Cheating really has a bad connotation. Even writing the title made me cringe a little. In most every area in your life, cheating is bad. Except when it comes to losing weight! Then, cheating is your friend. Cheat meals can make the difference between dieting success and dieting failure. Here is how they work and how to incorporate them into your meal plan.
Cheat Meal vs Cheat Day
There are three schools of thought: the perfect ones club (constricting for most of us normal folks, and after all this is an article on cheat meals, so we will skip them), the cheat day fans, and the cheat meal groupies. While these are all about preference, here is my take.
Personally, I’ve never liked the idea of a cheat day. A day is a very long time and a lot of damage can be done. Because of that you may see variations of the cheat day on just how much fun can be had. Is it absolute reckless abandon? Or is it just being a lot more flexible? Sometimes people or programs prefer going off course for just one day during the week or 1-2 days during the month. These would center more on the cheat day concept.
I prefer cheat meals. I would generally recommend about 2 cheat meals per week. It’s even better if one of those meals are the night before a long cardio day. It will help provide the energy and electrolytes you will need to keep you going. If you have a lot going on one week (either socially, or work is crazy and you are eating out more), then have up to 4. It’s important to remember that the cheat meal is not a euphemism for an all-out binge. You still want to follow your hunger and satiety cues, you just get to have a little more fun while doing it. You can still lose weight, get healthier, and enjoy yourself too!
First the downside:
It’s important you anticipate your weight to go up a day or two after your cheat meal. But fortunately, it won’t be from fat. Weight from fat gains takes longer to work off and this will come back off in a day or two.
If you are losing weight, you likely have low levels of glycogen stores. Glycogen is how the body stores carbohydrate for fuel in your muscles. When your glycogen stores are low, your muscles are relying more on fat metabolism. Fat metabolism is what you want when you’re losing weight. But if you have a large meal, those stores refill with glycogen and that will cause you to hold a little more water.
So the reason why doing the cheat meal right before a long cardio day is perfect because this is great for muscle metabolism. Your muscles work better when running off carbohydrates (glycogen stores or otherwise) as compared to fat. Fat is a slower fuel. It takes longer to get it up and ready for action. Carbs burn like kindling. No muss, no fuss, and a lot more speed. You will have a lot more energy, perform better, and be stronger than you would if you had low levels of glycogen.
That extra glycogen will get torched during your workout after your cheat meal. Then, since you are back on your eating plan, the levels won’t refill all the way and your weight will come back down. If you do not workout for a couple days, those stores will stay around a little longer until they are consumed for energy. They will still go away, it will just take a little longer. Also, it’s important to remember that glycogen isn’t fat. It is actually in the muscle tissue itself. So you won’t be “softer” when it’s there.
That cheat meal will also add salt to your body. This will be another reason that your weight will go up. The salt will cause your body to hold on to more water. This can easily add a couple more pounds to the scale and also take a couple days to wear off. Again, this is where long cardio comes in and helps. You will release a lot of water from sweating. You will also drink a lot of water during your workout, which will surprisingly help to flush your system of that extra salt. If you aren’t going to workout for a couple days, you still need to drink a lot of water to help clear it out. The extra couple pounds from salt intake also isn’t fat. It may make your rings a little tighter, but it drops off quickly.
Now the upside:
A major benefit of cheat meals is that they help your metabolism burn Calories at a higher rate. If you eat 1500 Calories per day your body will start to lower the rate it burns Calories to match the amount of fuel it is getting. It will cut back from areas that are more wasteful. It’s your body trying to survive what it believes to be a famine. If you look at it from your body’s perspective, which is running on thousands of years of hardwired instincts, why would you not be eating? It must be because there isn’t enough food anymore! So your body starts to conserve like crazy so when the time of plenty comes back it can build up it’s energy stores.
On the other hand, cheat meals mean that on two (or so) days per week your calories will bump up. This helps encourage your metabolism not to slow as much. Suddenly it isn’t a prolonged famine. It was just a slight variation from the norm. Your body’s drive to conserve resources isn’t triggered as much and your metabolism stays higher.
What this means is that this will help burn more calories every day! Even on the days where cheat meals are not involved! Woohoo!
Faithful Meal Plans
Those couple of cheat meals make it much easier to stay faithful to a meal plan which allows you to enjoy the things and activities you love most. If you don’t want to give up or limit your portion of movie theatre popcorn, Sunday morning waffles, or Friday nights out, you get to keep them. You can even go wild and have your two cheat meals in one day. You still get to have your cake and eat it too.
Long before I had my kids, my two cheat meals were: Friday dinner with the girls followed by Friday post-dinner clubbing — two cheat meals, one day, pretty much every week. Now they are Friday Funday with the family — easy, quick foods everyone loves and another meal out with my husband, friends, or family. It fit my life and priorities then, and it does now too. Cheat meals can also move from week to week. If I know I’ve got plans to go out to eat a couple times, I’ll make sure I plan for those to be the cheat meals or I try to find the healthier option.
Food is fuel for our bodies. Food is also something we should enjoy. What could be better than eating what you love, doing what you love, and still losing weight and living lean?
What do you think? Would cheat meals help you stay on track? Or do you think they would derail your efforts? Are you willing to try 2 planned cheat meals to see how they work? Then take a moment and let us know how the challenge went for you. Did you like it? Would you change anything?
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