Dieting is a fickle beast. Some days, eating just enough chicken, rice, and vegetables to function is fine. Other days, the overwhelming need to eat an entire pizza pie is almost too much to handle. Thankfully, any diet can handle motivation-saving cheat meals. A free meal that allows you to indulge in whatever your heart (and taste buds) desire may seem too good to be true, but cheat meals are actually essential for a healthy diet. Having said that, there’s a right way to do a cheat meal that will aid in weight loss and there’s a wrong way that could end up hindering your overall weight loss goal.
The 90/10 Rule
First thing's first: It’s a cheat meal, not a cheat day. Cheat meals should be a part of your diet, but cheat days will ruin your diet. Nutrition experts agree that any diet should adhere to the 90/10 rule, meaning 90 percent of the diet should be focused solely on healthy food, while the remaining 10 percent can be devoted to cheat meals. For example, if you’re looking to follow a dieting plan that allows five smaller meals throughout the day, then you will be consuming 35 meals a week. By following the 90/10 rule, three to four meals a week can be devoted to indulging your sweet tooth.
“Cheat days serve a couple of purposes. First, it is important to clarify that a cheat day is most successful when a single meal that day is regarded as the cheat. If you allow all of your hard work to unravel for an entire day, you can quickly void the progress you have been making all week, especially if weight loss is a goal.” Jillian Guinta, professor in the Health and Physical Education Department at Seton Hall University, told Medical Daily.
Why Should You Eat A Cheat Meal?
That coveted cheat meal you’ve been powering through cups of vegetables and chicken breasts for is more than loading up on junk food. Psychologically, it’s about making your diet seem more feasible. Even the most chiseled gym rat would lose their mind sticking to a strict diet over the course of 12 weeks. Let’s say Monday through Saturday are healthy eating days and Sunday is the day for your cheat meal. Sticking to your diet six days out of the week seems a lot more attainable with some scoops of Ben & Jerry’s waiting at the end.
“There is a psychological component to the cheat day. Without rewards, it can become mundane to keep a healthy lifestyle day in and day out. Oftentimes, it may take several weeks to see the scale budge, so knowing that a cheat day is coming can help keep up motivation,” Guinta explained.
There’s also a scientific approach to why we need an occasional cheat meal. It all starts with leptin, a protein produced by fat tissue that helps regulate body weight and fat mass by impacting appetite and the body’s energy balance. Constant dieting will eventually lead to caloric deficits which causes our energy levels to plummet. A calorie bomb provided by your cheat meal will help the body maintain energy levels needed to continue dieting and exercising.
When Should You Eat A Cheat Meal?
While your goal should be to fully satisfy your junk food desires, cheat meals still require some form moderation and compromise. Remember, your body still needs the three essential macronutrients, protein, carbohydrates, and fat, for energy and to build muscle. Think of your cheat meal as a time for you to enjoy “bad” protein, carbs, and fat. For some people that means switching from grilled to fried chicken for one meal out of the week or complex carbs to simple carbs. Also consider saving your cheat meal for post-workout when the body is ready to make use of every macro, “good” or “bad.”
“Here is one more way that your cheat meal can be used: There are significant weight loss benefits in changing your calories intake for a couple days in a row,” Guinta added. “For example, keeping a 1,400 per day calorie diet for four consecutive days and adding on 200-300 calories for the remaining three days can aid in success. By occasionally boosting your caloric intake, you encourage your body to burn calories more rapidly instead of allowing it to adjust completely to the lower calorie lifestyle.”