Are cheat meals a good or bad idea for a fat loss diet?

Dara: This depends on how much weight you have to lose and what kind of “diet mentality” you have. If someone has a lot of weight to lose and thus will have to spend many months adhering to a diet, then I think they should be able to have “cheat meals” or “free meals” or whatever you want to call them. As long as they are done properly (ie, not too often, and you don’t overeat when you have them) then cheat meals can be a great way to help you stick to an otherwise restrictive program long-term. Knowing you have a cheat meal coming up can help you say no to other temptations and some evidence suggests that an occasional cheat meal may have possible metabolic benefits that keep our fat loss from stalling. I’m not citing references here because I honestly can’t remember where I read that and I know it’s nothing definitive, but it’s a possibility.

If you only have a few pounds to lose, or are in the end stages of a competition prep diet, then I don’t think cheat meals are a good idea. If you have an otherwise clean diet and are just looking to tighten up a bit more, then drop the cheat meals and that should help.

That being said, I know that cheat meals don’t work for everybody. I use them very successfully now, but that wasn’t always the case. Anyone with a history of binge eating or any kind of disordered eating should be very careful with cheat meals, if they even have them at all. Most people who have this problem will know that they are an “all or nothing” kind of personality. They can’t just have one cookie, or just one bite. They know that if they open the floodgates it could end up an entire cheat day or week or worse. In this case, I would say no to cheat meals, for now. Stick to the diet and figure out the behavioural issues around food before trying to add cheat meals in. What I mean by this is read about it, talk about it, get some help if needed; but take control of your relationship with food before you try to incorporate cheat meals. I think eventually everyone should be able to be in enough control to have an occasional “cheat” without feeling guilty and still be able to see results. But we are all different and that’s ok. Do what works for you.

Colin: Dara said it best when she said “Do what works for you.” For some people a cheat meal works really well because they feel like they won’t give into temptation when they know they can have what they want soon anyway. Some people have binge eating problems and once they are triggered with a cheat they can’t stop themselves. Some people do much better with an IIFYM (if it fits your macros) diet where they can pretty much eat whatever they want as long as it fits into their daily macros. Although if you are to do IIFYM I suggest making a minimum fiber goal too to assure you are getting mostly quality carb sources. I feel like a cross between IIFYM and “clean eating” (the term clean eating is a loose term that can and does have a different meaning to everyone) is ideal for most.

As Dara also mentioned I have heard plenty about how a cheat meal when you are dieting hard can help jump-start your metabolism. I’ve never taken the time to look for any data to back this up, but I know many swear by it. Even if it’s not true, the mental benefits that can come from a cheat meal from time to time could be enough to ensure you don’t throw in the towel and go nuts. The bottom line is whatever is going to keep you on track long-term is what is a good idea. Unless you are dieting down for a competition or something short-term, it’s what you can sustain that’s most important.

Matt: I think the main thing cheat meals have to offer is something to look forward to when on a rigid diet. Let’s face it, when you’re eating strictly for function, meal time can become boring and somewhat unsatisfying. If you know in 2 days you get to cheat, then you’re that much more likely to stick to the diet and that is the number one reasons why diets succeed or fail: adherence or lack thereof.

Where some people get their nose out of joint over cheat meals is the name. This very entertaining exchange with Dara and someone in the comments section is worthy of reading. Cheat meal implies that only ‘bad’ food is tasty and the good, healthy food is the stuff that we have to suffer and eat if we want to get lean. I understand that, but when you’re living on food that is near tasteless for months at a time, having something to look forward to makes all the difference.

Maybe cheat meal just needs to get re branded to take the negative connotation away. How about ‘celebratory gastronomic experience that will lead to fat loss success’? No? Better ideas?

Colin: CGETWLTFLS? I could see that sticking! Maybe it’s just me but I don’t get the whole tasteless healthy food thing. I could pretty much live off of chicken (or tilapia), broccoli, and quinoa, and pretty much do when cutting. Even super low carb, take out the quinoa and I’m still good. I love it, and can eat it endlessly. I guess not everyone is as lucky as I am in that sense! I enjoy most healthy food, actually. More so than I do most cheat foods. Never used to be the case, but taste buds adapt.

JC: It is more of a forbidden fruit syndrome. Make a rule that you can’t have it and you only want it more. If you know what you are doing you can have the best of both worlds. The first two names that come to mind on this subject are Layne Norton and Bryan Ahlstrom. I look up to both of these guys and adhere to a lot of what they prescribe. They have a more civil relationship with food and even in prep are known to diet down while eating ice-cream bars and pop tarts. Does a “cheat meal? jump start the metabolism? I thought so – but probably because I read it somewhere. In fact, I know I have read it everywhere. My personal experience having a cheat meal has been favorable for all of the popular and widely reported outcomes. Even Marc Lobliner will say the same – if you want a piece of cake, have a piece of cake. A true dieter will know what is an isn’t within the bounds of their diet – and yes, a little stray here and there is fine. Contest prep may be a little different, and in my experience not everyone can handle even a small stray in prep. I have tried it and I don’t do well with them in prep. But I have to wonder, if I had taken a more calculated and relaxed approach, I might not have such a severe reaction upon the introduction of the forbidden fruit…

The main problem is that many people don’t know limits, or they avoid them using a “cheat? as justification. A cheat is not a binge. A cheat is not a whole large pizza. A cheat is not putting a buffet out of business. Much like the whole bulking dilemma and the “see food? diet, you can’t hide behind a some term or phrase and expect your eating habits to work in harmony with your goal. I’m the poster child for this – and to this day I am yet to meet someone who can binge like I can. There is speculation that NGA Pro Scott Michaels can out binge me, but this is yet to be proven.

Round 1: The best fat loss method

Round 2: Fasted vs fed cardio for fat loss

Round 3: Fat loss and muscle-building supplements

Round 4: Nutrient timing/meal frequency for fat loss/muscle-building

Round 5: The best 3 exercises

Round 6: The ideal training program

Round 7: How much protein for fat loss

Round 8: The last 10 pounds

Round 9: The ultimate training split

Round 10: Do carbs or fats make you fat?

Round 11: Is it better to lose fat or build muscle first?

Round 12: Low reps or high reps for maximum muscle mass?

Round 13: Muscle-building strategy: bulk-up or lean gain?

Round 14: Is training to failure necessary to build muscle mass?

Happy Lifting!

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