One of my favourite sayings when discussing healthy eating is: “One day of eating bad isn’t going to make you unhealthy, and one day of eating well isn’t going to make you healthy.” Cheat meals are a great way to keep your sanity when making drastic eating changes. They can even boost your metabolism and stave off a dreaded weight loss plateau.
Although the word “cheat meal” is usually shunned by health professionals, many people (including myself) have found them to be an effective weight loss tool. Not only is it an enjoyable part of a healthy week, it’s easier to stick to healthy eating if you have a planned splurge in mind.
What is a cheat meal?
A cheat meal is a guilt-free way to enjoy foods that should be eaten in moderation. It’s a planned free meal that allows you to indulge your cravings without falling off the wagon. A cheat meal can provide you with the motivation to make healthy eating choices the majority of the time while stopping you from feeling like you’re missing out.
It is not:
It’s a cheat meal, not a cheat day, not a cheat week and definitely not a cheat holiday. The effectiveness of the cheat meal comes from the fact that it is enjoyed rarely. Professor in the Health and Physical Education Department at Seton Hall University, Jillian Guinta, told Medical daily:
“It is important to clarify that a cheat day is most successful when a single meal that day is regarded as the cheat. If you allow all of your hard work to unravel for an entire day, you can quickly void the progress you have been making all week, especially if weight loss is a goal.”
Why do they work?
Cheat meals are about making your healthy eating plan more sustainable in the long run. Even the most self-disciplined fitness freak would struggle at the thought of never eating their favourite type of naughty food again – it’s just not realistic.
Mentally, it’s much easier to make healthy choices Monday through Saturday, if you have a reward waiting for you on Sunday. Without this pick-me-up, you’ll be more inclined to add in a little cheese, or dressing, or bread here and there, because you’ll think you deserve it. Then you’ll wonder why the scales aren’t budging. A planned cheat meal will help you stay on track to achieve your goals.
There are a number of cheat meal strategies:
- Weekly meal: perfect for people trying to lose weight and who are in a calorie deficit. It allows for one cheat meal a week of around 1000 calories to give you something to look forward to.
- The 90/10 ratio: this style is for people trying to maintain their weight. You simply eat well for the majority of your meals and allow for a 10 per cent cheat margin. If you eat four times a day, seven days a week, you can have three cheat meals during the week.
- The 80/20 rule: reserved for active people and athletes. Similar to the previous, this rule focuses on eating well 80 per cent of the time and cheating the other 20 per cent.
But do they work?
Apart from psychological and willpower benefits, there is evidence to back the effects of cheat meals. To lose fat, most people enter a state calorie deficit so the body will begin to tap into fat stores, but this comes at a price.
Our clever bodies learn to adapt to their calorie intake so we don’t starve. Although the idea of “a starvation mode” has been inflated for dietary purposes, it’s a very real bodily function. It doesn’t happen overnight, but after days and weeks of a lower calorie intake, our bodies will adapt to using less energy. Remember, the brain percieves fat loss as a bad thing.
To make matters worse, levels of the hormone Leptin, which tells your body how much energy it has stored as fat, begin to fall after periods of weight loss. Low leptin levels lead to a loss in energy levels and an increase in food cravings. This study suggests low leptin levels could be the reason diets fail.
Why diets fail: This may explain the high failure rate of dieting, as low leptin is likely to be a potent stimulus to weight gain.
This may explain the high failure rate of dieting, as low leptin is likely to be a potent stimulus to weight gain.
However, a calorie explosion from a cheat meal can stop this process because it allows the body to realise it is not in fact starving. A number of studies found refeeding patients with anorexia nervosa, who also have extremely low leptin levels, led to a rapid increase in leptin stores.
Eating a low calorie or healthy diet all day every day is simply not realistic for most people (me included!), and a cheat meal might just be your saving grace. This is not a ticket to binge eat whenever the craving arises, however, a planned and well-thought out cheat meal might just help you reach your goals.
What’s your favourites cheat meal food?