‘Cheating’ can never be a good thing surely? Everything I see about cheat meals online would lead you to believe that despite regularly scoffing a pizza or doughnuts, you can still stay in shape and build on your fitness in the gym? Is this really true?

Cheat Meals

What is a cheat meal?

‘Cheat’, ‘treat’, ‘reward’ or ‘free’ meals, you can jazz the name up however you like, what happens is still the same. This is a momentary lapse from the diet and training regime you’ve been following religiously and usually consists of indulging in foods of low nutritional value that your body’s been craving all week. The purpose of a ‘cheat’ meal is to give yourself something to work towards as a reward for dieting and exercising hard during the week, supposedly to stop you mentally and physically feeling deprived and save your sanity.

The science supporting cheat meals

Believe it or not, there is scientific evidence to support cheat meals. After dieting for some time, leptin levels fall and your metabolism becomes significantly slower. Leptin, known as the ‘satiety hormone’ is a hormone made up of adipose (fat) cells that help to regulate your energy levels by balancing hunger. When your leptin levels are normal, your body senses it has the energy to function normally.

Leptin reduction is your body's natural response to a calorie deficit as energy stored as fat is lost, it was developed as a defense mechanism for times where food was scarce by our ancestors so that we could survive for longer on little or no food. leptin levels return to normal once the fat mass is recovered. When fat mass increases, leptin levels increase until fat loss occurs and then leptin returns to its maintenance level.

Research has shown that having a cheat meal can lead to an increase in leptin levels that have reduced due to the calorie deficit. In fact, research in the American Journal of Physiology found that temporarily upping calorie intake after a prolonged calorie deficit can increase energy expenditure and leptin production by nearly 30%, for up to 24 hours.

Calorie deficit diets also reduce thyroid hormones T3 and T4, which regulate metabolic rate, partially due to the lower levels of leptin. Some research suggests a cheat meal can restore these metabolic hormones.

How often should I have a cheat meal?

Most nutritional experts agree that although there may be benefits of a cheat meal, it's important not to make them too frequent. Most people will stick to a cheat meal once a week. The general rule of thumb is 90/10, provided your diet is on track 90% of the time, the 10% of your cheat meal can be used beneficially without altering your results.

Are cheat meals bad?

Let’s weigh it up.

Positive effects of cheat meals

  1. A cheat meal can help you stick to your clean diet the rest of the week and give you something to work towards.
  2. A cheat can spur an increase in leptin, aiding metabolism and weight loss.
  3. A cheat may increase motivation and give you a the extra edge you need for your training to progress.
  4. Cheat meals can be useful in social situations, when eating at a restaurant it means you can relax a little or avoid odd looks at family events by rolling up with a Tupperware of chicken and greens.

Negative effects of cheat meals

  1. If you are following a macro-specific diet, your body won’t be able to adapt if you keep cheating. For example, if following a low carb diet, your body needs to produce certain hormones before it goes ketogenic (burns fat for energy). If you throw in a cheat meal once a week, this process will never stand a chance.
  2. Once you pop you just can’t stop. The type of foods people usually cheat with (high sugar or high fat), are highly addictive and a scheduled cheat meal can become a full-blown binge, counteracting all the hard work you put into exercising.
  3. You may feel guilty after. Whilst it may feel great at the time, you could end up beating yourself up about your cheat meal for days, which in turn is going to affect your mental wellbeing as well as training.
  4. Dopamine. When you over-eat, the reason it feels so good at the time is due to an increase in dopamine, as your body becomes attuned to this, the more we eat, the more it takes to get the same dopamine hit and so we eat and eat and eat, making it hard to get back to a normal routine after a cheat meal.
  5. Indigestion. Over-indulgence causes your digestive system to slow down not only can this lead to constipation, uncomfortable bloating and weight gain but also it can prevent toxins from being released in the body leading to conditions such as poor skin, arthritis and diabetes.

Should I have a cheat meal?

As you can see, cheat meals have their fair share of both positive and negative effects, so it’s hard to be conclusive as to whether you should try it or not. Personally, I think it’s a matter of trial and error, listening to your body and finding what works for you. Whilst some may be able to enjoy a cheat meal once a week and then carry on guilt free, others may end up overindulging and feeling guilty for the entire week. Personality type should be a large factor when deciding whether a cheat meal is for you or not, do you have good self-control, or do you have an addictive personality type? Some key questions you should be asking yourself are:

  • Is this a scheduled cheat or an emotional eat / binge?
  • What am I going to eat?
  • When am I going to train next?
  • Am I going to feel guilty if I eat this?

If you do start adding cheat meals into your routine, keep a diary of how you felt before, during and after. What happened to your weight and mood? How did it affect your training? This way you can reflect upon whether this is the protocol for you and let us know how you get on!