I pretty much hate the term cheat meal because it implies you're somehow able to trick your body into giving you a grade you don't deserve.
Terminological beef aside, the concept of a cheat meal is a great tactic to take your fat loss to the next level. Because it makes eating for fat loss feel less like a diet and more like something you actually want to keep doing.
This is key for preventing post-diet weight gain.
What is a cheat meal exactly?
A cheat meal is a planned “off plan” meal... Ok, let me elaborate.
If you want to burn belly fat, get strong, and build sculpted toned muscles, you need a plan.
If you fail to plan you plan to fail.
Planning is a nonnegotiable strategy for losing fat because when life gets crazy people always revert to their old habits.
If you just try and wing it, you fall back on what your brain is used to -- the habits that made you gain weight in the first place.
To make real, lasting, meaningful change -- change that lets you stay lean and not gain back the 20 lbs you just lost -- you need a plan.
Going in without a plan leaves far too much up to chance. Which, hey, might work, but I’m guessing you’d rather be 100% certain what you’re doing is working.
It’s like showing up to the gym everyday, picking random exercises, then doing them a random number of times. While something is always better than nothing, random workouts will get you random results.
You’ll make much faster progress if you stick to a structured workout program.
You need to have a plan to ensure 2 things:
- You stick with the plan. You keep working at it day, in day out. You need to keep showing up.
- You progressively get a little better every day, every week, every month. In the gym, you add a little weight every week to you get stronger and make your body change. Same with nutrition.
That doesn’t mean you necessarily need a strict, detailed meal plan. You do need some sort of structured commitment like, “I’m going to eat 1 chicken breast at dinner everyday”.
Now you have your plan for adding fat loss friendly foods to your diet. Since you have a plan, that means non-fat loss friendly foods are off-plan. That is, unless you plan for them...
A cheat meal is a planned meal or snack where you eat foods like pizza, chocolate, ice cream, etc. Foods that are really enjoyable, but have zero nutritional value.
These empty calories will prevent fat loss if you eat them too often. The density of calories and lack of nutrition makes it easy to overeat if you're not paying attention.
In small or moderate doses though (1-3 times per week) those empty calories are negligible. And mentally it’s a nice, necessary break from fat loss friendly foods.
The idea is, you eat chicken and broccoli (or whatever) all week. Then you have 1-3 cheat meals to balance out your tastebuds and make life worth living.
The cheat meal is a way to work these foods into your plan. Doing so fuels fat loss by making eating healthy less extreme/strict. You preemptively prevent binging by letting yourself enjoy some unhealthy food a few times a week.
Why cheat meals?
Because the moment you feel like you’re on a diet is the moment your plan becomes unsustainable/useless.
Nobody ever diets once.
They diet, fall off the diet after 2 weeks or so, feel shitty about themselves for “quitting” until they feel motivated enough to try a new diet (“This is the one! I know it!”). The cycle then repeats itself.
You can break this cycle by getting rid of this notion you “just haven't found the right diet yet”. Because what’s the point of losing 10 lbs if you gain 13 lbs a month after you quit your diet?
My online clients who use cheat meals do so because it gets them out of the thinking fat loss is about rules -- that if you break any of those rules you might as well give up.
It shifts perspective away from all-or-nothing thinking AKA on-diet-off-diet AKA “I ate a cookie so my diet today is ruined, might as well eat the whole bag”.
My clients think about the long con. They realize success doesnt come from any one decision, but the accumulation of all the decisions. Not to mention they get to burn body fat and still get to go out to brunch with friends.
Results + Happy = Happier
Cheat meals only make sense in the context of your whole nutritional week. Because the point of cheat meals is to make burning fat mentally easy. Sticking with your dietary plan for the other 24 meals of the week doesn’t seem so sucky when chocolate’s on the menu.
Cheat meals work if adding in planned, intentional, mindfully enjoyed treats makes it easier for you to make all your other meals healthier.
Cheat meals can prevent you feeling crazy, deprived, or bored out of your face.
Because fat loss isn’t all or nothing. There are lots of areas in between “all” and “nothing”. My favorite is “good enough”.
And yes, I know some people will say “calories in, calories out” doesn’t tell the whole picture. And that’s true.
But for all practical purposes, “calories in, calories out” is what you have to think about when it comes to weight loss. Because if you eat less calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight. That's just how it works.
This doesn’t mean you need to track your calories. I’ve had plenty of successful clients who hit their fat loss goals and worked through their food and body image issues without counting a single calorie. Coincidence?!?!?
I’m in the habit of not recommending calorie counting because pretty much everyone I’ve ever worked with told me they’ve tried calorie counting and hated it -- it perpetuated an unhealthy, obsessive relationship with food. It made them feel crazy, stressed, and controlled.
Obviously this isn’t the case for everyone. Calorie counting might be a viable strategy for you, especially for just 2 weeks to get an idea how many calories you consume per day. The answer will probably surprise you.
Counting calories simply means you leave less up to chance.
But, if it seems like calorie counting would make you have an obsessive relationship with trying to eat healthy, don’t worry. Because you can make pretty solid guesses about the calorie counts of many foods.
For example, which do you think is better for fat loss (assuming you eat it 20 times a week)? Broccoli or pizza?
You know the answer. I’m sure.
I truly believe you know way more about eating healthy than you give yourself credit for.
Point is, cheat meals can make weight loss not feel like a chore. Not to mention less strict and dogmatic. Because the strictness of diets is the #1 contributor of people quitting their diets after 2 weeks, consequently looking the same.
You can't trick or hack your own biology, especially not by drinking apple cider vinegar or lemon/cayenne water or butter coffee or by doing some super duper top secret workout.
Calories always count. Cheat meal or not.
This leads us to a huge mistake people make that turns this practical tactic into self sabotage:
“It's my cheat meal so I can eat whatever.”
“It’s my cheat meal so I have to eat as much as possible before my cheat meal ends.”
It’s true, you can eat whatever you want. Not because it’s your cheat meal, but because you always have power and agency over your dietary decisions.
Take ownership of that fact.
Because owning your own decision making power, instead of putting it into the hands of an arbitrary set of diet rules, is what’s going to end the vicious, stressful, consuming binge-diet-binge-diet cycle.
That said, if you eat 5 portions of ice cream during your cheat meal, you didn't have a cheat meal, you had 5.
Which defeats the point -- to incorporate your favorite foods into your diet in a way that complements your fat loss goals.
Calories add up the same regardless of how and when you portion it out. Which is why cheat meals work if you don’t “cheat” on your cheat meal.
You eat fat loss friendly meals 25 out of 28 meals a week (this includes snacks as a meal). Then eat something with zero nutritional value but is freaking delicious 1 to 3 times a week.
This makes a caloric deficit more realistic and un-diet like. Because you still get to enjoy your favorite treats on a weekly basis i.e. you balance your needs as a not-robot-human-thing with your goals of a flat tummy.
My online clients have found they actually enjoy treat foods more when they eat them in smaller, less frequent portions because they savor them more. It’s a win-win. Because if you're not enjoying treat foods what's the point?
Those delicious empty calories exist solely to be enjoyed!
If you feel like you have to eat as much junk as possible before your cheat meal window closes, you’re probably inhaling those calories, not cherishing every bite.
If your cheat meal just feels like an opportunity to binge rather than to mindfully enjoy some Americone Dream, then it's probably not a good tactic for you.
Here are some other tactics you can use instead if you feel like cheat meals would make it easier to binge, rather than harder:
- Some people feel more in control when they put certain foods off limits, and if that works for you then go for it. But I think it’s worth adopting the perspective that this is how your relationship with that food is right now. It won’t necessarily always be that way -- with enough practice in mindfulness you can change this narrative, but it takes time and practice. That said, if being strict hasn't worked yet, it's not going to work this time.
- Rather than having set cheat meals, have a small bite of something indulgent everyday. An easy example is having a square or 2 of chocolate everyday after dinner.
- Engineer flexibility within your diet in some way that makes sense. Maybe just giving yourself permission to go off plan occasionally, but not scheduling off plan moments ahead of time. It's still a wise idea to track the amount of these impromptu "cheat meals".
Stop self-sabotaging your diet
The less controlled you feel, the less likely you are to undermine your plan.
Cheat meals give structure to eating calorically dense foods. They balance the deliciousness of treat foods and the caloric deficit you need to see your body fat drop.
The main reason I even bring up cheat meals is to show fat loss isn’t all or nothing. It’s much more flexible than many people beleive.
So whatever strategy or foods allow you to acheive that caloric deficit consistently is what’s going to bring the best results.
But how do you find the best strategy? That ultimately it comes down to trial, error, and self awareness.
Try something with zero self judgement. Give it an honest go. And if it doesn’t mesh or seem sustainable, tweak it until it does.
So if you’re trying cheat meals for the first time, go about it with that same mindset.
- Place zero judgement on yourself whether it works or doesn't.
- Commit to giving it a 100% honest try.
- If it doesn't work, adjust the strategy with an educated guess about what you think will mesh with your life.
- Repeat steps 1-3.
I created a handy infographic to help you do cheat meals right because perfecting the cheat meal will get you a flat tummy and toned muscles. Best of all, the "Cheat Meal Cheat Sheet" will help you feel strong and sexy in your body while being able to enjoy your daughter’s wedding cake guilt free.