Why You Need a Cheat Meal

Great news: when you are trying a new diet or staying strong with healthy eating, it is totally OK to indulge in a cheat meal every once in awhile.

Whether you’re on a weight loss diet or committed to healthy eating, it’s okay to cheat once in a while. Any diet can survive an occasional cheat meal. Reducing daily calories lowers carbohydrates and can leave you feeling weak and hungry. All those changes in your body due to your diet – and increased exercise – come at a cost.

Scientific research shows cheat meals are necessary because they help you maintain your energy when you are on a prolonged, moderated diet. Without an occasional high-calorie treat, cravings may get the best of you and undo all the hard work you’ve put into your diet.

Cheat Meals Regulate Appetite Hormones

A temporary binge meal can help regulate leptin, the hormone that regulates hunger and energy in your body. Your leptin level decreases, slowing down your metabolism when your body has fewer calories to nourish it. Eating a cheat meal aids weight loss by temporarily convincing your body it has enough food.

Ghrelin, a peptide hormone, and appetite stimulant, is increased when you exercise heavily or restrict your diet, causing intense hunger cravings.  Extreme low-calorie diets may cause your ghrelin levels to rise, making you binge on unhealthy food.

A temporary boost in calorie intake can regulate the levels of leptin and ghrelin in your body. Leptin (and energy) increase by up to 30% in healthy females, after they ate carbohydrates, according to one study.

Other facts about leptin and ghrelin:

  • Leptin levels are low when you’re thin, and higher when you gain weight.
  • The thinner you are, the faster leptin decreases when you don’t eat. The leptin that remains is bound and unable to create energy and suppress appetite.
  • The appetite-suppressing hormone leptin and its appetite- stimulating opposite ghrelin experience significant changes after you fast for one to three days.

A Cheat Meal Reduces Cravings

An occasional cheat meal stops the cravings caused by a restricted diet. Mainstream diets with lists of allowed and restricted foods cause many dieters to cheat more often than recommended or go off the diet completely.

Studies show that flexible dieting, which allows cheat meals and a large number of foods, works better than rigid dieting, which allows dieters to eat only certain foods. Restricted diets are more likely to cause eating disorders and higher BMIs.

A Reward for Being Good All Week

Reward yourself for sensible eating all week can stabilize your hunger cravings and keep you on your diet. A 2014 review of various studies published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found cheat meals and other dietary rewards offered positive short-term changes in appetite and eating behaviors.

Without a reward, dieting becomes boring and monotonous. Cheat meals give you something to look forward to and make it easier to continue your diet for the rest of the week – or until your next scheduled cheat meal. 

A reward system works if you eat an occasional cheat meal and don’t abuse the privilege. You may need to cut down or eliminate cheat meals if you find that they become larger and more frequent. Cheat meals are a happy break, but you still need discipline and willpower to stay on your diet for the long haul.

Schedule Small Cheat Meals

Plan your cheat meals; don’t wing it. A cheat meal should add extra calories without going overboard. You can replace your regular meal with a cheat meal at home, or have your cheat meal at a restaurant with friends.

Use common sense when planning a cheat meal. A few pieces of mushroom, olive and meatball pizza is more well-balanced (and probably has fewer calories) than a pint of chocolate fudge brownie ice cream.

Eat a steak with baked potatoes and creamed spinach, a chicken burrito or a cheeseburger (preferably without the bun) to satisfy your cravings while enjoying a well-balanced meal.

Instead of eating a full cheat meal, you could add 200-300 calories to your count for a few days, and eat a few cookies or a croissant. This method gives you something to look forward to more often, even though it’s not a full meal.

The 90/10 System

Experts agree that 90% of your meals and snacks should be healthy, with 10% allotted for fun cheat foods (pizza, ice cream sandwiches, fried chicken, etc.).

As long as you follow the 90/10 rule, you can eat an occasional junk food snack or high-calorie meal, without throwing off your diet.  You’ll feel satisfied and be less likely to crave “bad food” later in the week. Use cheat meals to keep your diet and appetite on track. Don’t get greedy and have “cheat days.” The 90/10 rule allows for three or four cheat meals a week if you eat five small meals a day, seven days a week.

Stick to the 90/10 rule if you want to lose a lot of weight. It might be a good idea to follow the rule even if you’re at your ideal weight.

How To Avoid Cheating Too Much

You’ll need to disrupt your diet a lot to gain weight, even if you’re not especially adept at self-control. Eating out one or two nights a week may add up to 2,000 calories (the average restaurant meal is 1,000 calories), but you’ll need to eat out every night for a while to gain five pounds.

Don’t feel you need to stick to your diet when you’re at a birthday party or traveling. Enjoy the moment, and get back on track when you get home.

Limit yourself to one cheat meal a day. Avoid placing all your cheat meals one right after the other. A healthy breakfast and lunch followed by a dinner with co-workers aren’t as bad for your diet as three cheat meals in a row.

Reset your body after a cheat meal by eating potassium-rich bananas and avocados to reduce bloating and sodium levels, or eat broccoli, which contains detoxifying glucoraphanin.

Consistency in your diet is better for your gut microbes, so stick to the same cheat foods on a regular basis. Have pizza every Thursday night or go out with your friends for Mexican food and margaritas on Monday.

TFT Team

Our team at The Fitness Tribe often collaborates together to produce content. When you see “TFT Team” this is because the content was not written by a single author, but rather a team effort.