cheat meals into your diet then?
Well, first and foremost they should be used in a controlled manner. For all the reasons I outlined for cheat days being undesirable, having uncontrolled cheat meals should also be avoided.
That means having a set number of cheat meals per week (I recommend just one or two) with set portion sizes. Each cheat meal should preferably contain the same number of calories as the regular meal it’s replacing, or slightly higher if you choose. It depends on what your goals are and how strict you wish to be.
If you normally count your calories and macronutrients, incorporating cheat meals into your diet becomes very easy. Simply treat the cheat meal foods just like any others and design your meals ensuring that all your required levels are met for the day (including fiber).
It’s important to bear in mind that healthy eating doesn’t just involve the nutritional factors, but the mental, or psychological factors as well. A healthy eating program has to be first and foremost sustainable.
Controlled cheat meals are an important factor in helping to provide that sustainability. Handled inappropriately however, they can do just the opposite. Always remember that there’s no room for any impulsive or addictive behavior if a program is to succeed.