Cheat meals have always been a hot topic. After all, who wouldn’t want to learn how to eat pizza or cheesecake and burn more fat? Unfortunately, despite years of discussion and debate about the best way to do it (or whether to do it at all), it appears that the ideal way to incorporate cheat meals into your diet plan without sabotaging yourself hasn’t gotten any clearer. With the spread of conflicting opinions from self-proclaimed experts, and the popularity of IIFYM and various types of “flexible dieting,” how to cheat seems to have only gotten more confusing…
That makes now a great time to re-visit the infamous cheat meal to spell out some good strategies for how to do it sensibly, and warn you about potential pitfalls of doing it the wrong way.
Flexible versus rigid dieting
There’s no single best way to incorporate cheat meals – how you do it depends on your goals, physical condition, preferences, lifestyle, genetics and results. But I’ll start by saying that I’m a believer in the flexible approach to dieting, as long as you don’t get too lax.
Flexible dieting means that you should not try to eliminate your favorite foods completely or restrict yourself to a short list of unprocessed health foods 100% of the time. It may seem a noble intention to aim for eating 100% “clean” but it’s not a realistic long term goal. A handful of people can pull it off for a short while, but the 100% strict approach usually ends in failure (it’s also not much fun, especially when holidays and social events roll around).
People who are too rigid with their diets usually learn the lesson (the hard way) that you tend to crave what you’re not supposed to have. The more rules and restrictions you have about what foods are “bad” and what you can “never eat,” the more likely you are to eventually break those rules. Over time, the pressure of missing your favorite foods builds up, social pressure is added on top, and it’s not long before you give in to cravings or temptations.
A single diet mistake is actually not a big deal. The bigger problem is in the all or nothing mentality of the dieter. After a single slip up, like having a piece of pizza they weren’t supposed to have, the perfectionistic dieter feels as if their entire diet is blown. They figure, “I already screwed up, so it doesn’t matter now,” and they proceed to polish off a whole pie, and wash it down with a liter of cola or a six pack of beer. It’s as if a switch in their head was flipped from 100% “on” to 100% “off.”
Now they’ve really set themselves back, guilt follows the binge, they feel like an even bigger failure and they abandon their entire plan. If that slice of pizza were actually permitted as part of the meal plan to begin with, eating it would not be seen as a failure, and not given a second thought.
According to organizations like the National Weight Control Registry, which tracks successful weight loss maintainers, the inability to stick with a diet for long is the biggest problem facing people who struggle with body fat. Between 80% and 95% of all weight losers will gain the weight back. Allowing a little wiggle room for favorite foods is one of the simplest and easiest solutions for improving long-term maintenance success.
Both real world experience and scientific research have shown, paradoxically, that people who have fewer food restrictions, who include favorite foods and make an allowance for cheat meals, have a better long term adherence, a higher fat loss success rate and are less likely to show symptoms of eating disorders. They don’t feel deprived, and they’re also happier because they can more easily participate in social events that involve food.
Compliance to a calorie deficit is required for fat loss. And for good health, the majority of your calories should come from nutritious, unprocessed foods. But you can allow a small portion of your calories for any of your favorite treat foods and still reach your goals. Ice cream, chocolate, pizza, pancakes, french fries, even cheesecake – anything goes. No foods should be forbidden for cheat meals, or it defeats the whole purpose.
Obviously, random cheating, lack of consistency and binge eating will sabotage any fat loss plan. But if you enjoy cheat meals in a disciplined, measured fashion, as part of a structured plan, it will not hold you back. It will help overweight men and women get the fat off and maintain their new healthy weight long term, and even competitive bodybuilders and fitness models have used carefully planned cheat meals without sacrificing condition, making what is otherwise a very strict diet much more tolerable.
No matter what your goals, being more flexible with your food choices can make your diet more enjoyable and more effective, as long as it’s done sensibly.
A sensible approach to cheat meals: How much, how often?
If being flexible and allowing occasional treats improves adherence and results, the next question is, how often should you have them? Or, asked from the opposite point of view, how many of your calories or meals should come from nutrient-dense, healthy, natural food?
I believe it’s helpful to put a number on your nutritious food intake goal for the sake of planning and personal accountability. I also think it helps keep your focus on health, not just on weight loss (it’s possible to lose weight in an unhealthy way, as with a low calorie junk food diet, and we don’t want to do that). I call this number your compliance rule for food quality.
In the Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle program, we suggest a 90% compliance rule, which means at least 90% of your calories come from nutrient-dense, healthy foods. For the other 10% of your calories, you give yourself permission to eat anything you want.
You can break your compliance rule down by calories or by number of meals. Ninety percent of 2000 calories per day is 180 calories per day or 1260 calories a week. Or, if you eat 5 times a day, that’s 35 meals per week. 90% of 35 is 31.5 healthy, nutrient-dense meals, leaving up to 3.5 meals per week for cheat foods (3 meals and a snack). You can plan these meals in advance for specific days of the week (many people save them for weekends), or leave your schedule open to allow for some spontaneity.
If you want to make your plan even more flexible and set your compliance rule at 85% or some other number, that’s up to you. Use your own judgement on how flexible you want to be given your lifestyle and personality. The important thing is that you eat mostly nutritious food and whatever compliance rule you set, you are willing and able to keep your commitment to it.
When you start adopting cheat meals, be careful not to get too relaxed. With flexible dieting becoming more popular, I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon – almost a type of ‘peer pressure’ – that was unheard of in the past; Some health and fitness enthusiasts actually urge you to eat more junk food and cheat more. Weird, right? I know, but it’s true. If you eat “too clean,” they warn, “you’re going to be miserable, deprived and fall off your diet, or worse, you’ll be a candidate for an eating disorder.”
Yes, we get it; that’s why I wrote this article. The trouble is, when a new trend starts being embraced widely in the diet world, there’s often an over-reaction against the old way, and the pendulum can swing too far in the opposite direction. However well-intentioned the advice to “be more flexible” may be, the majority of your calories should always come from healthy food, and if you don’t have the desire for junk food very often, then you shouldn’t feel any pressure to eat it. You can take fewer cheat meals, if you choose – it’s your diet. Choice; isn’t that the whole purpose of being flexible?
My choice for a personal compliance rule has always been closer to 95%, which translates to only one or two cheat meals a week. I don’t even feel like I always need cheat meals every week. Over the years I’ve been in natural bodybuilding, I discovered that I lost a lot of my taste for sweets and other junk food, and I’ve learned how to cook healthy, use spices and enjoy eating fruits, vegetables, natural starches, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats. I eat almost entirely unprocessed, nutrient-dense food and I love the way I eat every day.
I enjoy a good burger or slice of pizza as much as anyone, but I don’t get the urge for refined, empty-calorie food very often. I find most types of processed and fast food unappealing, sometimes even repulsive. And beyond the issue of taste, a lot of junk foods make me feel worse after eating them; upset digestion, less energy not more, and sometimes not even satiating.
Favorite treat foods should be eaten for pure enjoyment on occasion, but most of the time, food is for fuel, food is for health and food is for building the body.
The cheat foods I do enjoy, I usually save them for once on the weekend, for holidays, or social events, and I think I enjoy the foods and the special occasions even more that way.
Any time throughout the year, I know I have room for these meals, and even if I don’t exercise the option, I believe the mere knowledge that those meals are allowed and there are no forbidden foods is a powerful psychological pressure release valve. I’ve been successful and happy using this approach for over 25 years.
Once you’ve chosen your compliance rule, Some people track the calories and macros in their cheat meals and others simply estimate – they just eyeball portion sizes, keeping them about the same as any other meal, and they stop eating when they feel full. However, if you’re struggling with slow fat loss or you’re stuck at a fat loss plateau completely, then it’s wise to keep cheat meals to a minimum and it’s important to track the calories.
Now that I’ve explained the rationale for cheat meals and described my own preferred method, let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly in some of the other approaches.
The small treat every day method
A friend of mine is personal trainer who loves dark chocolate and has 2 squares every day. People are often surprised to see her eating chocolate so often, but there’s really no mystery to how she “gets away” with it while staying so lean (she always has abs). Two squares is a very small portion with only 105 calories. She has a daily calorie intake of about 2000 per day, so the chocolate is only about 5% of her total calories. That even leaves her room to fit in a weekend cheat meal as well.
The fact is, weight loss is achieved with a calorie deficit, and weight is maintained by staying in energy balance, not by banning any specific food. But with the rigid traditional dieter’s way of thinking, it would be unheard of to eat chocolate every day because high sugar and high fat foods are not allowed daily. She’s a perfect example of how small amounts of any junk food won’t make you fat if you’re tracking the calories and you fit it into your daily calorie limit.
The small daily treat method works for my trainer friend and makes her happy. However, this may not be the ideal method for everyone. My friend knows herself well, understanding that it’s not in her nature for a few bites to trigger an urge for more. For many people, it’s difficult to stop at the predetermined (small) portion size. Eating sugary foods every day can also sharpen your sweet tooth so the desire for sweets can escalate and their absence is felt more when they’re withheld. Some people avoid certain foods completely (sugar for example) because they know they are binge triggers or they consider them addictive.
For the most success-supporting environment, I recommend keeping junk food out of your house. Make yourself go out to get your cheat meals. If it’s not there, you can’t eat it and you won’t be tempted by impulse eating when you’re feeling down, tired, stressed or angry. It’s best to keep cheat foods out of sight, and out of mind. Keep the healthy foods, like the fruit bowl, visible as positive cues.
Another reason I don’t recommend eating unhealthy food every day as my standard method is that anything you do daily becomes habitual. I believe it’s better to eat nutrient-dense, unprocessed food every day, so that eating healthy becomes your daily habit wired into your nervous system. Save the treats for occasional eating. This gives you a feeling of being in control, plus doing something occasionally will not turn into a habit. It’s what you do every day over and over again that matters most.
The small treat or percentage of daily calories every day method of cheating can certainly work, and for that reason it’s gotten more popular, but it’s not my top recommendation and you should understand the pros and cons before you consider it.
The big cheat day method
Another popular approach is to eat nutritious, health-promoting food six days a week and then make the seventh a cheat day. There’s no doubt this method has worked for many people, but an entire cheat day (as opposed to a cheat meal) is a risky proposition.
It’s not difficult for a cheat day to turn into an into a day of all-out binging. Many individuals have confessed that they plotted their “pig out day” all week long, sometimes engaging in unusual behavior like stockpiling junk food in advance or eating junk foods they would normally never eat.
They explained that knowing they were granted a free-for-all pass for a day, they felt the urge to cram as much junk in their mouths as they could before going back to six days of dieting – far more than they actually needed to gain the enjoyment of tasting their favorite foods.
It’s one thing to relax your diet a little for one day, but an all-day binge can undo days of hard training and healthy eating. Studies have shown that one weekend of unrestrained eating can undo an entire week of work and leave you with zero results even after perfect Monday through Friday compliance. Weight loss aside, overeating for a whole day can be physically and mentally unhealthy. Binge eating can be an eating disorder and some people are more susceptible than others.
The way I see it, people who engage in unlimited cheat days are also failing to practice and build self-control and discipline. People who include cheat meals in a restrained and measured manner are, and it’s important to remember that all disciplines in lifestyle affect one another. If you let your discipline slip in one area, it’s not long before you start slipping in others.
For all these reasons, I usually don’t recommend the full cheat day method and I never recommend the “free-for-all” cheat day. Those who choose this method need to be smart about it and keep it controlled.
The “Epic cheat meal”
If you follow the Facebook and Instagram accounts of certain physique athletes or fitness celebrities today, you often see something that seems out of place for a fitness person to share, yet at the same time, very intriguing or even entertaining: you see photos of gigantic cheat meals. Sometimes you hear about a cheat day that allegedly has 6000, 8000 or even 10,000 calories.
A huge buzz got started online when Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson posted photos of what he called his “legendary cheat day.” It included four pizzas, a pile of brownies and a stack of giant pancakes that appeared to be a foot tall. It not only went viral, it got the Rock free publicity on the TV talk shows because everyone wanted to know about this giant junk food feast eaten by this giant muscular guy.
The curiosity led to emulation, as other people tried to eat like The Rock. Some people did it as a somewhat comical eating challenge, while others seriously believed the huge cheat meals had something to do with the Rock’s Herculean condition. Much to the copycats dismay, they often found themselves getting fat, and fast. They didn’t understand the big picture behind how and why he did it.(They also probably failed to consider the Rock is 6 foot 3 and 260 pounds of muscle).
In one of the Rock’s social posts, he explained that his pile of pizzas and stack of pancakes was his reward for 150 days in a row of clean eating and intense training. Most people didn’t realize that. In fact, Dwayne Johnson also shared the diet he followed for his Hercules movie, and it was as strict as a professional bodybuilder’s competition diet. He demonstrated extreme discipline for five months, then let loose once, in grand style.
There you have the most common explanation for how “epic cheat meals” can be taken by some people and they still look “shredded” or “jacked.” When a person has been training like an animal and dieting on restricted calories or carbs for months, and their body fat is already very low, their ultra-depleted and ultra-lean body is able to soak up food and carbs like a dry sponge soaks up water, and it’s nearly impossible to eat enough in one sitting to cause noticeable body fat storage. One huge feast can actually make a dieted down person look better.
However, these “epic” cheat meals you see in the fitness media have nothing to do with regular lifestyle eating or fat loss dieting for the normal person. It’s not a regular everyday cheat meal strategy, and it’s probably not something you should try to emulate.
Cheat meals versus carb cycling and the re-feeding technique
Physique athletes who have been dieting and training hard for weeks or months often use the carb cycling or re-feeding techniques to try to prevent their metabolism from crashing and fat loss from stalling. This usually involves eating more, mostly carbs, once or twice a week. There is some science behind it.
Prolonged calorie restriction and weight loss send signals to your brain (the hypothalamus) about how little you’re eating and how low your body fat is. In turn, that feedback activates a weight-regulating mechanism that can affect hormones including leptin, thyroid, testosterone, ghrelin, peptide yy and many others. Metabolism hormones go down. Appetite hormones go up. Anabolic muscle hormones go down. Catabolic stress hormones go up.
There has always been a mystique around “scientific cheating” as a way to improve your hormonal state, restore your metabolism and actually “get leaner and more muscular by eating junk food.” The sales appeal in that promise is obvious. But for the most part, this has only spawned gimmick diet programs that are based on half-truths, are filled with over-complicated rules, and don’t even apply to the average person.
The re-feeding and carb cycling techniques are not the same as regular weekly cheat meals, though they are often confused with one another. A single cheat meat does not have the effect that a full re-feed has. Someone who is still carrying a lot of body fat who is not dieted-down or depleted doesn’t need to use carb cycling or re-feeding at all, and if they try the epic cheat meal “strategy,” confusing that with properly timed and controlled re-feeds, they are in for a rude awakening.
A word to the wise: Never follow any diet approach that makes crazy promises about getting leaner by gorging on junk food, that condones binging, or even remotely resembles a starve-binge cycle (I’m shocked and saddened at how many diet programs do).
I’m calling for a return to sanity and simplicity. A weekly cheat meal or two is a lifestyle strategy that can be used long term and it’s not complicated. Many people do it successfully without even counting calories and macros. A sensible cheat meal strategy doesn’t require crazy binges on junk food, special macronutrient combinations or the pursuit of any sophisticated hormone manipulation. In fact, the basic cheat meal’s benefit is mostly psychological and behavioral.
There’s a physiological rationale for certain athletes and dieters to use big re-feeds at times, but there’s no excuse to ever be a glutton. If the calories are too high, no one will be immune to storing the excess as fat. Letting loose with huge unstructured cheats is also undisciplined, it’s not physically or psychologically healthy and doesn’t set a good example for others.
Reframing the word, “cheat”
Here’s one last thought to consider when it comes to “cheat meals.” Although using the phrase “cheat meal” makes it crystal clear what we are talking about, and I used the term throughout this article to communicate the concept clearly, you may want to think about the semantics of the word “cheat” and consider a different name.
If you sensibly build your favorite foods right into your calorie-controlled weekly plan, and then you faithfully follow your plan, you really didn’t cheat at all did you? You actually followed your plan. If you think of yourself as having cheated, it may lead to feelings of guilt, and that is an emotion you don’t want to indulge in.
So if you choose, you could consider calling “cheat” meals something else. Many people choose to call them free meals or treat meals instead. Some people call them reward meals, though be cautious with that one because viewing food as a reward could backfire on some people. If your compliance rule is 90%, you might call them your “10% meals.”
Try it, and you may find that using terms like these changes your feelings about what you’re eating and about how you’re doing. A simple change in language creates positive emotions that allow you to better enjoy your new and more flexible eating habits.
To learn more about a fat-burning and muscle-building plan that is both structured and flexible at the same time, (and astonishingly effective), which hundreds of thousands of men and women have used to transform their physique, visit www.BurnTheFatInnerCircle.com
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilder, fat loss coach, fitness writer and author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle. Tom’s articles are published on hundreds of websites worldwide and he has been featured in Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Fitness, Oprah magazine, The New York Daily News, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He has appeared on dozens of podcasts and radio shows including Sirius XM, ESPN-1250, WCBS and Day Break USA. Tom is also the creator of the new Burn the Fat 7-Day Body Transformation System and the founder and CEO of the premier fat loss support community, the Burn The Fat Inner Circle.