Cheat Meals: “Cheat” Without Ruining Your Diet?

Cheat Meals or Cheat Days - fitzabout
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Updated: February 12, 2023

Cheat meals or cheat days refer to set periods where you can indulge in the foods you’ve been craving throughout the week while you’re dieting.

There are many smart ways to cheat.

How to “Cheat” Without Ruining Your Diet?

Cheat days and meals can be a successful tool for curbing the feelings of failure or psychological guilt some people can feel when they veer course from their prescribed nutrition plan.

Instead of feeling like a failure, ready-made cheat meals give you something to look forward to. Many people who struggle with dieting talk about “cheat days”. The idea is that if you’re good during the week, you can go wild on the weekend. Well, unless you have a very fast metabolism, it doesn’t work that way.

As with anything related to food, it’s important to uncover how cheat days affect your mental health, physical health, and relationship with food.

If you follow a strict diet and exercise program, you can expect to lose 1 pound (0.45 kg) to 2 pounds (0.91 kg) per week. And if you get too paranoid with your cheating, you can get it back in a weekend. And if you’re bulking up, you may gain twice as much fat as you normally do that week.

You should think in cheat meals, not cheat days. No sensible diet should involve overeating throughout the day, but when you’re dieting to lose weight, it’s recommended to eat more in moderation each week.

A good cheat meal is a high-carbs, high-protein, low-fat and alcohol-free meal that doesn’t put you in a large calorie surplus for the day.

Is cheat meals works?

Well, there’s the psychological boost, which keeps you happy and motivated, which ultimately makes it easier to stick to the diet. 1

There’s also a physiological boost, but it’s not the metabolic boost you might be thinking of.

Yes, studies on overeating, the scientific term for bingeing on food, show that doing so can increase metabolic rate anywhere from 3-10%. But that doesn’t make sense when you consider that you’ll need to eat some 100 to some 1,000 extra calories a day to achieve this effect, thus negating the metabolic benefits. 2

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The psychological effects we have are related to the hormone leptin, which regulates appetite, metabolic rate, appetite, motivation, and libido, among many other functions. 3 4 5

When you are in a caloric deficit and lose body fat, the leptin levels drop. 6

This, in turn, slows metabolic rate, your appetite increases, motivation decreases, and mood turns sour.

When you dramatically boost your leptin levels, however, it can have positive effects on fat oxidation, thyroid activity, mood, and even testosterone levels. 7

Eating carbs is the most effective way to raise leptin levels, eating protein is moderately effective, eating dietary fat has little or no effect on leptin levels, and drinking alcohol reduces it. 8 9 10 11

Thus, the good cheat meals are the high-protein, high-carbs, low-fat and alcohol-free meal that doesn’t put you in a large calorie surplus for the day.

It’s perfectly fine to take a few hundred calories from normal intake at the end of the day. But if you eat 1,000+ more calories than you burn throughout the day, you’re going to have problems, especially when a large percentage of those surplus calories come from dietary fat. Add in some alcohol, which will not only blunt leptin production but also accelerate the storage of dietary fat as body fat, and you can undo a good chunk of your week’s progress in one meal. 12 13

14 Healthy Ways to Cheat on Your Diet

SharpMuscle sought advice from nutrition experts on how to cheat on a diet while still maintaining weight loss, beyond just indulging in moderation.

Here are some tips from nutrition experts on how to “cheat” on your diet and still lose weight:

  1. Make smarter choices: Choose healthier versions of your favorite junk food. For example, opt for baked sweet potato chips instead of regular chips, or choose dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate.
  2. Practice portion control: Instead of eating an entire serving of junk food, have a smaller portion.
  3. Keep it as a treat: Limit your “cheats” to once a week or less, and make sure to stick to your healthy eating plan for the rest of the time.
  4. Balance it out: If you do indulge in a treat, make sure to balance it out with healthy, nutrient-dense foods for the rest of the day.
  5. Drink plenty of water: Drinking water before, during, and after your “cheat” can help fill you up and prevent overeating.
  6. Get back on track: After your “cheat,” get right back to eating a healthy, balanced diet. Don’t let one treat spiral into a full-blown binge.
  7. Focus on progress, not perfection: Remember that everyone makes mistakes and has slip-ups. The important thing is to get back on track and not give up on your goals.
  8. Listen to your body: Pay attention to how your body feels after eating a treat. If you feel sluggish or uncomfortable, it may be a sign that the treat was not worth it and that you should stick to healthier options in the future.
  9. Make it a mindful experience: Enjoy your treat slowly and mindfully, savoring every bite. This can help prevent overeating and make your treat feel more satisfying.
  10. Exercise regularly: Regular exercise can help counteract the effects of a treat and support weight loss.
  11. Get enough sleep: Getting enough sleep is important for overall health and weight management. When you’re well-rested, you’re less likely to crave junk food and make poor food choices.
  12. Reduce stress: Stress can trigger overeating and junk food cravings, so finding healthy ways to manage stress is important for weight loss success.
  13. Focus on overall progress: Instead of obsessing over one treat, focus on the progress you’ve made and the overall healthy habits you’ve established.
  14. Don’t beat yourself up: If you do indulge in a treat, don’t dwell on it or beat yourself up. Instead, acknowledge what happened and get back on track with your healthy eating plan.
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Bottom line

Following an intense diet plan for weight loss can be quite stressful at times, especially when you are going through bouts of anxiety and are unable to indulge in your favorite foods to cheer yourself up.

A cheat meal or an entire cheat day can be an effective way to relax and take a break from this type of diet plan. But if not done properly, it can sabotage all your weight loss goals and prove counterproductive.

Consuming a well-planned and well-planned cheat meal on cheat days can lead to the regulation of a hormone produced by the body’s fat cells, known as leptin.

There is much debate in the scientific community about leptin, but one particular study suggested that temporarily increasing caloric intake can increase leptin levels in the body by up to 30%.

Leptin is responsible for maintaining energy balance in the body and sends signals to the brain so that the body knows the right time to stop eating.

Since high leptin levels make you feel full and satisfied, it may be considered beneficial for weight control.

Sources

  1. Darren M. Opland, Gina M. Leinninger, and Martin G. Myers Jr., “Modulation of the Mesolimbic Dopamine System by Leptin,” Brain Research 1350 (September 2, 2010): 65-70. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2010.04.028[]
  2. H L Katzeff, M O’Connell, E S Horton, E Danforth Jr, J B Young, L Landsberg, “Metabolic Studies in Human Obesity during Overnutrition and Undernutrition: Thermogenic and Hormonal Responses to Norepinephrine,” Metabolism 35, no. 2 (1986): 166-75. DOI: 10.1016/0026-0495(86)90119-8[]
  3. Jon F. Davis, Derrick L. Choi, and Stephen C. Benoit, “Insulin, Leptin and Reward,” Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism 21, no. 2 (2010): 68-74. doi: 10.1016/j.tem.2009.08.004.[]
  4. Jon F. Davis, “Adipostatic Regulation of Motivation and Emotion,” Discovery Medicine 9, no. 48 (2010): 462-67, Available here: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20515615/[]
  5. Gary J. Hausman and C. Richard Barb, “Adipose Tissue and the Reproductive Axis: Biological Aspects,” Endocrine Development 19 (2010): 31-44. DOI: 10.1159/000316895[]
  6. Jéquier E. Leptin signaling, adiposity, and energy balance. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2002 Jun;967:379-88. DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2002.tb04293.x. PMID: 12079865.[]
  7. Ceddia RB. Direct metabolic regulation in skeletal muscle and fat tissue by leptin: implications for glucose and fatty acids homeostasis. Int J Obes (Lond). 2005 Oct;29(10):1175-83. doi: 10.1038/sj.ijo.0803025. PMID: 16030519.[]
  8. Dirlewanger M, di Vetta V, Guenat E, Battilana P, Seematter G, Schneiter P, Jéquier E, Tappy L. Effects of short-term carbohydrate or fat overfeeding on energy expenditure and plasma leptin concentrations in healthy female subjects. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2000 Nov;24(11):1413-8. doi: 10.1038/sj.ijo.0801395. PMID: 11126336.[]
  9. Bray GA, Smith SR, de Jonge L, Xie H, Rood J, Martin CK, Most M, Brock C, Mancuso S, Redman LM. Effect of dietary protein content on weight gain, energy expenditure, and body composition during overeating: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2012 Jan 4;307(1):47-55. doi: 10.1001/jama.2011.1918. Erratum in: JAMA. 2012 Mar 14;307(10):1028. PMID: 22215165; PMCID: PMC3777747.[]
  10. Havel PJ, Townsend R, Chaump L, Teff K. High-fat meals reduce 24-h circulating leptin concentrations in women. Diabetes. 1999 Feb;48(2):334-41. doi: 10.2337/diabetes.48.2.334. PMID: 10334310.[]
  11. Röjdmark S, Calissendorff J, Brismar K. Alcohol ingestion decreases both diurnal and nocturnal secretion of leptin in healthy individuals. Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 2001 Nov;55(5):639-47. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2265.2001.01401.x. PMID: 11894976.[]
  12. Shelmet JJ, Reichard GA, Skutches CL, Hoeldtke RD, Owen OE, Boden G. Ethanol causes acute inhibition of carbohydrate, fat, and protein oxidation and insulin resistance. J Clin Invest. 1988 Apr;81(4):1137-45. doi: 10.1172/JCI113428. PMID: 3280601; PMCID: PMC329642.[]
  13. Source: Bigger Leaner Stronger: The Simple Science of Building the Ultimate Male Body. By Michael Matthews. Available here: https://amzn.to/3S7dyYD[]
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