Especially among regular “gym rats”, cheat meals are a staple of most diet or nutrition plans. But maybe, just maybe, they are also the reason you’re not making the progress you’re capable of.
What’s a cheat meal, really?
Cheat meals are simple in concept. You stick to your diet all week, then, usually on a scheduled day, you let yourself go “off-plan” and eat the things you can’t or won’t for all of your other meals. Some people even go so far as to have a “cheat day”. This meal (or day) is usually much higher in calories because we allow ourselves to eat higher calorie, less nutrient-dense food. Or, we add in carbs when we’ve been eating a low carb diet.
Why Cheat Meals?
Cheat meals can serve different purposes for different people. Your Average Joe who’s dieting to lose weight, might use a cheat meal to increase adherence to his restrictive plan. Knowing Saturday is for pizza or Chinese food makes it much easier to eat lean meats and veggies Sunday through Friday.
Those that fall into the experienced weightlifter and/or bodybuilder category might see those cheat meals as refeed days to replenish glycogen stores. This refeed also signals the body that plenty of food is available preventing it from thinking it’s being put into starvation mode. When your body is calorie deprived for an extended time, metabolic processes slow down and less energy (calories) is burned.
When the body is operating at a net caloric deficit for extended periods it looks for other sources of energy. Where does that energy come from? Muscle metabolization. Precious muscle is broken down (lost) and burned as fuel. It sucks. I know.
At one point my calories were so low, my workouts were terrible and I stopped losing weight. I finally increased my caloric intake by about 700 calories each day and dropped 3.7 pounds. Great, right? Nope. A body fat test revealed that I had actually lost 0.3 pounds of fat while losing 3.4 pounds of muscle! Losing muscle further decreases your metabolism, or your body’s ability to burn calories.
Once I added in another 500 calories, I gained around a half-pound over the same time period. However, another body fat test showed it was because I had lost several pounds of fat while gaining even more muscle. The scale had gone up slightly, but my body fat percentage had dropped by several percentage points all while increasing the number of calories my body burned.
How could cheat meals be detrimental to my progress?
A true cheat meal by itself isn’t going to ruing your progress. But it MAY be sabotaging your plan if you don’t know what to expect.
Because you just started your new “eating plan”, you’re HUNGRY (thanks Ethan Suplee for the term). That cheat meal gets a little out of hand, or you turn it into a cheat day.
Monday morning you jumped on the scale and it was up 4 pounds! Your brain says, “I’m right back to where I was last week! This is never going to work”. You want to quit. Maybe it’s not that drastic, but it can easily become a slippery slope if you don’t know what’s happening to your body and feel like you blew all your progress.
You definitely know how hard it is to lose fat, but what if I told you it’s almost as hard to GAIN fat, especially in the short term!
It taks a lot of calories to gain a pound of fat, usually around 4,000kcal once you factor in the thermogenic effect of food, but it could be more depending on a bunch of factors. And that’s BEYOND the calories you would consume to maintain weight.
Remember all the water you lost when you cut out sodium and drastically reduced your carbs and processed food last week? It’s back, but it’s just water, at least the vast majority of it.
They’re called carboHYDRATEs for a reason! Each carb unit takes around 4 units of water to process so you’re adding water weight in a 4:1 ratio. Sodium also makes me retain water like the Hoover Dam. Once I’m back on plan my body will drop it again like an airplane dropping water on a wildfire.
I’ve gained 8 pounds from a Saturday morning to Monday morning after a weekend of pizza, pasta, and Tex-Mex. By Thursday I was back down 8.5 pounds and by the next Monday I was down 9.5 pounds.
How I approached cheat meals while losing 90 pounds in 11 months
I considered myself a hardcore subscriber to the screw-it mentality after “falling off the wagon” for a day or weekend and gaining several pounds back. That would end my progress and I’d quit. When I started Crossfit and my new diet plan in 2014, I decided I needed a different approach to cheat meals.
Using this method, I made it 5 months without ever having a “cheat” meal. One morning, driving to work, I passed Chick-Fil-A where I used to stop 4 mornings a week for a chicken biscuit with cheese, hash browns, and a sweet tea. It sounded GOOD.
“Do you REALLY want that?” Yes.
“Are you going to be mad you ate it?” Absolutely not.
It was great. Didn’t regret it a bit.
It was almost 5 weeks before I said yes to something again. By making the deal with myself, I didn’t feel restricted. If I really wanted it, nothing was off-limits. This was enough for me to pass on almost everything that would have slowed my progress.
That restrictive nature is what derails so many diets. Just telling yourself something is off-limits is going to make you want it. Bewteen the physiological and psychological aspects, it’s no wonder so many diets fail. They’re practically doomed by design.
These days I take a different approach to nutrition and dieting but use that same method to a lesser extent because my plan now isn’t nearly as restrictive as it was back then.
We’re all different. The best nutrition plan is the one that you can stick with. Figuring out what that is can take you farther than anything. The best plan isn’t worth crap if you can’t maintain it.
You also have to know what to expect from your body when you “cheat”, know how to forgive yourself when you make a mistake, and know how to get back on plan without punishing yourself. Yesterday is done. Tomorrow isn’t the concern. Today is here. That’s your focus until you create good habits.
How do you handle cheat meals? Do you build them into your plan? Let me know in the comments below or on any of my social accounts below.