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  • Writer's pictureMark Edwards

Are Cheat Meals Ok? The Truth About Cheat Meals: Are They Helping or Hurting Your Weight Loss Goals?

Updated: Feb 25

Cheat meals. Everyone has heard of them, many of us have used them, but are they of any benefit to someone trying to lose weight?

Let's undertake a deeper exploration of cheat days and meals, evaluating their benefits and drawbacks from the perspectives of both competitive and recreational athletes following specialized training regimens and those who are simply pursuing weight loss. There's a big difference.

Table of Contents

What is a Cheat Meal?

A cheat meal is a meal or snack where an individual allows themselves to consume foods not typically included or even allowed in their daily diet. These meals are often more calorically dense and may be higher in fats, sugars, or other macronutrients.

Notice I said, "not allowed." For people on a diet plan that eliminates whole food groups or requires strict adherence to a limited range of so-called healthy foods, the idea of a weekly or twice monthly cheat day or even just a weekly cheat meal can be pretty attractive.

In essence, a cheat meal is a way to consume "unhealthy foods" or even so-called "banned" foods outside of an overly restrictive diet plan. Some people may even call this binge eating, depending on the circumstances.

But make no mistake, for most of us, cheat meals can do more harm than good.

Let's look at two sides of the much-ballyhooed cheat meal and if they actually serve a purpose in a diet strategy.

The Case for Cheat Meals:

The Professional Athlete's Perspective

Jason Khalipa, CrossFit
Jason Khalipa, CrossFit Competitor

Are Cheat Meals Ok for Athletes? Refueling for Optimal Performance

For elite athletes such as bodybuilders, physique competitors, and Crossfitters, a cheat meal is more than mere indulgence. It serves as a calculated strategy to refill glycogen stores that have been depleted after rigorous workouts and weeks or even months of very strict healthy eating protocols.

In high-intensity sports, energy in the form of glucose is paramount. Over time, depleting this energy without replenishment can negatively impact performance. Thus, a strategically timed cheat meal can refuel the body, preparing athletes for upcoming rigorous sessions.

Diet is part and parcel of any effective training regimen for athletic competition preparation, so cheat meals can often be part of a carefully calculated strategy.

So in answer to the question "Are cheat meals ok for athletes," the answer is an unqualified YES.

Larry Scott, Mr. America 1962
Larry Scott, Mr. America 1962, Mr. Universe 1964

For Bodybuilders and Physique Competitors, a Unique Stance on Cheat Meals

Bodybuilders and physique competitors have a unique relationship with cheat meals. Beyond mere refueling, these athletes are often engaged in meticulous cycles of bulking (gaining muscle) and cutting (losing fat). During cutting phases, caloric intake is reduced, sometimes significantly.

A cheat meal can provide not just psychological relief but also kickstart stagnating metabolism during these extended periods of restriction.

Moreover, for bodybuilders, the visual aspect is crucial. An occasional cheat meal, rich in carbohydrates, can lead to a temporary "pump" as the muscles fill up with glycogen and water. This fuller appearance can be strategically utilized, especially leading up to competitions or photo sessions, to showcase muscle definition and vascularity more prominently.

Lastly, given the strict regimen these athletes adhere to, the micronutrients and varied food profiles from cheat meals can help ensure no essential nutrients are missed out on. While their primary diets are balanced, introducing varied foods occasionally can be beneficial for overall health and performance.

As a coach who also sees some of the bizarre health-related voodoo on social media (yes, Instagram, I'm talking about you), I've seen individuals posting about "bulking" and "cutting" who clearly shouldn't even be entertaining the idea of using these physique competitors' tools.

First things first. Get your body fat percentage into a much lower range, which requires being fully capable of losing a minimum of 2 lbs per week, consistently until you hit a reasonable pre-established target.

If you're not able to do that, forget about cheat meals, bulking, cutting, and other such ideas that you're not ready for.

Master the basics, lose the unnecessary body fat, and then you can move on to more advanced aspects of diet.

Cassius Clay vs Sonny Liston
Cassius Clay vs Sonny Liston, 1964

Mental Resilience and Motivation

Any athlete will attest to the mental demands of their sport. Rigorous training schedules combined with strict dietary regimens can take a huge toll on one's mental well-being. Athletes in training follow strict diets that, in any other scenario outside of athletics, would be considered eating disorders.

That's why we see athletes in their off-season or in retirement who DON'T look ripped, cut, shredded, or any other adjective that the typical Instagram influencer is constantly trying to sell you.

Let's be honest: Those performance-focused diets are unsustainable year-round, year in and year out. It's called "off-season" for a damned good reason.

So here's where cheat meals play a pivotal role. They serve as a psychological breather during the training season, providing a brief reprieve from the constant self-discipline required of professional athletes who live and breathe their sport, training, and nutrition for the entirety of their careers, year in and year out.

But these individuals are not most of us.

They are outliers.

Furthermore, the anticipation of a cheat day can boost an athlete's adherence to a strict diet, making those tough days a bit easier to navigate. A cheat day is a tool that professional athletes use to maintain their mental health.

If you're someone who has trained for competitive reasons, I'm sure you'll acknowledge that eating whatever you like once or twice a month offers tremendous psychological relief and renewed motivation to keep training.

Metabolic Adaptation

Some believe that periodic overfeeding can stimulate the metabolism, preventing it from slowing down due to extended caloric restriction. For athletes, this means a potential boost in metabolic rate, which can aid in muscle preservation and growth,

Understanding Adaptive Thermogenesis

One of the most critical components to understand in the context of dieting and metabolism is adaptive thermogenesis. This refers to the adjustments in energy expenditure (or metabolic rate) in response to changes in energy intake or body composition.

When we consistently consume fewer calories than our body expends, especially during aggressive weight loss phases, the body tries to maintain what it has. This is homeostasis. It does so by reducing the overall metabolic rate, essentially becoming more efficient at using fewer calories to perform essential functions.

The rationale behind this adaptation is evolutionary. Historically, food scarcity was a genuine threat to survival. Thus, when faced with prolonged periods of insufficient calorie intake, our ancestors' bodies had to find ways to conserve energy, ensuring they could survive for longer with less food. This conservation mechanism is still ingrained in our biology today.

This is why people in a caloric deficit for long periods hit a "sticking" point.

Role of Cheat Meals in Metabolic Stimulation

Given this backdrop, the idea behind introducing occasional cheat meals is to momentarily increase caloric intake, signaling to the body that it's not in starvation mode (notice that I said "occasional").

This abrupt influx of calories, particularly when they include a substantial amount of protein (which has a significant thermic effect), might 'shock' the metabolism into ramping up its activity.

The thermic effect of food (TEF), sometimes referred to as the specific dynamic action of food or dietary-induced thermogenesis, is the energy expended by our bodies in processing and metabolizing the food we consume. Different macronutrients require varying amounts of energy to be digested, absorbed, and assimilated.

A general breakdown of the thermic effects of the different macronutrients looks like this:

  1. Protein: 20-35% of the energy consumed is used to digest, absorb, and assimilate protein.

  2. Carbohydrates: 5-15% of the energy consumed is used for carbohydrates. It's worth noting that the thermic effect can vary within this macronutrient group based on the type of carbohydrate. Simple sugars may be at the lower end of this range, while more complex carbohydrates might be at the higher end.

  3. Fats: 0-5% of the energy consumed is used for fats.

I want to emphasize, though, that it's essential to approach this strategy with nuance. A single cheat meal might not significantly boost metabolism in the long run, but it can help mitigate feelings of deprivation and provide a psychological break from continuous dieting.

Furthermore, while cheat meals might offer a temporary metabolic jolt, they can't entirely prevent the metabolic adaptations that accompany extended periods of calorie restriction.

Balance and Personalization are Key

The efficacy of cheat meals in metabolic stimulation varies from person to person. It's HIGHLY individual.

Factors such as individual metabolic rate, the extent of caloric restriction, physical activity, and even genetics play a role. Therefore, while some people might experience a notable metabolic boost from an occasional cheat meal, others might not observe any discernible change other than feeling heavy and bloated from excess water retention.

Ultimately, understanding your body, tracking progress, and being in tune with both physical and mental results are key. If you choose to integrate cheat meals as a metabolic strategy, doing so mindfully and in moderation will yield better results.

That being said, the drawbacks are pretty significant.

Aid in Muscle Growth

Muscle growth, or hypertrophy, is a primary goal for many athletes, especially bodybuilders and physique competitors. The process is intricate and involves a delicate interplay of training, rest, and nutrition. While rigorous weight training causes micro-tears in muscle fibers, it's the nutrition and rest phases where the magic of muscle repair and growth happens. Cheat meals, when leveraged correctly, can aid this process.

During a cheat meal, the intake of larger-than-normal carbohydrate quantities leads to a significant replenishment of glycogen stores. Glycogen, being the stored form of glucose in muscles, provides muscles with the necessary energy for high-intensity workouts. When muscles are adequately fueled, it promotes better performance, indirectly aiding muscle growth due to more productive training sessions.

Moreover, the consumption of carbohydrates triggers a release of insulin, a hormone with multiple functions. One of its primary roles is regulating blood sugar levels by promoting glucose uptake in cells. However, insulin also plays a pivotal role in muscle growth.

When present alongside amino acids, insulin stimulates muscle protein synthesis. Essentially, it acts as a transporter, shuttling these amino acids into muscle cells where they serve as building blocks for new muscle tissue.

This insulin effect also reduces muscle protein breakdown, further benefiting muscle preservation and growth. It's worth noting that for this reason, many bodybuilders and athletes often consume high-protein meals or shakes in conjunction with or shortly after high-carb meals in an attempt to maximize this synergistic effect of insulin and amino acids on muscle growth.

Therefore, while cheat meals can serve as a tool for muscle growth, their timing, composition, and frequency should be approached strategically.

The Downside of Cheat Days: A Cautionary Note for Weight Loss Seekers

Now we get into the section that applies to 99% of the population who are pursuing a healthy lifestyle that doesn't involve multi-million dollar contracts, legions of Instagram followers, and millions of fans.

And you may not like what I'm about to tell you.

Diet Plan? What Diet Plan?

Say Goodbye to Your Caloric Deficit

A pivotal aspect of weight loss is creating a caloric deficit. However, a single extravagant cheat day can negate an entire week's worth of diligent calorie counting.

For example, indulging in rich, fat-laden, and sugar-filled desserts, high-calorie beverages, and large portions can lead to consuming thousands of excess calories in one day, rendering the hard work of the past week ineffective.

Let's take a look.

You've worked hard to maintain a 500-calorie deficit every day for a week and you've maintained a 3,500-calorie deficit. That's equivalent to one pound of body weight. Nice job.

One cheat day, depending on how far you go, can easily negate that week's effort, leaving you frustrated and demotivated. Think about it. "It was my cheat day, so I ate a pizza and drank a bottle of wine. But I can't understand why I'm not losing weight!"

Let's break it down: Your wine contained about 700 calories, and your pizza was somewhere around 800-1000 calories, so you've pretty much gone off the rails as far as your hard-won deficit goes. Why? Because that was only one meal of a so-called "cheat day." Breakfast and/or dinner likely go off the rails too. A total lack of portion control is the hallmark of a typical cheat day.

Do that every week for months and you can guess what happens.

Kiss your caloric deficit goodbye.

And along with it, your weight loss goals.

To add fuel to the fire, a cheat day can easily morph into binge eating.

I've even seen some "diet coaches" (Instagram has legions of them) gleefully describe the free-for-all they've got planned for their holiday next week or next month. And then their clients very likely follow suit but can't figure out why they don't lose weight.

These are not effective dieting strategies or mindful nutritional practices.

Let's stop this nonsense.

Hormonal Havoc

It's fascinating how our body responds to food intake. Cheat meals, particularly those rich in sugar and fat, can cause a temporary reduction in the hunger hormone, ghrelin. Sounds good, right? However, this short-lived reprieve is often followed by a heightened appetite, driven by a spike in the same hormone. This can set individuals on a path of increased caloric consumption in the days following the cheat meal.

The result? It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if you're hungrier than usual after that indulgent weekend, you're going to consume extra calories.

The Cumulative Effect of Weekly Cheat Days

It's not just about one week. If weekly cheat days become a ritual, the cumulative caloric impact over months can be substantial. This might not just halt weight loss, but could even lead to weight gain. I've seen this happen, and it always involves throwing portion control out the window.

People see "The Rock" posting cheat meals that are enough to feed a family of 8 and then strangely believe that if The Rock does it, it must be a good idea for them too.

You're not The Rock, and neither am I. Let's be real.

For those already struggling with weight management, weekly cheat days can be a source of enormous setbacks. Goals seem to become unattainable and the frustrated person won't even realize the source of their lack of progress.

"I must be defying the laws of thermodynamics. I'm in a caloric deficit, but I'm not losing weight."

No, you're not defying the laws of thermodynamics. You're simply eating more than you're body is using. And the weekly cheat day is probably the culprit.

Water Weight Woes

Weight fluctuations are a common and often frustrating aspect of any weight management journey. While we like to think that these fluctuations represent changes in body fat, often, they can be attributed to shifts in water weight, particularly after indulging in a cheat meal or day.

Fresh Pretzels

Salt and Carbohydrates: A Double Whammy

One of the primary contributors to these sudden weight spikes after a cheat meal is the increased intake of sodium and carbohydrates. Many indulgent foods, especially those from restaurants or processed sources, tend to be high in salt. Sodium binds to water and increases water retention in the body.

Similarly, carbohydrates, especially in their stored form as glycogen, hold water. For every gram of glycogen stored in the body, it holds onto about 3-4 grams of water. So, after a carb-rich meal, as the body replenishes its glycogen stores, it naturally retains more water.

The typical cheat meal is usually laden with carbs, sugar, and/or salt, so after a cheat day, expect to feel bloated and soft. You won't often see "healthy foods" on a cheat day, if at all.

It's no coincidence that those who follow very restrictive low carbohydrate diets often dive into cheat meal nirvana with wild abandon.

The Psychological Impact

Seeing the scale jump up after a cheat meal or two cheat days on a weekend can be disheartening, even if you understand the science behind it. It's easy to misinterpret this temporary gain as a setback, leading to feelings of guilt, discouragement, or even prompting some to engage in drastic compensatory behaviors like excessive exercise or extreme calorie restriction.

Recognizing that these shifts are predominantly water weight and not an actual increase in body fat is essential to maintaining a balanced perspective on your fitness journey.

This is one of the main reasons that I NEVER advise clients to weigh themselves daily, regardless of the BS they've heard from online influencers. Weighing yourself every day is akin to checking stock prices daily: there are going to be wild fluctuations, but it's impossible to see patterns or trends.

The only thing that wild fluctuations accomplish is panic or disappointment.

Resetting the Balance

The good news is that water weight gain is temporary. As the body processes the excess sodium and burns through the recently stored glycogen, water retention will reduce, and the scale will likely reflect a more accurate representation of one's weight.

To expedite this process, there are a few steps you can take:

  1. Increase Water Intake: Counterintuitive as it might sound, drinking more water can help flush out excess sodium and reduce water retention.

  2. Engage in Light Exercise: Physical activity can help the body burn through its glycogen stores faster and also stimulate the kidneys to shed excess sodium.

  3. Consume Potassium-Rich Foods: Foods like bananas, sweet potatoes, and spinach can help balance sodium levels in the body and reduce water retention.

But these steps have to be taken in the context of maintaining your calorie deficit. Stick to your numbers.

A Word of Caution

While it's useful to understand the dynamics of water weight, it's equally crucial not to become overly fixated on daily weight fluctuations. Your body weight can vary for numerous reasons, including hormonal changes, hydration status, and more.

Establishing a healthy relationship with the scale means focusing on long-term trends rather than daily numbers. Weekly or twice-monthly weigh-ins are far more productive for the vast majority of us.

What's the Way Forward?

Are you struggling to lose weight and maintain consistency? If so, you need to re-evaluate the actions that you're taking that aren't working. If you're on a program that eliminates entire food groups or forbids certain foods that you find yourself over-eating when you take a so-called cheat meal, I'll go out on a limb and say that your approach is off-track.

Get the guidance of a good nutrition coach and look at a flexible dieting approach so that you won't have feelings of deprivation that drive you to over-indulge. Mindful eating is the order of the day.

If you feel that you need a diet break, then you're probably not on the right course to begin with.

Conversely, if you're a recreational or professional athlete, that's a whole different story. Cheat meals can be a strategic part of your training, but you still need to make sure you're getting the best guidance from a trained professional nutrition coach.

The last thing I should touch on is this: GET MOVING. If you're obsessing over whether or not to have cheat days but you're sedentary, that's like obsessing over which octane of gasoline you should put into a car that's falling apart.

You can get started on that aspect right here with a 7-week weight loss exercise program.

To Cheat or Not to Cheat. That is the Question.

While cheat meals and days offer tantalizing promises of indulgence without consequences, the reality is more nuanced. Going wild on unhealthy foods, junk foods, etc can be momentarily attractive, but beware.

Recent studies suggest that "cheat meals" are especially popular among adolescents. One study shows that there is a VERY strong link between engaging in frequent (weekly) cheat meals and eating disorders.

I'm not surprised in the least.

This particular research showed that study participants often engaged in more than one so-called "cheat meal" per week, and each of those meals was between 1000 and 1500 calories!

Let's cut the BS. Those aren't cheat meals. That's simply binge-eating. And the study I cited points this out. So if you're wondering whether cheat meals help your metabolism, if you're doing cheat meals the way I just described, the answer is a big NO.

So. For those looking to shed pounds, I advise caution. Prioritize understanding your body, your goals, and your relationship with food before deciding whether cheat meals have a place in your journey. Remember, every meal is a choice, and consistency is the key to achieving your fitness and weight loss goals.

The real way forward is to adopt a plan. There is definitely a process to finding the best diet for you.

Scientific References

Mann, T., Tomiyama, J. A., Westling, E., Lew, A. M., Samuels, B., & Chatman, J. (2007). Medicare's search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer. American Psychologist, 62(3), 220.

MacLean, P. S., Bergouignan, A., Cornier, M. A., & Jackman, M. R. (2011). Biology's response to dieting: the impetus for weight regain. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 301(3), R581-R600.

Cummings, D. E., Purnell, J. Q., Frayo, R. S., Schmidova, K., Wisse, B. E., & Weigle, D. S. (2001). A preprandial rise in plasma ghrelin levels suggests a role in meal initiation in humans. Diabetes, 50(8), 1714-1719.

Kreitzman, S. N., Coxon, A. Y., & Szaz, K. F. (1992). Glycogen storage: illusions of easy weight loss, excessive weight regain, and distortions in estimates of body composition. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 56(1), 292S-293S.

Schoenfeld, B. J., & Aragon, A. A. (2018). How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 15(1), 10.

Disclaimer: All information provided on this website is for informational purposes only. No information provided is to be construed as medical advice. If you have medical issues, always consult your doctor.


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