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Ask a trainer or nutrition expert what they think about cheat meals and cheat days and you are likely to get a passionate answer. Some of us live for these indulgences, while others fervently believe they are counterproductive.
Many trainers and fitness professionals do believe in an occasional treat, and we asked you for your favorite, many of the answers were not surprising. Here are the top seven:
Burger and fries
Mac and cheese
Salty or sugar, savory or sweet, you are divided on what makes the best cheat meal. But what is certain is that if you are going to cheat sometimes, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it.
If you are trying to decide if you should include a cheat meal in your diet, or if you have a client interested in indulging occasionally, there are some good reasons to go for it.
Trainers know that one of the most difficult aspects of working with clients on fitness and nutrition is motivation. Everyone struggles with motivation, especially over a long period of time. Your client may be gung-ho for two weeks, but it's not unusual to start dropping off and wanting to quit.
Anything you can do to motivate clients, or yourself, to stick with a diet and fitness regime most of the time is beneficial. A cheat meal can be something to look forward to, a carrot at the end of the stick that gets you through a tough week of workouts or calorie restriction.
Sticking with healthy eating and a tough workout routine can be difficult. It's not just motivation that can falter, though. Sometimes we get mentally worn down by trying to be "good" all the time. A cheat meal can provide the break you need. The relief of simply not thinking about calories or the right food choices is a welcome refresher in an otherwise healthy lifestyle.
Over the long-term, it may not be realistic to adhere to strict healthy eating with no breaks. It's easy to get into a negative cycle without these planned cheat meals. Trying to be perfect about eating will inevitably lead to a failure, which can be highly demotivating and result in a binge or totally falling off the diet.
A more positive way to look at cheating is not as a failure but as a planned part of the diet. This can make sticking with a healthy eating plan easier over a long period of time. In other words, it's more sustainable to include a cheat than to aim for perfection all the time.
If you have a client on a restricted-calorie diet, they may get fatigued more easily. An occasional meal that allows for more calories can give the client a boost and prepare them to do a tough workout. We all can potentially feel run down by a regular exercise routine along with healthy eating, so an occasional cheat helps
Learn how damaging losing weight too fast can be. Check out this ISSA post and share it with your clients.
There may even be some weight loss benefits to adding a cheat meal. Some experts argue that the effect of dieting and cheat meals on certain hormones justifies the regular indulgence in extra calories. The research is mixed, but there is some soundness to the advice. There are two important hormones to consider:
Leptin. Leptin is a hormone that signals fullness, satiety. When it is circulating in the body at the right levels, you'll feel full and like you don't need to eat. Calorie deficits and weight loss may decrease leptin, which in turn will make you hungry. An occasional cheat may correct this.
Ghrelin. This hormone has the opposite effect. It signals to you that you are hungry. With calorie deficits, levels of ghrelin can go up, making you eat more. Again, a cheat meal may have a positive effect here.
When a person is in a calorie deficit to lose weight, the body eventually adjusts. Hormone levels shift to accommodate fewer calories, and the result is that you hit a weight loss plateau. There is some evidence that a cheat meal can reset the hormones and jump-start metabolism. A couple of studies back up this idea that an occasional cheat actually benefits hormone balance and weight loss.[1,2]
A good general rule when utilizing food and diet cheats is to stick with one meal. A cheat day can really derail good eating habits. Setting aside a whole day can add a lot of extra calories if you go overboard, and going overboard is much easier to do when you have a whole day.
A cheat day may be appropriate occasionally but use it sparingly. If you have a client, for instance, who is highly motivated by the thought of a cheat meal you may want to use a cheat day for pushing bigger, long-term goals. Everyone is different, but a cheat meal each week and maybe a day per month works for most.
Most trainers, nutritionists, and other fitness and diet experts believe in the power of the occasional cheat. It's hard, if not impossible, to strictly stick with healthy eating or a diet. There are some people, though, for whom a cheat meal or day may not be the best idea.
The whole point of the keto diet is to get your body into a state of ketosis. This supports fat metabolism and weight loss and requires a strict, low-carb diet. One cheat meal can be enough to knock you out of ketosis. You may have to work to get back there, and experience all the unpleasant symptoms of switching in and out of ketosis.
Eating one, planned meal per week that goes over your calorie limit or includes foods not on your list of healthy options is not a big deal for most people. But if you, or a client, have a history of bingeing on food, cheats are risky. It may not be worth it if there is a chance you'll end up eating a whole pizza instead of two slices.
A history of disordered eating is also a good reason to stick with moderation and a steady, planned diet. Regardless of the type of disordered eating, if your client has a psychologically bad relationship with food, don't recommend cheat meals.
There is a right way and a wrong way to do a cheat meal. The right way can motivate you, give you a mental break from dieting, and keep you feeling fresh. Here are some tips.
Don't do an entire blowout for a cheat meal. You can get satisfaction and positive benefits from eating a hamburger and fries. You don't need an entire large pizza or five servings of ice cream. Manage calories by making smart cheat choices and avoid going off the rails and undoing all the good work of exercise and counting calories the rest of the week.
Make sure that the cheat meal is a part of your overall plan. Make time for it or at least plan for the number of cheats per week to stay on track. If it's part of your nutrition and fitness plan, it isn't a failure to eat a high-calorie meal or a junk food snack. It can also help to make sure that a workout is a part of the plan. Schedule a tough one for the day you have a cheat meal to feel better about it.
The most effective cheat meal will be the one you really want. This is why it can feel so liberating. If your cravings are for sweets, go for ice cream or cookies. If you really want something salty, eat those French fries. Don't let a planned cheat food get in the way of your cravings. Change the plan to match what you will find most satisfying.
For those clients who cannot eat just one donut or stop at one piece of chocolate cake for a cheat meal, recommend a healthy cheat. Some people can have one junk food cheat and get right back on the wagon; for others, it's more difficult. For those who struggle with it, another option is to have a feast of healthy foods: forget calories and macros, and eat as much as you want as long as everything is whole and nutritious. This can be as satisfying as one piece of junk food and healthier.
Cheat meals can be controversial, but most experts agree having one occasionally is not just OK but beneficial. If you can manage it in the right way, a cheat meal can promote and encourage an overall healthy lifestyle.
If you want to learn more about guiding clients who need diet and nutrition advice, check out the ISSA's Certified Nutritionist course.
Dirlewanger, M., di Vetta V., Guenat, E., Battlilana, P., Seematter, G., Schneiter, P., Jequier, E., and Tappy, L. (2000). 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,24(11), 1413-8. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11126336?ordinalpos=47&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum
Chin-Chance, C., Polonsky, K.S., Schoeller, D.A. (2000). Twenty-Four-Hour Leptin Levels Respond to Cumulative Short-Term Energy Imbalance and Predict Subsequent Intake. J. Clin. Endocrin. & Metab,85(8), 2685-91. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article/85/8/2685/2851616