The Problem with Cheat Meals
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If we’re being honest, we all want cheat meals (or even cheat days) to be a good idea.
When you’re in a calorie deficit trying to lose weight and feeling hungry, there’s nothing quite as exciting as the thought of eating whatever you want and filling your belly — especially if it’ll boost your metabolism so you can keep losing weight without hitting a plateau.
Spoiler alert… it’s not as good of an idea as it sounds.
More often than not, this strategy will lead you right back to weight gain. I’ll explain why, but I won’t just leave you hanging. There’s an alternative to cheat meals that can give you a much needed break from your diet WITHOUT destroying your progress.
The Truth About ANY Weight Loss Diet
If I were on death row (don’t worry, I’m sure I was wrongly convicted), my last meal request would be sushi and chocolate chip cookies.
It’s not exactly a classic combination, but they’re my favorite foods, so I don’t care. And If I were to do “cheat days,” they would be on my regular rotation for those days, too.
But guess what…
I don’t do cheat days, and those foods ARE on my regular rotation. In fact, I’m in the middle of a weight loss phase right now and yesterday we had cookies during a family game night.
We have them often enough that our 11-year-old son can make them from scratch on his own, so it’s something we all enjoy together more often than most other treats — whether I’m doing weight loss or not.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression — I have them a bit less frequently when I’m doing weight loss. But it’s never a matter of restriction vs no restriction. Because here’s the truth about any GOOD weight loss diet…
It shouldn’t be all that different from how you normally eat.
The more different a diet is from your real-life eating habits, the less likely it is to work. Or, if it does work, the results aren’t likely to stick.
On the other hand, the more similar your weight loss approach is to how you eat on a normal, day-to-day basis, that’s when you’ll finally be able to get to a healthy weight and have an easier time staying there.
And you can do it without feeling like you’re in a constant battle to eat better.
Cheat meals are the antithesis of that mindset, which is why they aren’t a good idea. Let’s take a closer look.
3 Problems With Cheating
1. It can undo your hard work.
Weight loss comes down to energy balance. You can’t lose weight if you eat more calories than you burn through being active.
That’s an ongoing thing — it doesn’t reset every morning. You can be in a calorie deficit Monday-Friday, but if you completely go off the rails on the weekend, in those two days you can 100% undo the deficit you maintained for the other 5 days.
It’s pretty easy to do, too.
It can happen because when your calorie deficit is too extreme and you eventually binge eat an entire pizza and pint of ice cream.
Or it can be that your deficit is too small and all it takes to offset your progress is a day or two of eating a bit more than normal. (In that case, you might not even notice you did anything different and start to wonder if something is wrong with you, like maybe your metabolism is broken.)
Either way, it’s a delicate balance that cheat meals can make more difficult to get right.
2. It creates an all-or-nothing mentality.
If you’ve ever felt like you could get great results with a particular diet, but then something came up, life got busy, and you had to stop, you are officially a victim of pop-culture fitness and nutrition programs.
I use the word “victim” intentionally.
You’re constantly being sold on things that say, “All you have to do is cut out carbs so your body uses fat for fuel” (aka Keto).
Or, “These next 75 days are going to be super intense, but it’ll build up the mental toughness needed to make a change” (aka 75 Hard).
Or, “Follow this tough diet that isn’t at all like how you normally eat and use cheat days to boost your metabolism so you don’t plateau.”
Even if those things get you (or someone you know) great results for a while, they are NOT realistic for a long-term mindset. There will be times when you’re all-in, and times when it’s literally not possible to do them at all.
That’s why cheat meals often become cheat days, become cheat weeks, become cheat months, become “What am I even cheating on anymore?”
It’s not your fault when you fall off the wagon — the all-or-nothing mentality is literally built-in to these systems.
3. It perpetuates the idea of “good” and “bad” foods.
The idea of cheating on a diet implies there are certain things you’re allowed to eat and certain things you aren’t.
This isn’t anything new.
Labeling foods as inherently “good” or “bad” is a concept that gets regurgitated, recycled, and reused with every new trend in dieting. The list of good and bad foods get changed, the diet gets a new name but, foundationally, it’s always the same thing.
And it’s a major contributor to disordered eating.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term disordered eating, basically it’s a set of behaviors that can lead to health concerns ranging from actual eating disorders (e.g. anorexia) to obesity, bone loss, anxiety, depression, and more.
Unfortunately, thanks to popular dieting strategies (including, but definitely not limited to, cheat meals), it’s actually very common (75% of women, though they often don’t realize their dieting habits are disordered at all).
I’ve painted a pretty bleak picture of cheat meals, and I stand behind it.
But sometimes the best strategy IS to take a break from a weight loss diet to enjoy more food. To do a diet break correctly (so it doesn’t just become cheat meals under a new name), you have to understand 2 things:
The only way to take a break and guarantee you won’t destroy your weight loss progress is to have a clear understanding of how much you can eat without gaining OR losing weight.
It’s not a fixed number — it’s a range.
Some people can cut 500 calories per day and not lose weight because they’re still within their maintenance range. While others (though not as many) can eat an additional 500 calories per day and still not gain weight.
If you want to take a diet break but don’t know your maintenance range, the important thing is to carefully track what you eat and then watch how your weight responds. Your weight will NOT be the exact same every day — just look for the average over a minimum of 2-4 weeks.
(Side note: Don’t actually count calories. Here’s what we recommend instead.)
If you were to stay on your weight loss diet all the time every day without a break, you’d always be losing weight. The downside to this is that it makes life difficult, it can become unhealthy if your diet is too intense, and it simply isn’t practical when considering real-life situations like birthdays, holidays, vacations, etc.
On the other hand, if you only do one day of weight loss dieting per week and stay at maintenance the other six days (true maintenance — never overeating), you could technically still lose weight, but it would take FOREVER to see any results.
The more you stay in maintenance, the slower the progress. The more you stay in weight loss, the more the headache (and more potential to sabotage your progress).
You’ll want to find a balance that works best for you.
How to Do Diet Breaks
Now that you understand Maintenance and Balance a little better, it’ll be easier to give you some guidelines on making diet breaks work for you.
There are only 2 factors to consider:
1. How Big of a Break
If you have a solid grasp on how much to eat for true maintenance, I recommend eating the full amount whenever you take a diet break.
If you DON’T have maintenance already dialed in, you’re better off taking a more conservative approach. Eat more than you are for weight loss, but leave yourself some headroom so you don’t accidentally overeat during your break.
2. How Long of a Break
I suggest either taking regular diet breaks for just a couple days at a time (like I’m doing right now to make the weekends easier), or by planning extended breaks (at least a couple weeks, if not months) during a long weight loss journey.
There isn’t a certain amount of time you HAVE to take a diet break. But the longer you go without a break, the longer your break should be when you do take one.
Either way, it should be pre-determined as much as possible, but flexible if something comes up and it makes more sense to shift your schedule
Do Cheat Meals Boost Your Metabolism?
You might still be wondering if the whole reason for cheat meals (or diet breaks) is that they supposedly boost your metabolism. That’s definitely a big selling point — but it’s misleading.
Anytime you increase the amount of food you eat, whether it be through diet breaks or cheat meals, you have the potential to reach a higher point in your maintenance range (which we talked about earlier). In some ways, this means your metabolism speeds up as your body adapts to eating more.
The reason it’s misleading is because, once you drop back down into a weight loss diet, your body will just adapt by slowing your metabolism again. (I explain what to do about this in “Is My Metabolism Damaged?”)
There may be SOME temporary metabolic advantage to a diet break (it’s debatable and likely individual), but it’s not significant enough to justify doing it based on that alone. There’s a bigger reason:
It’s an opportunity to recover from the physical AND mental toll of being in a calorie deficit.
No matter how well your diet is going — even if you feel great and are seeing good progress — think of a diet break as preventive maintenance. If you just try to stick with weight loss for months and months on end, eventually you’ll burn out.
An occasional diet break may feel like it’s delaying progress, but it’s really just giving you a better chance of actually reaching your goal.
One More Benefit to Diet Breaks
One of the biggest weight loss mistakes you can make is to pay attention to your diet when trying to lose weight but then not pay attention to (or downright ignore) your food choices during maintenance.
That pretty much sums up the mentality behind cheat meals and cheat days.
Diet breaks rely heavily on intentionally practicing maintenance and finding a realistic balance that fits your life — the opposite of a “cheating” mindset.
Remember, if you want healthy eating to become something that’s more second nature to you so you don’t have to think about it all the time, your diet (even during weight loss) needs to be something you can use forever.
Diet breaks are just one tool for finding your “forever” plan.
If that’s something you need help with, and if you want guaranteed results or your money back, apply for our coaching here.
“Cheat meals” are a bad idea. “Diet breaks” are an alternative that can achieve the same result in a healthier way. Neither will significantly affect your metabolism, but they both give a mental break from the stress of weight loss. Other big differences:
Cheat meals create a “bad vs. good food,” all-or-nothing mentality that leads to yo-yo dieting at best and eating disorders, anxiety, depression (and more) at worst.
Diet breaks are times of intentionally practicing maintenance and finding a balance that’s realistic for you (and your family) so you can one day live a healthy life WITHOUT having to think about it so much (aka your “forever” plan).
If that’s something you want help with, and if you want guaranteed results or your money back, apply for our coaching here.