Cheat meals and cheat days are all the rage, but if you aren’t doing them correctly, they could be taking you further away from your goals each week. Here are 15 tips to use cheat meals to your advantage. Follow this advice if you want to see results from all your hard work!
The hands down best time to eat a cheat meal is right after a workout. Preferably you’d keep it within the metabolic window of within 1 hour and up to 3 hours after a workout. The more weight you have to lose, the closer your workout should be to your cheat meal.
After a workout, your metabolism is higher for a few hours. Your muscles are rebuilding themselves, as well as replenishing glucose used up during your workout. By eating your cheat meal soon after, your body will use the nutrients right away, rather than converting them to fat and storing them for later. This is the best time to consume carbs, which will really help your body refuel after your workout.
Any workout will suffice, but I recommend strength training and plyometrics or interval training. And I’ve seen your #cheatmeal instagrams… so let’s say the harder the workout the better!
#2. Earn your cheat meals
This goes along with #1, but let’s start earning our cheat meals instead of being entitled to them. In order to maintain your weight, you should be consistent with healthy eating for about 85% of the week. If you want to lose weight, it goes up to 90%. Before you indulge in that burger and fries, let’s assess the previous week. Were you consistent the other days? Did you have any other cheats or splurges because of emotional choices, social events, or lack of planning, etc? Did you workout this week? If so, how often?
Your goals are yours, so this is ultimately up to you, but it’s important to decide them in advance, write them down, and stick to them. It’s also a good idea to *learn* how to eat healthily- there’s a good chance you are going with what mainstream media has taught you is healthy, which is in fact often the opposite. I’d be happy to help you with that.
One main purpose of a cheat meal is to reset hormones that are responsible for metabolism and insulin regulation, to help replenish glycogen stores, and to help regulate leptin levels. Each can be affected by consuming fewer calories than your body needs or using exercise to create a calorie deficit. If you’re not restricting your calories or increasing your exercise, there’s a good chance your hormones and glycogen stores are fine, and your cheat meal is unnecessary.
#3. Plan It Out
Cheat meals aren’t emotionally driven. They shouldn’t be the result of a long or hard day or a reward of some sort. They should be planned out and prepared for. You want to be in charge and in control as much as possible.
Ways you can plan out your cheat meal are to take probiotics, drink green tea or coffee the day of, make sure your other meals that day are healthy and portion-controlled, drink plenty of water (especially if your splurge involves foods high in sodium or consuming alcohol!), and you can also plan out specifically what you will eat. You can plan it based on cravings from the week, your favorite restaurant, your favorite foods, etc. If you’re going to a restaurant, you can check the menu ahead of time to decide your order so it’s not a rash, hangry decision later. If you’re cooking, plan out your menu and list.
Planning it out will help you keep your cheat meal reasonable, from turning into a cheat day, and to keep you from regret or feeling guilty.
#4. Portion Control
Unless you are doing a restrictive carb-cycling or very low calorie plan, cheat meals are not free-for-alls. Before you mutter f-bombs at me under your breath, hear me out :)
You’re eating healthy because you have goals, and a free-for-all meal can be so incredibly high in calories that it destroys all of your calorie deficit you worked so hard for all week. We don’t want this one meal to override the importance of your short and long-term goals and hard work!
You can still splurge and eat foods that might not be permitted other days of the week, but still keep them in moderation. This will help your waistline, blood sugar levels, goals, and keep you from feeling like absolute crap after your cheat meal. It’s worth it, I promise.
#5 Eat Slowly and Enjoy Your Food
One reason for a cheat meal is to allow yourself foods that you enjoy, but don’t necessarily help you reach your goals. Another reason is to help satisfy cravings so you enjoy your healthy eating more throughout the week and don’t feel deprived or constantly craving. If you scarf down your food, there’s a good chance you hardly tasted it, and you aren’t getting the full benefit of your cheat meal.
Eating slowly helps your body to recognize when it’s full, since it takes 20 minutes or so before your brain is sent signals that you’ve had enough to eat. This can prevent overdoing it, and if you don’t overdo it then you’ve consumed less calories and will feel better later than if you demolished the entire meal in 30 seconds flat!
If this is an issue for you, you could set a timer. You could use the timer to help you eat slowly and be mindful of how long it takes you to eat your meal, or you could set a timer for a window of how long your cheat meal lasts– so this way it stays a meal and not an entire evening of gluttony.
#6. Make It Yourself
Sometimes a splurge isn’t complete without someone else making it and doing the dishes. I get it. Believe me! But if you’re serious about your goals, cooking your own cheat meal is the way to go. You can still eat those foods you’ve been craving, but you ensure they are made with quality ingredients and prepared in a healthy way.
If this isn’t possible for whatever reason, your cheat meal shouldn’t take place at a fast food joint. You are what you eat, sort of, and you want to be fueled with and consume only high quality ingredients. Go to a Farm-to-Table restaurant, a bakery, or a restaurant known for it’s ingredients and quality.
I try to make all of my splurging desserts at home, using a paleo recipe. I like to have cheat meals at a local Farm-to-Table pizza joint, where my hubby and I split a big salad before our pizza greets us. We still wash it down with an IPA, but this strategy helps lessen the damage.
#7. Eat Real Food
This goes along with #6, but is important to reiterate- no processed or junk foods! You’ve been working hard all week, making good choices, being disciplined, working out, etc. After all that, don’t feed your body crap like processed foods, fast food, or junk food. Keep your cheat meals high quality and from something that wasn’t made in a lab.
#8. Protein. Protein. Protein.
I highly recommend you consume protein with whatever your cheat meal may be, just as a favor to your digestive and detoxification systems. When you overload your system with a meal that’s high in carbs, sugar, and/or fat, you make your body work harder than it needs to, and risk a spike in blood sugar that will promote diabetes.
Your body also needs protein, and can’t store it like it stores your other macronutrients. You’ll need to keep your amino acid pool replenished by consuming protein, and this is especially important if you’re following rule #1!
#9. Find Accountability
Not everyone will need this, but if you tend to go overboard on your cheat meals, or if you tend to cheat unplanned or periodically throughout the week, it’s time you enlist an accountability partner.
Find a friend, workout buddy, or hire The Fit Tutor (that’s me!) to help keep you accountable to your goals. It’s in our culture’s veins to feel that we deserve to go all out and eat whatever crap we want with no consequences. That may have worked for the 15 year old you, but it doesn’t work now, and it doesn’t help you step toward your goals.
Be held accountable to a certain order at a restaurant, take before/after photos of your plate to ensure moderation, or consistently log your meals and allow this person to look at them to ensure you did, in fact, earn this cheat meal. Enact consequences if you go overboard, or set limits on certain things like how many cookies, drinks, tacos- whatever it is you know you’ll need help with.
#10. Know Yourself
I cannot emphasize the importance of this enough. You are the variable that makes your cheat meal different. While your friend may be able to eat ice cream and be OK, that might not work well for you. You know that if you eat that sugary treat you will crave ice cream every day for the next week, and you’re not pleasant when you crave ice cream. Whatever your thing is, know it, work around it, and protect your goals.
If a cheat meal will wreck your diet, your willpower, or cause hard to manage cravings, then ask “is it worth it?” If you’re doing a strict low-calorie diet or carb-cycling, a re-feed day is necessary to prevent a plateau, but if you’re not doing that then you don’t need a cheat meal.
In order to be successful at virtually anything, you need to know your weaknesses and either work to be stronger or protect yourself against them. In this case, avoiding something that could cause a binge, cravings, or for your brain to decide that these goals are lame and healthy is overrated is incredibly important! Know what splurges you can and can’t handle and plan any cheat meal accordingly. On the flip side, if saying something is completely off limits causes you to lose your mind, make a plan for moderation, and keep #1-9 in mind.
#11. Learn How to Say “No”
Saying no to the constant bombardment of treats, unhealthy snacks, desserts, happy hours, etc is hard, but so worth it. Remind yourself that you’re not really missing out by saying no, you’re actually one step closer to reaching your goals. Reached goals bring feelings of accomplishment, success, confidence, and in this case improved health. Succumbing to temptations brings fleeting happiness, regret, and a step backward from the goals you set for yourself.
Saying no to unplanned cheats or splurges puts you in control, and helps you to earn a cheat meal of your choosing. If you say yes to unplanned cheats, then rethink your planned cheat- there’s a chance your goals will be hindered if you say yes to both. Saying yes to unplanned cheats can be really fun, enjoyable, and help your social life– and I encourage that! Just make sure you are making up for those extra calories, following as many of these guidelines as possible, and adding workouts and/or adjusting your planned cheat as necessary.
#12. Mentally Prepare
This could be its own separate post because there’s so much to this- as well as how ridiculously important it is to your success! Honestly, just taking a step back before you indulge to take a deep breath and gather your thoughts can save you a thousand calories and a gut bomb. No joke.
If food is your downfall, and if overeating is a struggle for you, you’ll need to psych yourself up for your cheat meals. Not in the way you probably are (“That Mac N Cheese is going to be so amazing!!”), but by reminding yourself of your WHY– why you workout, why you’re eating healthy in the first place. Keeping perspective will help keep you from idolizing your cheat meal, help you keep a healthy relationship with food, and keep you from sabotaging the hard work you did this week.
Here are some things I recommend reminding yourself before a cheat meal, if your splurges get out of hand or if overeating is a weakness:
- Your WHY- Why you have adopted this healthy lifestyle
- to be around for your kids or family
- to lower your disease risk, blood pressure, cholesterol, dangerous belly fat, etc
- to look better
- to feel more confident
- to reach a health or fitness goal (5k, Tough Mudder, daily tasks being easier, etc)
- Fill in your response here___________
- This is not a reward
- you are not a dog, food is not a reward for good behavior
- you are treating yourself to food you enjoy but cannot eat too often or too much of because you have goals
- No food/drink is forbidden, just something that would set you back in your progress
- You are in control
- you are not at the mercy of your appetite or emotions
- this is not connected with a bad day, an emotional choice, etc- this is because you have built occasional splurges into your healthy eating lifestyle
- this is not a free-for-all
- you have control over what and how much you eat
- you can stop at any time, preferably when you start to feel full
- Certain foods are harmful for you in large quantities
- you avoid these foods on a daily basis because they aren’t healthy and hurt your success
- Sugar: inflammation, belly fat, feeds cancer cells, weight gain, promotes diabetic state in the body, etc
- Alcohol: overwork your detoxification system, inflammation of liver, weight gain, disrupts sleep, dehydrates
- Wheat: stimulates appetite for days, promotes bad cholesterol, belly fat, weight gain, promotes diabetes, increases blood sugar, heart disease, etc
- Carbs: depending on the source they could have the same health effects as sugar and wheat; promote weight gain, water weight, and fat storage
- Research your favorite food splurges to see how they negatively affect your health to help promote self-control during your cheat meal
- You like feeling good!
- Gut bomb now = sick you later… just about guaranteed…
- Regret and shame are the worst
- Knowing you basically undid an entire workout due to your calorie consumption in your cheat is a special kind of anger and frustration…
- Feeling good the rest of the week > feeling good while eating certain foods (or drinks) for a few minutes
I told you this could be it’s own post- geez! Such powerful stuff here. Write down your reasons and look at them before your cheat meal. Take a deep breath and enjoy while knowing you’re not missing out on anything if you don’t finish your plate or skip that extra beer…
#13. Stop Calling it a Cheat Meal
I’ve been painfully referring to it as a cheat meal throughout this post so I can speak everyone’s language, but seriously… what are you cheating on? Who are you cheating on? What connotation does the word cheat have? The definition of cheat is to act dishonestly and unfairly, and to deceive and trick. So you are doing that to 1. you, 2. your goals, 3. your health. The term cheat meal makes my skin crawl.
I refer to mine as “splurges.” I sometimes like the term “treat” but I think that’s too synonymous with “reward” for most people. Some people call it their 10% meal…This meal, food, or drink is something that you have decided to allow yourself to have. You don’t consume it too often, but you like it so you make exceptions every now and then.
If something is “cheating” or seen as forbidden, it attaches an unhealthy attitude and relationship with that thing or activity. We are talking about food and drink here, friends. Instead of thinking certain things are “off-limits,” consider them as things you consume only on occasion because they don’t promote health and/or they take you a step away from your goals. I avoid some foods just because they make me feel awful. In these scenarios, you are in control, and none promote an unhealthy attachment or crazy emotional high as you consume that particular food or drink.
You can brainstorm a term that works well for you, but try to think about it differently ASAP so you can have a healthier relationship with food!
Choose a Diet That You Don’t Want to Cheat On
My healthy eating plan allows me yummy foods (while strictly following #1 & 4) so I rarely feel like I’m missing out. I usually splurge here or there throughout the week, if the rest of my diet is on point. I rarely feel hungry, and my body composition is moving in the direction that I want, at the speed of my adherence ;)
Unless you’re determined your 8-pack will make people cry this summer or are preparing for a physique competition, I wouldn’t advise a diet that makes you hungry, crave, or miserable. Yes, I rarely eat sacred mac n cheese, but I also lost a lot of weight in my face without trying- and seriously guys, I never even knew I had face fat to lose! What!? Anyway, think it over. Email me.
Whatever your goals are, a healthy relationship with food is a must, and a good Step 1 is tweaking your cheat meal so it’s not making you re-gain the weight you worked so hard to lose this week.
I think weight is way more complex than calories in vs. calories out, but it’s still an important factor. I’ll leave you with some simple math:
Cheat Meal Math
To lose 1 pound per week you need to cut around 500 calories each day (via food or exercise or combo).
One 1500 calorie cheat meal will destroy three days of your hard work.
Or, if you eat a deep dish “Chicago Classic” single serve pizza from UNO’s, you will destroy 4.5 days of your hard work.
What do you normally eat for your cheat meal or splurge? What tips can you offer us to help make these meals do less damage? Tell us in the comments!
Did these tips help you? If so, please spread the word! :)