Science of “Cheat Meals

The Science of “Cheat Meals” (updated July 2019)

What is a “Cheat Meal”?

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We have all had those dinner parties where we are the odd man out. While everyone else is ordering their favorite cheeseburger and french fries or a classy ribeye steak with a side of potatoes, you went for the grilled chicken breast with steamed vegetables, but please not cooked in oil and with the sauce on the side. Or you forced yourself to eat a salad with no croutons or cheese and a side cup of your favorite dressing because your diet didn’t reach those parameters. But hey, you got a Diet Coke to “treat yourself”.

But what if there was a way to eat your favorite meal once, maybe even twice, a week and still lose weight? That is where the “cheat meal” comes into play.

A “cheat meal” is a saucier term for a diet break. It indicates that you’re “cheating” on your diet by having foods that you normally wouldn’t. Each person has their preference: some prefer a burger and fries, some a huge bowl of pasta, and others indulge in their favorite dessert. The possibilities are endless!

Treat Yo’Self, but Don’t Pig Out

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The purpose of a cheat meal is for it to be one meal, and one meal only. Having an entire day of indulging in foods you normally wouldn’t can have the opposite effect. The purpose of a singular meal that is higher in fat, carbohydrates, and overall total calories is to jumpstart your metabolism. However, if you are piling down pillars of food the entire day or eating that one meal until you cannot physically move, the body cannot metabolize it. Instead, it becomes sluggish and slows down. It simply cannot process that much food at once.

This is where “cheat meal” turns into fat gain, which is what most people think of when they imagine eating their favorite foods on a diet. The trick here is to indulge until you are pleasantly full and then stop. There’s no need to eat to excess because that food will still be there next week. It’s not the be all end all of meals. It’s a small diet break, a chance for your body to recharge for the upcoming week.

Tips and Tricks

Here are a few key things to remember before going out for a “cheat meal”:

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  1. Eat breakfast! Like any other day, breakfast is still the most important meal. Starving yourself from the get-go to “save calories” for your “cheat meal” reverses the purpose of the meal overall. Instead, make sure your metabolism is revving by eating a good, healthy breakfast within an hour of waking. Skipping breakfast will also make you hungrier later on in the day, which may cause you to binge on your “cheat meal”. Avoid the issue by having regularly scheduled meals throughout the day!
  2. Drink water! Drinking plenty of water throughout the day ensures that all the toxins are being flushed out and that your organs are well hydrated. Don’t skimp on water! Save the Diet Coke for dinner.
  3. Exercise before you eat! While you can have cheat meals on your rest days, the body better utilizes the increase in calories after an intense workout. The best plan of attack is to train heavy by targeting a large muscle group — such as legs, back, or chest — and then indulging in your “cheat meal” as your post-workout meal. After exercise your body is most ready to break down food for energy and amino acids, so the meal will be most beneficial.
  4. Train heavy the next day! After a long week of dieting, your glycogen stores will finally be full enough for a long, intense workout. Train the opposite muscle group from the day before — upper body V. lower body — and get to work.

The Science Behind the “Cheat Meal”

Believe it not, there actually are benefits to a “cheat meal”. Aside from the mental break of dieting, the body needs a break from the diet, too. The human body is very smart and adapts to its environment. If an individual is consuming less calories per day over an extended period of time, the body recognizes this. And with less food comes less energy, so the body’s processes must slow down in order to accommodate these new energy levels.

For the Body

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“Cheat meals” are often used to break fat loss plateaus. When the body adapts to its new energy environment and its functions slow down, so does the metabolism. When the metabolism slows, the body becomes less efficient at breaking down foodstuffs into ATP energy, which slows the metabolism more. The whole process becomes a vicious cycle of nonstop slowing until the metabolism reaches its bottom line. From there, the body has adapted pretty well to the amount of food that it is currently consuming.

So what happens when an individual consumes a cheat meal? Suddenly, the body gets an influx of energy. It has more capabilities than its had in a week or so and its processes can increase strength. Among those affected processes is the metabolism. With newly found energy, the body can break through fat loss plateaus as the metabolism revs back to life.

Imagine your body as a car. When it is low on gas, it’s sluggish. But as soon as you put gas in the tank, it can travel far and wide. That is what a cheat meal does to your body. So fill up that fuel tank and get to work!

For the Mind

Let’s not forget about the mental toll of dieting, however. Because your body processes are slowing down and you have less energy, you generally feel and have:

  • less energy
  • increased moodiness
  • depression
  • lower interest levels
  • shorter attention span
  • are quick to anger
  • generally exhausted

Among others. Not to mention, eating becomes a chore. It also becomes all you can think about because you are constantly hungry. This constant hunger is the body begging for more energy because it can feel its internal processes slowing down. But that hunger also just puts you in a worse mood, and the cycle continues.

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“Cheat meals” are that brilliant mental break that your brain needs. Not only are you firing up your internal processes, but your brain finally has more energy to think clearly again. Your mood lifts and your hunger is satiated. What’s more, “cheat meals” are also great for your social life. While events with friends and family should never be put on hold for a diet, they can sometimes take the back-burner without realizing. “Cheat meals” give you a great excuse to get dinner with friends and catch up, or finally go to happy hour with your coworkers after work one day. So use them wisely!

Overall, “cheat meals” are a great tool when used properly. They can boost the metabolism, boost one’s mood, and help individuals engage in social situations. And the possibilities are endless, so pick your favorite food and get snacking!


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