Is a cheat meal a diet no-no or a helpful technique to aid weight loss?

When it comes to eating for weight loss, sustainability is the key to success. That’s why it is often better to follow a balanced eating plan and exercise routine, as opposed to a restrictive plan that includes a list of forbidden foods. 

Dieting impacts both your body and mind in various ways. From a hormonal perspective, following a low-calorie diet for long periods can lower leptin levels. 

This hormone regulates energy intake and expenditure by signalling our brains that we have sufficient energy to meet our metabolic demands and sustain our bodily functions. Leptin works to decrease feelings of hunger when we constantly eat sufficient calories to maintain or increase our energy stores – that’s why it’s often called the satiety hormone. 

Prolonged calorie restriction also impacts ghrelin, a hunger-stimulating hormone that typically decreases once we’ve eaten to turn off the hunger impulse. But dieting can raise ghrelin levels while lowering leptin. The net effect is ravenous hunger that is hard to resist. 

Strategic cheating might just do the trick

Including a regular ‘strategic’ cheat meal could lessen or reverse this effect with a periodic increase in calories. Commonly referred to as re-feeds, these cheat meals may help to raise leptin and lower ghrelin levels in the short term to reduce those powerful hunger pangs and shift your metabolism back into fat-loss mode. 

Additional physiological benefits associated with regular, well-planned cheat meals include:

  • Improved metabolism, which can enhance fat loss.
  • Replenish depleted glycogen stores to reduce feelings of perceived and actual fatigue so that you can train harder or more intensely.

Satisfying cheat meals also offer various potential psychological benefits, including:

  • Reducing the stress and boredom experienced within the confinement of a strict diet by offering alternatives.
  • Serves as an incentive to get through tough times or when cravings kick in. Knowing that you have a guilt-free cheat meal waiting for you can work wonders for your motivation.
  • It is the respite your willpower needs before getting back to the diet grind.

Avoid the snowball effect

When selecting your weekly cheat meal, it is preferable to spike leptin levels without eating hollow calories. 

The wrong option can easily undo all your hard work and commitment during the week. And uncontrolled cheating over a entire day or weekend, or daily treats will ultimately derail your diet and exercise efforts. 

For example, a study conducted by the National Weight Control Registry confirmed that individuals who follow a diet consistently throughout the week were more successful at maintaining weight loss than those who took the weekend off. 

How to cheat

Junk food is often the go-to cheat meal, but indulging your craving doesn’t have to completely derail your dieting efforts. By following these simple tips you can select the best options when eating ‘bad’ foods:

  • It’s not a cheat day – it’s a cheat meal! Restrict it to one per week.
  • Have whatever you want but control your portions.
  • Schedule cheat meals around the days when you train large muscle groups like legs and back, or have more intense or longer sessions.

The reality is that feeling deprived has sabotaged many diet plans. Let’s face it, who can survive on salads, broccoli and leg days at the gym without cravings? Cheat meals let you satisfy those cravings and boost energy levels, which may make a strict diet more manageable.