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Cheat Meals

A Comprehensive Guide to "Cheating" on Your Diet Without Failing

Picture yourself with your ideal physique. Now picture your favorite junk food, be it dessert, fast food, or some other indulgence.

You might guess that to make the first image a reality you have to avoid your favorite foods altogether.

Lucky for most of us, that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, many renowned fitness experts recommend incorporating “cheat meals” into your diet plan.[1]

Cheat meals can be the key to pampering your taste buds while still staying on track with your fitness goals. This article answers key questions about cheat meals so you can cheat without cheating yourself of results.

What Is a Cheat Meal?

Stated simply, a cheat meal is any meal that doesn’t meet the requirements of a given diet plan. Diet plans vary widely, so not all cheat meals are created equal. But, true cheat meals meet all of the following criteria.

Scheduled. Cheat meals need to be planned ahead of time.[2] For one, this keeps you honest. You can’t just randomly decide to eat fast food for lunch as a cheat meal. If that were an option, many people would find themselves cheating more often than not. If most of your diet is cheat meals, you’re not on a diet at all.

For another, planning cheat meals ahead of time makes them a goal or reward to strive towards. If you know you get to have a slice of peach pie after dinner on Friday, you’re more likely to skip the sweets on Thursday afternoon.

Scheduling cheat meals is also a great way to incorporate social eating situations into your diet. Most parties involve food and caloric drinks, which aren’t diet friendly. Cheat meals allow you to participate in festivities without feeling guilty.

Limited. Cheat meals are not a license to eat anything and everything. Instead, a cheat meal usually means breaking from the norm, eating a larger but still monitored number of calories, and indulging in a tastier option.[2]

One tactic recommended by fitness experts is to eat out for your cheat meals.[3] Order a menu item that appeals to you but doesn’t necessarily resemble your typical diet food. You can even have an appetizer or dessert if you want. However, don’t take home your leftovers. That way you leave your cheat meal at the restaurant and have to stick to the diet at home.

If you’re eating at home, plan ahead what you’ll eat during your cheat meal. Then, stick to the menu and portion sizes you planned out. This prevents your cheat meal from getting out of hand.

Consistent. As your willpower fluctuates, you might think you don’t need all your regularly scheduled cheat meals. Though it sounds good to skip them, it doesn’t always have positive effects in the long run.

The longer you avoid cheat meals, the more certain foods become “forbidden.” Then, when unexpected cravings hit, you might overindulge, erasing all benefits gained from initially skipping cheat meals.[2]

The recommended ratio of diet meals to cheat meals is about 9 to 1. This strategy is known as the 90/10 plan because it means eating right 90% of the time but having leeway for the other 10%. Using this ratio, most dieters are allowed 1 or 2 cheat meals per week.[1]

Benefits of Cheat Meals

Surprisingly, cheat meals aren’t just a reward for good behavior. In fact, cheat meals have a surprising number of additional benefits.

Consistently eating cheat meals gives you a psychological advantage over your diet. Cheat meals become part of the diet plan, meaning no foods are forbidden. For many people, forbidden foods become more tempting despite their generally unhealthy nature.[4] Knowing “cheating” is allowed makes it a guilt-free indulgence.

By the same token, having a designated cheat meal helps many people stay on a diet longer. Instead of yo-yoing between eating healthy and eating whatever they want, dieters who use cheat meals get the best of both worlds.

Some scientists and nutritionists even suggest cheat meals boost metabolism. The theory is our metabolism adjusts to our diet fairly quickly. Consequently, after a while eating limited calories or the same types of healthy foods is what our body expects. Taking a break from the norm makes our metabolism work overtime, preventing metabolic plateaus.[5]

What a Cheat Meal Is Not

To ensure you get all these cheat meal benefits, it’s important to cheat the right way. Some common diet cheating techniques cannot yield the benefits of a true cheat meal.

For instance, one improper cheat meal involves enhancing a diet-friendly meal. A little extra butter on your veggies, an extra portion of the main dish, “just a bite” of your friend’s ice cream, and suddenly you’ve increased your calories quite a bit. Worse, when you cheat this way, you haven’t really treated yourself.[3]

Another improper diet cheating tactic is gluttony. Flawed logic tells dieters they can indulge for this meal, eating whatever they want in unlimited quantities, because they follow such a strict diet at other times.[2]

It’s true: cheat meals are meant to incorporate foods dieters don’t enjoy in most of their meals. But, one buffet-like meal has more negative consequences than positive effects. Eating well at other meals doesn’t entirely prevent your body from storing this meal’s excess calories as fat cells.

What to Eat When You Cheat

Surprisingly, there are no strict rules about the best cheat meal foods.[4] Essentially, if you’re following the 3 guidelines above, it’s almost impossible to cheat on your cheat meals.

This occurs in part because diets vary so much from person to person. It also happens because cheat meals are intended to train the mind that while certain foods must be eaten in moderation, no foods are strictly prohibited.

Hence, someone on a high protein diet might choose to cheat with a carb-heavy meal. Someone who avoids sweets might consume a bowl of ice cream. Someone counting calories might plan to eat buttered popcorn at the movie theater this weekend. The cheat meal possibilities are endless.

The Best Time to Cheat

To take full advantage of your cheat meals, eat them as soon as possible after a workout. Your metabolism will already be operating at a higher efficiency. Consequently, no matter how you indulge, you’re not running as big a risk of storing the excess calories.[1]

Following this advice isn’t necessary for every cheat meal. But, it might give you greater peace of mind when you bite into your chosen cheat food.

Go Ahead, Cheat a Little

There you have it: a simple plan for working your favorite foods into your diet, whatever it is, and still staying on track with your fitness goals. If your appetite is already crying out for a delicious delicacy you haven’t enjoyed in a while, tell yourself it’s okay to indulge. Maybe you can have your cake and diet, too.


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