Many people who are dieting for the sake of losing fat, increasing muscle, or simply improving their health (decreasing cholesterol, inflammatory markers, etc) have debated about the merits of sticking to a rigid diet versus a flexible diet. Central to this debate is the concept of a cheat meal or even a cheat day.
Some swear by using cheat meals/cheat days to be able to stick to their diets. Others feel that cheat meals derail them into a state of prolonged overeating causing them to “fall off the wagon”.
We use cheat meals and variations of the concept extensively in our highly successful Body Balance Challenge. These techniques are the major reason why clients get dramatic results. I’ll reveal a little more about them below.
So let’s first talk about what cheat days, cheat meal and related concepts are, then discuss how and if you should use them.
What are Cheat Meals?
Some regard cheat meals as purposely eating a lot of junk. Others regard them as brief departures from their normal diet. I think the latter definition is better. There’s no place in a diet plan for going out of your way to eat 3000 calories of chips, chocolate, fries, and burgers for a cheat meal. If fat loss and heart health is your goal it will undo some hard earned progress.
So for now let’s consider a cheat meal as simply a departure from the normal prescribed diet. If you are on a low carb diet, then a cheat meal would involve eating a cup of brown rice along with your chicken and veggie stir fry. But this also depends on context. If it is a friend’s birthday, it involves eating a piece of cake. This perhaps brings up the need for 2 different terms: free meal vs cheat meal. Cheat meal implies that you are doing something wrong, or that you are eating an unhealthy meal. That would be the piece of cake. Free meal implies that there’s anything wrong with what you ate, it just isn’t on the plan. That would be the brown rice meal in the above example.
What about Cheat Days?
There is also the concept of cheat days. Cheat days involve completely going off the wagon and eating whatever you want for an entire day.
This approach has been popularized by some body builders. They eat completely “clean” all week, then go nuts eating pizza, pancakes, and cookies all Sunday. Genetic freaks who are already relatively lean, workout daily, and have a unique hormone profile primed to store carbs instead of fat might get away with this. But in general, this is a bad idea for most. So I won’t talk much about cheat days.
However, having a day where you eat free meals – again, healthy meals but including things off the plan (think of the low carber, adding whole wheat bread, sweet potatoes, oat meal etc for a day) – can be a more viable option. There might be physiological and psychological benefits of this. More on that in a minute.
I should also mention that a free day can consist of taking a departure from other aspects of dieting as well: not strictly tracking food intake via a food log and not paying attention to meal frequency.
So now we know about the distinction between cheat meals, free meals, and cheat days and free days. So let’s look at why they might be beneficial.
Benefits of cheat and free meals
The benefits can be broken down into physiological benefits and psychological benefits.
The psychological benefits are pretty obvious. The rigors of adhering to a strict diet can wear you down. Going to a party or dinner with friends, being surrounded by junk food and endless opportunities for indulgence can make for a miserable situation. And if you decide to partake, the guilt can be severe. However, consider a situation where, as part of your diet, you have these free meals planned, or strategies to account for a cheat meal when they do occur. This takes the stress and guilt out of the equation, because you are still either:
1. Following the plan (eating your free meal) or
2. Have a strategy for accounting for a cheat meal when it does happen (birthdays, parties, etc).
One of the reasons we are able to see clients achieve quick results and long term success can be attributed to the psychological benefits of this approach.
The physiological benefits seem to be related to increasing muscle glycogen (needed for energy) and hormones such as leptin and thyroid T4 which regulate hunger and metabolism. Diets restricting calories for a long time can reduce these hormones, thus potentially increasing hunger and lowering metabolism. Cheat meals or free meals may prevent or reduce these changes. However, it seems that the research is not very strong on the effects of just one free meal upon the functions of these hormones. Perhaps longer periods of “cheating” or free meals would be needed. That brings me to re-feeds and maintenance phase of dieting.
Re-feeds and Maintenance Phase
Re-feeds refer to a more extended time of purposefully increasing calories above the diet phase. So if you have been on a 1400 calorie diet, a re-feed would purposefully have you increase your calories for a few meals or even a few days. This seems to have a more significant effect on increasing leptin and T4 hormones, or at least preventing a decline on these hormones.
Maintenance refers to eating at a maintenance level of calories, or close to it. The goal is not to lose weight, and certainly not to gain weight, but rather, hold your ground.
This isn’t too different from how things are done in academia, sports or business. There always period of hard work, and periods of coasting. Semesters in school, in-season and off-season in sports, and quarters punctuated with vacations and retreats in business are examples of this. I think the same logic should apply to nutrition. We will have better focus on our diet if it is broken down into 6-12 week chunks, with planned breaks to let our bodies and minds take a hiatus, and then go back after it with fervor for another focused time frame. Or, for those who have achieved their goals, simply stay the course.
The issue now is how to we use these strategies to meet our goals?
How to Use Cheat Meals, Free Meals, Free Days, Re-feeds, and the Maintenance Phase?
Cheat meals can work well for those who are lean, as they tend to store more excess food as muscle glycogen versus fat. So lean people can do these more frequently.
They also work well for most in situations such as holidays and birthdays where you know you will be around some junk and have a plan for how to account for those extra calories so you don’t halt your progress.
Cheat meals do not work well however for those with food addictions, as this can send them into a downward spiral of massive over consumption and set them back quite a bit. I should also mention that those who are overweight should use cheat meals sparingly, as some research indicates that they tend to store more excess calories as fat compared to leaner individuals.
Free meals work great for most everyone. Again, they can be used more frequently the leaner you are in general. Same goes for re-feeds.
The maintenance phase is best used when:
1. You hit your goal
2. You have been dieting for a long time. Again, this is relative. Obese individuals can diet for longer times before they need to take a break and go on maintenance mode. Leaner individuals (usually body builders and athletes) need to go into maintenance mode more often to prevent muscle break down, over training, and decreased performance.
3. You are in a period of severe stress, or on vacation. These are times when dieting really sucks, so why set yourself up for failure? This isn’t the time to forget your diet and eat garbage, though. Rather, it is time to eat healthy but not track food and restrict calories below maintenance levels. An exception to this is for those people who feel making progress and controlling their diet is a way to get control of their life when they are stressed. As you can see, there is a lot of “it depends” here.
The Big BUT!
Cheat meals, re-feeds, free meals, maintenance phase: these things are great strategies that really work, but…
1. You still need to assess! If you don’t keep track of your body fat, things can easily get out of hand. This is a results driven process. Add to that, we tend to lose insight about how much we are eating. The numbers don’t lie, so tracking them can let you know if a.) you are gaining too much, so you are really on a bulking plan instead of a maintenance plan or b.) Relax! you aren’t getting fat – you are doing fine because the numbers tell you that, because in spite of going on a maintenance plan for 3 weeks you only gained a 1 pound. No big deal – you can lose that in a couple days when you get back on the diet plan.
2. There still needs to be a plan! Don’t rationalize going off your diet three times a day because you now have a clever term for it. And there is no reason to be on a maintenance plan for 4 weeks when you are significantly overweight. These need to be strategically planned based on your needs and goals, and there needs to be a start and end date for your maintenance plan or re-feed period.
These factors get overlooked. They are also one of the main reasons why our clients get amazing results with the Beverly Body Balance Challenge. We go over in-depth exactly how you should use these strategies, amongst others, to get results quickly but also teach you how to sustain them long term and still live your life. Click here to see what I mean.