I love my cheat meals. I’m a big believer in the idea that if you do the right thing 95% of the time, you can get away with doing the wrong thing 5% of the time. There are 21 meals in a week, so taking one of those meals and ignoring the normal rules does minimal damage — but the psychological upside is huge. Put another way? I think one cheat meal a week is worth it. Big time.
A cheat meal, however, doesn’t mean we throw all the rules out the window and gorge on candy. There are a handful of rules that you should follow to make sure you don’t derail your hard-earned progress.
1) Schedule it
Never have an impromptu cheat meal. Plan them at least a day or two in advance to avoid overdoing it. The idea is to keep you sane, and give you a little splurge to look forward to on the days that are tough! When you see something something, you can tell yourself “I’ll add that to my next cheat meal!” I actually recommend, if you can, keeping your cheat-meal the same meal every week. (Perhaps Friday-Night Dinner, for example).
2) No counting
Ignore the macros. Ignore the calories. This meal’s free.
3) Stop when you are full.
This is the most important one. This is a cheat meal, not a gorge meal. You MUST stop when you feel full, or you really can sabotage yourself. You should be able to end the meal without feeling “gross”.
4) It should be on your hardest workout day
This should be the day when you put in your hardest, longest effort into your workout. Don’t plan a cheat-meal on a day when you don’t do a workout, or when you were only half-invested. There’s also something very motivating about doing a workout in order to earn a good meal. Use that leverage in your mind to your advantage, to push yourself for a harder workout! Having your cheat meal on the day when you’ve put in the most effort minimizes the damage from the extra calories. Also note that your workout should take place some time PRIOR to the meal.. not after.
5) Be good earlier in the day
This is a cheat MEAL, not a cheat DAY. Your other meals that day should be light. Picture yourself saving up as many calories as you can for your big meal later on. Don’t starve yourself — but do try to “earn” that bigger meal.
6) Once a week is enough
All too often I see cheat meals turn into cheat days, turn into cheat weekends. You don’t want to sabotage your hard-earned progress!! One meal a week without tracking calories or macros ought to be enough to keep you focused.
7) Have ZERO guilt
Picture the cheat meal as an essential part of your weight-loss plan. This is how you work in the foods that you can’t fit otherwise, and more important, this is a much-needed psychological re-fueling. Stop when you’re full (do NOT stuff yourself), and you can end the meal feeling like a rock-star!
A few words of caution:
- If your cheat-meal is LOADED with carbs, sugar (dessert?), or sodium, you WILL gain weight the next day due to water retention. You probably won’t notice if you only weigh yourself once a week, but if you’re the type of person that weighs yourself every day, this can feel devastating. Just know that it’s temporary and the “extra” weight will be gone, and then some, in a day or two.
- The BEST cheat meal if you want to minimize potential setbacks, is one that is very low carb, very high-fat, and/or very high-protein. Fat and protein can’t hurt you unless they’re combined with high-carbs. That said? If pizza and a burger is your thing…. Enjoy the pizza and the burger!
- If you REALLY want to get advanced, BodyBuilding.com has a really great article on how you can strategically plan your cheat meals to accelerate your weight-loss by refueling key systems. (The debate is on about whether or not it can really be called a cheat meal if you plan it down to this level, but the article is worth a read, regardless!)
- If you are on a KETO diet (less than 30 net-carbs per day), your cheat meal MUST NOT include extra carbs or sugar!! If you knock your body out of ketosis, it can take 3-4 days to get your body back into that mode, and your weight-loss will stall out during that time. Use your cheat meal as a chance to eat extra calories, not a chance to eat carbs. (Sorry, that’s one of the trade-offs to keto).