What is a cheat meal?
If you follow a strict eating plan or diet, it's most likely you won't be able to sustain it for long periods of time. Especially if training for a competition or race, you may be restricting calories and feeling the hunger. This is where cheat meals or cheat days come in. A cheat meal is a meal where you eat whatever you want and forget about your macros and calories. A cheat day, on the other hand, is an entire day of eating whatever you want and forgetting about the consequences. But are they good for you?
Cheat meals for weight loss
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. 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 increasing 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.
Cheat Meals vs Cheat Day
You need to be very careful with your cheat meals or cheat days as you can potentially undo a lot of very hard work. Most fitness professionals and athletes will choose to stick to one cheat meal per week rather than a whole day. This is because the amount you can physically eat in one sitting is drastically lower than the amount you could eat throughout the course of an entire day. You are far less likely to ruin your progress with just one cheat meal than an entire cheat day. Plus, if you allow yourself to eat whatever you want for a whole day, the likelihood that you'll then want to cheat again the next day is significantly higher.
Benefits of cheat meals
There are both physical and mental benefits to having a cheat meal and relaxing your diet slightly every now and then. Following a calorie-restricted diet can cause stress and anxiety which in turn will result in bloating and sometimes even mental disorders. Having a cheat meal allows you to relax and enjoy yourself. It also gives you something to look forward to while you are being restrictive.
It's important to remember cheat days and cheat meals are only recommended for people who are following a controlled and personalised calorie-resitrcted diet, such as those preparing for a bodybuilding show. If you do not have professiona help, you should not follow a severely calorie-restricted diet, and having a cheat meal may not have the desired effect. Always seek professional advice before embarking upon a new eating regime.