In this article I’m going to answer a really common question, which is:
How often often should you have a cheat meal (or a cheat day)…on a diet?
And SHOULD you have cheat meals at all?
Keep reading to get your answer.
A Cheat Meal Horror Story
First I want to talk about the DOWNSIDE, or the negative consequences of having cheat meals.
First let’s run through a common cheat meal scenario.
Let’s say that summer’s coming up, and you want to lose some weight and get in shape so you can look good at the beach or the pool. And so you start having all these healthy, low-calorie meals to lose weight.
But pretty quickly you start to feel a craving for those old favorite junk foods: ice cream, pizza, chocolate.
And then, maybe it’s Friday morning, and somebody brings donuts in to work. You’ve been feeling deprived, and these donuts look REALLY good. And everybody else is having them. And someone asks if you’re going to have one.
And in the moment you make a split-second decision, and you think: you know what, I’ll just make this a cheat meal. That’s part of dieting, right?
So you have a donut. You feel a little guilty afterward, but you know it’s not that bad of a mistake.
And then, later that night say you go out to a restaurant with some friends, and you see everybody else ordering these delicious-sounding meals. Steak and tacos and pasta.
And you’re sitting there, looking at the menu, and on one hand there’s the healthy 600-calorie meal with grilled chicken that doesn’t look very good…and on the other hand there’s a really tasty-looking steak burrito that just sounds great right now.
And you think: well…maybe this is just a cheat DAY. Instead of a cheat MEAL.
So you order the burrito. And what the heck, get a beer while you’re at it. And when you’re done with the burrito, you know it’s a cheat day so you might as well make the most of it, right? So you order dessert too.
Now at this point you’re feeling pretty guilty, because you know that you pretty much just destroyed your diet for the day. And you might have even destroyed it for the week (depending on how much you ate that day).
And that guilt takes a toll on your motivation. When you wake up the next morning, you’re still feeling bad about yourself. So instead of getting right back to your healthy meals, you just eat whatever you want for breakfast.
And that ruins your motivation for the rest of the day. So you have an unhealthy, high-calorie lunch too. And dinner.
Before you know it, that one cheat meal has turned into a weekend-long bender…which in some cases kills your motivation to even lose weight at all.
OK, let’s pause here. What I just described is a pretty bleak picture. And it’s not always that bad. Not by a long shot. But when you have cheat meals the wrong way…that’s what can happen. That HAS happened to a lot of us already.
So let’s break down what went wrong.
Cheat Meal Mistake #1
You decided on a whim to have a cheat meal. You decided in the moment.
And a lot of times that’s how it happens, because you find yourself in a situation where you want to eat something that you wouldn’t normally eat when you’re trying to lose weight.
But it’s better…it’s ideal…if you can schedule your cheat meal in advance. And ideally, you will schedule your cheat meals at a strategic time.
Such as: right after a workout, so you know that more of those calories will go toward repairing your muscles, or at least on a day when you know it’s not likely to turn into a landslide of calories.
So if you have a cheat meal on Sunday night vs. Friday night, you’ll be a lot less likely to turn that into a weekend-long bender. Because by the time Monday morning rolls around, you’re going to feel like you’re back into your weekday routine.
Cheat Meal Mistake #2
It didn’t stop. Your cheat meal turned into a cheat day.
I know Tim Ferriss encourages a cheat day once a week where you just go crazy and eat whatever you want…but personally I really do NOT like the idea of an entire cheat DAY.
Unless you are eating a very restrictive diet the other 6 days per week, a cheat days can absolutely RUIN your attempt to lose weight and get lean.
Because think about the numbers for a second.
Let’s say that you normally eat 2500 calories a day to maintain your weight. And to lose weight, you adopt a diet of 2000 calories per day.
So that’s a calorie deficit of 500 calories a day, or 3500 calories per week: which adds up to about 1 pound of weight loss every week.
But if you have a cheat day, you can EASILY eat an extra 3500 calories in a day. Especially if you’re going out to restaurants, eating fast food, and just generally eating whatever you want.
Which means that your cheat day can wipe out your calorie deficit, which means: no weight loss.
Cheat Meal Mistake #3
Your cheat day made you feel guilty, and wiped out your motivation to continue on with your diet.
When you do a cheat meal correctly, it should be the exact opposite: a good cheat meal satisfies any urges for certain high-fat, high-carb foods, and allows you to get back to your diet and get your weight loss back on track.
Remember, guys: losing weight and burning fat is a marathon, not a sprint.
Even if you do have a cheat day where you eat way too much…that’s not that big of a deal as long as you get back on track.
To get a lean body with low bodyfat, you need consistent motivation over the long run. You cannot afford to feeling guilty because of a cheat day and let that ruin your motivation moving forward.
The 2 Big Benefits of Cheat Meals
OK, so those are some of the mistakes, some of the things that can go wrong with cheat meals.
But it’s not all bad. Because cheat meals can actually have some great benefits…if you do them right.
And when you do them right, there are 2 main benefits to having a cheat meal.
There is a physical/hormonal component, and there’s a mental component.
The physical benefit of cheat meals is mostly hormonal. When you’re eating at a calorie deficit for days on end, some of your weight-loss-related hormones like leptin can start to dip.
And having a big meal, particularly a high-carb meal, can sort of “reset” those leptin levels to keep your metabolism high and your hunger low.
The mental benefit of cheat meals is that they can help prevent you from feeling deprived. If you’re starting to feel like you never get to eat anything good, like your diet is way too restrictive, then a strategic cheat meal can help you feel better by allowing you to indulge in some of the foods that you don’t normally get to eat.
And that can actually INCREASE your motivation…which, as we just learned, is probably the most important thing to losing weight (in the long run).
So those are the pros and cons of cheat meals. Now here are a couple tips to help you use cheat meals in a way that’s smart and in a way that works.
Cheat Meal Tip #1
Have cheat MEALS, not cheat DAYS.
I talked about this earlier; a cheat DAY is just too much.
Cheat Meal Tip #2
Whenever possible, try to schedule your cheat meals.
I talked about this a little bit earlier. This allows you to think about what you’re going to have during your cheat meal, which gives you something to look forward to; something to anticipate.
And mentally that can go a long way in helping you stick to your weight-loss plan.
Good times to schedule your cheat meals are Sunday night, when it’s less likely to spill over into the next day, and after a workout, when more calories will go toward rebuilding your muscles.
Cheat Meal Tip #3
Try to have your cheat meals at home and make the food yourself.
This can save you a TON of unnecessary calories.
Restaurants often use a lot of oil when they cook, and usually it’s cheap vegetable oil that is not very healthy for anybody.
So restaurant food tends to be really high in fat.
But you can usually have the exact same meal at home…it can taste just as good…and have literally half the calories.
If you want a hamburger for your cheat meal…a burger with fries at a bar could easily contain 1500-2000 calories. Easily.
But make one at home…with cheese and everything…and you can keep the whole thing under 700 calories.
Cheat Meal Tip #4
Limit your cheat meals to 1-2 per week.
And remember that the physical/hormonal benefit of cheat meals becomes more important as you get leaner (~10% for guys). If you are at 22% bodyfat as a man, you do not need more than one cheat meal per week as a man.
The mental benefits, however, always apply.
Cheat Meal Tip #5
The Critical Cheat Meal Tip…
OK guys, the last thing I want to leave you with, and this is probably the MOST important tip I have for you:
Follow a nutrition plan that allows you to eat the foods you love.
Because the truth is that if that a smart nutrition plan can incorporate foods like pizza, and burgers, and tacos…
And they don’t HAVE to be a cheat meal!
I just gave the example of a 700-calorie burger. You could eat that 3 times a week if you wanted. Same goes for tacos or pizza:
I personally eat these foods all the time. Probably at least once a week for tacos and pizza.
And you know what? It’s NOT even a cheat meal. It’s just a normal part of my diet.
And when you follow a SMART nutrition plan, that’s what happens: you get to eat the foods you love, consistently, without blowing your diet out of the water.
If you’re looking for a plan like that, I recommend checking out my brand-new program called: The Stronger+Leaner Guide to Getting Ripped.
It’ll teach you everything you need to know to get a strong, lean, RIPPED body…while still eating delicious foods like steak, potatoes, pizza, tacos…regularly.