Eight years back, I resolved to my fitness journey. It was right about then when I discovered the difference between fats, proteins and carbs, cardio and strength training, and the underlying principles binding everything together. Trying to lose chest and belly fat at the time, each paragraph of knowledge was an energy bonanza. I thought, for a while, that I had everything figured out.
As experience would have it, looking back in retrospect reminds me of a familiar mantra – ignorance is bliss! Especially when you think – falsely – that you understand how everything works.
For those of you starting out, knowledge alone won’t be a determining factor. Discipline, instead, is what drives results. It took me several years to finally get to where I wanted, all thanks to my long term approach. Cheat meals, believe it or not, helped immensely.
Starting out, I wanted to measure everything. Calories, miles, sets and repetitions… Soon after, it became an exercise in frustration. It was the first time I gave up. Several rebounds were to follow, before I stuck with a workout program. Beachbody on demand wasn’t around back then, and I remember wiping drops of sweat from quaintly archaic DVDs, going through nutrition manuals provided in the package. Kids, nowadays, have everything compiled into an app. Heck, we even built one ourselves.
The first program I followed introduced me to cheat meals and the concept of having a cheat day. This provided a much-needed mental break. In the wake of it, I realized – there are two ways to have a cheat meal: The uh-I-slipped variety, and the cheat-meal as according to schedule. If you want to stay on track and embrace the fit lifestyle, I’d strongly suggest the latter. Without loosening up the constraints of your diet, you will always have a love-hate relationship with fitness. Sorry to break this to you, but those escapades never last.
The lengthy guide below will teach you all the cheat meal rules. You will learn the difference between a cheat meal vs. cheat day, know what to do if you cheated on your diet, and how to recover after a cheat day. I will provide enough theory behind the benefits of cheat meals, give you about a dozen suggestions of good cheat meals, and tell you everything you need to know about some of the myths and most common misconceptions.
What is a cheat meal?
A cheat meal, as a simple definition would have it – is a deviation from your diet program. As such, it can be characterized by one of many ways (hungry people are most innovative!). A cheat meal, therefore, can mean:
- Sticking to calories while ignoring nutrients
- Eating more food than usual
- Breaking your diet rules in any way whatsoever
And while it can be an impulsive decision, more often than not it is a calculated choice. Written in your calendar, a cheat meal would provide leeway, so you can eat to your heart’s content.
But let’s explore the list above.
Often times, while people keep up with counting calories, they forget about nutrients altogether. Replacing a 300 calories tuna salad with a 300 calories pizza slice would therefore be considered as a cheat meal.
Another form of cheating is to consume more food than you’d regularly enjoy. Depending on the nutrients, it can be more or less dangerous. If we assume that you are keeping track of macronutrients, eating more calories would be less of a problem – especially after an ambitious workout. But if you ignore nutrients and overeat past your regular limit, that’s double cheating.
For some people, cheating can mean eating pasta when they should have been eating a pineapple. This is usually the case when you are following a strict diet, so each transgression is much more obvious.
But hey, I’ve heard people talking about cheat days as well…
Sooo… Cheat day or meal – what is the difference?
What is a cheat day?
By the same token, a cheat day is an equally undisciplined deviation from the norm. The creative freedom, however, is much broader. Whereas cheat meals are almost self-explanatory, having a cheat day can mean several different things all at once.
So in order to be systematic, let’s say that a cheat day might include:
- Skipping meals
- Forgetting about timing altogether
- Eating several cheat meals
- Ignoring nutrients throughout the entire day
- Consuming food in lengthy sessions
Cheat days, the same as their younger sibling, can be planned upfront. And more power to you, if you decide to enjoy them as a calculated choice. But these, too, can interrupt your schedule and leave you feeling guilty.
Most people – myself included – forgo their discipline when attending certain events. A weeding ceremony, a game day, or perhaps Thanksgiving… When your normal flow is interrupted, and you forget about timing, nutrient ratios, or bite everything and anything throughout the entire day – that my friend is a cheat day.
For some people – depending on their level of commitment – a single cheat meal can very well mark a cheat day. So it depends on the way you want to measure things.
As you scroll down, you’ll find a number of strategies on how and when to plan your cheat days; but let’s discuss the benefits first.
Cheat meal Benefits
How many calories on a cheat day? Should I be fasting after cheat day? Can I have cheat meals while cutting?
I’ll try my best to answer all of these questions, but let me first give you a reassuring tap on the shoulder. While having a cheat meal is a blissful experience, there is some scientific scrutiny backing it up as well.
For better or worse, science gives cheating on your diet some serious thumbs up!
#1 Cheat meals will help you stay on your program
Renowned bodybuilder King Kamali has said that cheat meals provide a much-necessary mental break. If you strip yourself away from the joy of eating a burger, or a pizza, or anything else you love dearly, chances are that your diet program is not going to last.
The same generalization can be said about life – being productive is the goal you should strive towards, but it is only sane and reasonable to have some fun as well. If you deny yourself that much, you’ll shift irresistibly away from your goals. In effect, the odds against success prove overwhelming.
When it comes to your diet, a rule of thumb would be this – eat healthy and disciplined 90% of the time, and give yourself some credit by taking your hands off the wheel the rest of the time.
#2 Cheat meals can boost your metabolism
For many people, this alone can dwarf everything else in significance. And it all comes down to a hormone called Leptin…
When into a caloric deficit, your body will reduce the plasma levels of Leptin. And here is how this creates a problem – Leptin is responsible for signaling the brain that you have enough energy stored in your fat cells, thus allowing your body to function normally.
When Leptin production is decreased, your body would enter into a different state. Namely, the metabolic rate drops significantly, and you start feeling lethargy along with noticeable hunger.
A cheat meal, therefore, is a perfect remedy! It will temporarily stabilize Leptin, and get you out of this undesirable state. Many bodybuilders would recommend cycling your calories, to effectively achieve this same outcome.
Note that a single cheat meal can increase leptin production for up to 30% (in 24 hours), and effectively contribute to an increased dopamine production, boost libido and motivation.
#3 Cheat meals will teach you balance [long term]
I’ve been working with people long enough to witness the severity of the Jo-Jo effect. Regardless of the program many decide to follow, and regardless of the results, a rebound is inevitable.
And if you fancy yourself as the rational type, you’ll automatically think “oh, that’s definitely not me”.
But, in one way or another, life will interfere. Long hours in the office, other problems on your plate, a shift in priorities… Sooner or later, you will start to eat junk again. So here is how the habit of allowing yourself a cheat meal can keep everything at bay.
When you have a scheduled window for venting off some steam, it would normally create balance. You will find yourself in a state of neither deprivation, nor indulgence. So even after your program concludes, you will be able to keep this balanced approach towards diet. It won’t burden you at the slightest.
Cheat meal mistakes
When given the freedom, as you might imagine, some of us go bananas. And you will, in all likelihood, follow suit.
Chances are that you will start labeling each transgression as a cheat meal, hence shifting irresistibly away from your diet. In effect, the odds against success prove overwhelming.
So allow me to point the most obvious mistakes:
#1 Frequent cheat meals
If you cannot remain disciplined for 3 days in a row, consider lowering the frequency of your cheat meals. The best remedy would be to plan upfront, and not succumb to a cheat meal willy-nilly.
Start with the goal of having two cheat meals per week. In between, allow yourself a snack of choice as well. Revisit the plan each Sunday, and see if you can remove everything other than a single cheat meal. This trimming process can go on for quite a while, so don’t feel discouraged. It depends on the level of physical activity as well, and we will talk about fine tuning the schedule below.
#2 Eating too much (binge eating)
In an act of desperation, you can end up consuming the caloric equivalent of an entire day. And we routinely underestimate how dangerous this is.
The hands are off the wheel, bites follow in a staccato sequence, and before you know it the entire cake is gone. We’ve all been there.
So here is the math – if you happen to consume more than 200% calories compared to a usual meal, it’s are safe to say that you are binge eating.
The caloric surplus is dangerous on its own, but even more so when you are eating fats and processed food.
Another challenge would be restaurants. Recent studies have found that the average restaurant meal can range anywhere between 1100-1400 calories. Along with bread, desert, and a glass of booze, the numbers can go way up.
It is not unusual, therefore, to gain 3 pounds after a cheat day.
Worry not! As you scroll down, you will learn how to recover from binge eating.
For now though, when someone asks how many calories on a cheat day, here is a good rule of thumb – never more than a double of your normal caloric intake!
#3 Enjoying cheat days
While having a cheat day is not entirely forbidden, it will normally impede progress. So if you make the habit of scheduling them too often, you’d need herculean effort to stay on your track.
Demanding programs like the Insanity Workout, would allow for a weekly cheat day, and so will advanced bodybuilding routines. Any other circumstance, and your goal would be to minimize the number of cheat days throughout the month, possibly reducing them to zero.
Furthermore, if you are an athlete, having an entire cheat day might interfere with your performance. The cheat day hangover is a state of feeling sluggish, immobile, and far less flexible. As an athlete, this is a position you don’t want to be in.
#4 Too much fat
A meal that is high in carbs can lead to a less immediate fat gain than one that is high in fats. The high-fats variety is easily stored, and it requires more time and energy to be used as a fuel.
Carbs on the other hand are converted into body fat by a process called De novo lipogenesis (DNL).
The thing about DNL, is that it rarely occurs under normal circumstances. You’d have to be eating tons of carbs, for days on end, in order to pile up some fat storage.
Do note, however, that if you decide to forgo dietary fats, on the expense of ramping up carb-intake, another problem occurs. Namely, research suggests that eating too low of a fat diet would significantly increase DNL, so it can provide the organism with triglycerides. In plain English, if you ramp up your carb diet, and forget to eat fats, the process of converting carbs into fat storage would go up as well.
So while gorging on fats is to be avoided, and best replaced with carbs, forgetting about them altogether is not a very good idea.
#5 Too much alcohol
Though alcohol cannot be stored as body fat (there is no way for your body to convert ethanol into lipid), it will block fat oxidation nonetheless. This, in turn would accelerate the rate at which dietary fats are stored as body fat.
To put it in other words, alcohol won’t cause you to gain weight all by itself, but it would prevent your body from effectively burning the fat storage.
The rate at which you are storing fat, therefore, would normally accelerate as well.
#6 Saving up before the cheat meal
Starving yourself a day prior to having a cheat meal would have disastrous consequences. The same goes for skipping breakfast, in order to indulge yourself fully at lunch.
Such turbulence can mess up with your metabolic rate, hormones, fat storage and fat oxidation. It is, so to speak, counterproductive.
Below, we will discuss about a strategic way to save up on calories before enjoying a cheat meal.
#7 Having a cheat meal late at night
While it is perfectly ok to enjoy your cheat meal as a replacement of a healthy dinner, pushing it past or even close to your bed time is a huge no.
First of all, you would have a difficult time falling asleep. The quality of your sleep, over the night, would suffer as well.
And as your metabolic rate lowers, and your body is at rest, fat storage goes off the roof.
#8 Having a cheat meal first thing in the morning
On a personal note, I must say that I admire people who can consume a high-calorie breakfast. If you were to choose, it is only reasonable satisfying most of your daily caloric needs during the morning, so the surplus gets to be burned throughout the entire day.
The problem, however, is the same drop in energy people experience on a cheat day hangover.
Studies have proven that people who overeat are 1.4 times less likely to remain active throughout the rest of the day. If you are following a workout program, this radical drop in energy can be devastating.
Cheat meal rules
When you are up to no good on a given day, almost anything can happen. And it often does! So here is how to enjoy a good cheat meal, without feeling guilty.
The strategies below, combined with everything we shared so far are going to provide some leeway.
1. Save up intelligently [more protein]
Instead of skipping meals, or going into starvation mode right before the cheat meal, try this instead – for each meal prior to your treat, change the ratio of macronutrients.
Instead of having – in percentage – around 40-40-20 (carbs, protein, fats) go ahead make some changes. Ditch as many carbs as you can, and ramp your protein intake. Dietary fat intake you should keep the same, or perhaps lower it slightly.
Protein is proven to increase your resting metabolism up to an additional 30%, and increasing its consumption on the expense of decreasing carb intake would force your body to rely on lipid as a type of fuel.
Fiber, too, is of paramount importance, so eat your starchy vegetables!
2. Enjoy your cheat meals after a tough workout
When the muscles are aching, and you’ve already entered a state of significant caloric deficit cheat meals can prove to be a good remedy.
On an intuitive level, all of this makes sense.
Gorging before the workout can, and most assuredly will impede performance, while overeating on days when you are inactive translates into fat storage.
By the same token, a cheat day is best enjoyed after the hardest training day.
3. Make cheat meals nutrient rich
It is such a shame to overeat, yet fail to reach certain nutrient requirements. Make sure, therefore, to consume your fair share of protein, fats and carbs. You can make the calculus differently each and every time, but try to cheat with nutrient packed food.
Having a pizza is much better than eating the entire cake. Except, of course, you compensate for the nutrients before or after the cheat meal.
Cheating with a juicy steak is so harmless than you might even question the label, coming to a conclusion that you didn’t do anything wrong. Try, therefore, to cheat with protein rich meal – ones without processed carbs that are also packed with healthy fats.
Make cheating a transgression of quantity, and not quality!
4. Take your time
Cheating is about enjoying your meal! If you decide to go over an entire plate in the blink of an eye, there’d be a lack of satisfaction.
If you storm through your meal, hunger will remain. And when even a cheating session cannot provide satisfaction, your entire program is about to fall apart.
5. Cheat days total calorie intake
Indulging into a cheat day mustn’t raise the daily caloric intake to more than double. People often ask how to get rid of calories after a binge, but physiology laws are very hard to bend.
6. Do not cheat right after starting your program
Cheating should be a means of last resort. So give yourself some hard time before claiming the reward. Endure for up to 6 days, and have a celebratory meal.
Any sooner and you might lose motivation, set a terrible habit in place, and learn to pat yourself on the back even when you shouldn’t.
7. Plan cheat days around events
Trying to remain disciplined with your diet, on a day like Thanksgiving is much like pissing against the wind. Not going to work, plus you end up frustrated.
Big events, like weddings, game days, weekends with the family etc. provide a sensory overload of another kind. Forcing yourself to stick to a fruit salad, is plain harsh.
Understand that in one way or another, discipline is most likely to suffer around such events. The smart move would be to make something out of it.
8. Have a cheat week recovery
If you are into a workout routine for months on end, a temporary break would be most rejuvenating. Take a week off, and try being lightly active while enjoying forbidden food, in controlled quantity.
A binge, every now and then, would be ok as well.
9. Try to compensate
If you are following a schedule and adhere to a deadline, compensation is a rather lucrative idea. So it goes that when you indulge yourself with a cheat meal, the following dish gets reduced in calories.
But lowering the number of calories is not enough – you will have to change the macro nutrient ratio as well. Minimize carbs, and ramp up the protein!
Especially if you are enjoying cheat meals while cutting, the following day should be a clean eating example taken right out of the book. A binge, every now and then, would be ok as well.
10. Do nothing after a cheat meal other than…
When people ask me what to do after a cheat meal, I always say nothing! Instead of surrendering to guilt and torturing your body, try resting for a while and go out for a long walk.
Then, if there is enough time in your day, do some stretching, flexibility exercises, and maybe light cardio depending on your workout program. You can definitely lift heavy weights as well, but much depends on the timing of your cheat meal.
If late, remain satisfied with the walk only, go to bed early, and have a shower in the morning in order to freshen up. Then, continue with your normal routine, and compensate by eating as clean as you can. You can even rump up protein on the expense of minimizing carbs.
There you go – now you know what to do after a cheat meal. And when it comes to cheat meal vs cheat day, the same pretty much applies.
Binge eating and what to do after a binge
Living in an age of instant gratification, overindulgence feels normal. When you can call a pizza joint, and have access to a garden variety of different taste combinations, delivered to your door in less time it takes for you to make a salad… Well, it’s just a matter of time before you overeat.
Binge eating, by definition, is an eating disorder associated with episodes of uncontrolled food consumption.
Most people googling about it, only manifest few of the symptoms associated with the clinical disorder. A binge, then, can occur every once in a while (usually on weekly or bi-weekly basis), interfering with the normal diet routine.
By and large, binge episodes are not dangerous if they happen once or twice per month. Even when they occur with more frequency, much depends on the type of food, and the overall diet routine.
Assuming that you just binge ate, what’s next?
What to do after a binge
Binge eating recovery can be a delicate subject. Considering the comparative severity of a binge episode versus a simple cheat meal, different steps are to be taken as a recovery method. Therefore:
Do not become irrationally fearful right away, giving up to manufactured emergency. The impulse would be to burn the calories right away, but I’d strongly advice you against such an idea. Burning off calories you just ate is never a long term solution. More than anything else, it will leave you frustrated, igniting a bitter conflict where you feel neither satisfied because of the meal, nor happy thanks to your discipline.
By the same token, doing cardio after cheat meal is a terrible idea. The post binge workout is an even bigger mistake.
So here is a step-by-step manual of what to do after a binge (or what to do after a cheat day):
I’d like to play it safe instead of betting the farm, because in real life ominous music rarely plays before shit hits the fan. Aggressive training right after a binge may lead to a number of consequences on your health. Instead, rest for a while and take a walk. You can burn up to 500 calories just walking about the neighborhood. Three to four miles is all the distance you’ll need.
Some of the hacks from previous chapters apply as well. Compensate by lowering the carb intake before and after the binge, but make sure to keep the meal schedule intact.
The following day is an excellent opportunity for fixing things, so start slowly.
First of all, freshen up! A shower in the morning will improve your alertness, and increase your energy.
Then, start your workout session by doing light stretches and flexibility training. It is important to feel agile and in control, before continuing with some serious work.
Lastly, you can perform cardio, or even lift heavy, depending on your routine and goals respectively.
Eat supper clean throughout the entire day, and make sure to hydrate yourself. A supplementation with diuretics is most appreciated. Cucumbers, ginger, leafy greens… all of these can help. Make sure to consume parsley as well, since it is high in potassium while also being a diuretic.
There – now you know what to do after a binge.
How about fasting after a binge?
Well, fasting after a binge is not a very good idea. You will slow down your metabolism, and most of the calories will find their way to being converted as fat storage.
Instead, consume diuretics, low carb – high protein meals, and sufficient amount of fiber. In other words, compensate, but do not deprave yourself of nutrients.
Fasting after a binge, therefore, is a HUGE mistake!
Good cheat meal ideas
While you are free to enjoy a meal of your choosing, some combinations will be better than others.
Carbs, for one, as we already discussed above, are harmless and therefore much encouraged. You will, however, have to eat some dietary fats as well, in order to avoid de novo lipogenesis (DNL).
Alcohol and dietary fats are a terrible mix, so avoid dinking while consuming fatty foods.
A good rule of thumb would be to enjoy the same macronutrients, from the same dietary sources, only in different caloric numbers. Say, a healthy salad only double the serving.
Another strategy would be to replace junk food with a healthy variety, while still mimicking taste. A burger, then, can include whole wheat bread, barbequed chicken breast, and tomato sauce instead of a caloric dressing. The pizza, too, can have turkey breasts instead of peperoni.
Peanut butter, on the sweet side, can be a nice replacement for Nutella, and almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts, an alternative to processed snacks. You can even dump thinly sliced potatoes into olive oil and bake them in the oven, as a replacement for chips.
Then again, if you want to go ahead and enjoy a juicy burger, or a cheese-melted pizza, feel free to do so once or twice per week. Following the rules and strategies from above, it won’t interfere with your program.
Cheat meal considerations
When you deviate from you diet, other habits gain on importance. So let us go over them briefly.
Hydration, along with vitamins and minerals
Regardless of whether you are having a celebratory meal or not, water intake should remain the same. See, also, that you are consuming your daily dose of vitamins and minerals, and perhaps the protein supplement if you lack this macro nutrient thanks to your cheat meal.
You are not as healthy as you think
When binge eating, the rationale goes something like this – Oh, but my body can handle that, it’s not a big deal. Truth be told, it is. It is a big deal. While we think that we have the metabolism of a bodybuilding athlete, or the daily physical activity level of a professional track competitor, none of it is true.
Truth is that most people already have excess body fat; eat on the fence between healthy and junk; have a daily schedule that doesn’t concentrate much on meal timing, hydration, supplementation, or even quality of sleep…
Measure and feel better
Keeping a log of your transgressions, as well as your progress, will provide some perspective – while our memory is lousy at keeping track, a notebook is much better.
You can even get yourself a fitness tracker, and fall in love with measuring stats altogether. When you see the cumulative effect of 20,000 steps, or a 5 mile run, it is hard not to appreciate your effort. Eating a cheeseburger, at that point, seems wrong at so many levels, and you naturally stop craving it.
Overeat, and you are 1.4 times less likely to exercise
While the thought of doing cardio after a cheat meal seems doable, consider the physiological processes at play once you stuff your belly. The best way to approach a cheat meal is to think that the calories you just ate are irreversible.
If you pat yourself on the back, with the idea that you’ll sweat it all out, you are more likely to fall victim to momentary mood swings, and overeat. Forget about duct tape solutions, since you don’t have any of them in your back pocket.
Do not punish yourself
A good weight loss program is a bad weight loss program that allows you to make mistakes, learn from them, and improve. If you focus on the negative, that’s not a viable long term strategy. Forget about cheat meal guilt, and certainly don’t punish yourself with rounds of cardio afterwards.
Plan but do not obsess
It is nice to have a meal schedule and everything within figured out. If you are the type of person who adheres to such discipline, then more power to you!
Obsessing, however, creates a mental fog – it puts so much pressure on the person, that it becomes unsustainable. Remember that if it slips, it slips. Just pick yourself up and start over.
Make an effort to eat healthy 80% of the time
Look forward to putting food on your plate that you can pronounce. When you create a habit of eating enough vegetables, fruit, and clean protein, the urge for junk food diminishes significantly.
Don’t focus on avoiding junk food – instead, focus on replacing it with something else.
If you are not comfortable compensating bad choices with good ones, it’s a matter of time before you become one of those people who say “I’ve gained 3 pounds after cheat day”.
More cheat meals throughout the week
To go from sugar rich meals and crispy bacon, to chewing a celery stick can and most likely will be a psychological shock. To remedy this situation, try including two cheat meals at first, and one snack of your choice. Within a single week, that is.
As you progress with your healthy choices, the need for junk food will diminish. Ideally, you might want to enjoy your second cheat meal in terms of caloric quantity – eating the same healthy ingredients, with the only difference being number of calories.
Replace cheat days with cheat meals
Depending on your training intensity, and the program overall, you might want to schedule an entire cheat day. If, however, you are not working out with a demanding routine, and have less of an urge to satisfy, then by all means shrink your cheat day all the way down to a single cheat meal. Maybe a snack as well, but that’s about it.
Workout programs, dieting manuals, bodybuilding blueprints… they all include a cheat meal
As I’ve said at the beginning of this guide, you’ll find a cheat day within any calendar regardless of the approach you decide to follow. Beachbody have created most of their workouts by including a cheat day during the weekend.
We did the same with Fitness Updated – our complete weight loss program – allowing for an entire cheat day on Sunday.
The thing is – once you start eating healthy, the meaning of a cheat meal dramatically changes. Your body will find certain foods repulsive, and definitely stop you from consuming a boat load of calories.
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With this, I’d like to conclude this cheat meal guide, and urge you to bookmark this page for further reviewing. For as long as you like, I’m here to answer all of your questions, so feel free to drop a line in the comment section below.