Timing is everything. The best times to cheat are (1) right after an intense workout so you maximize your use of the calories, and (2) after a period of fasting.
“Fasting” refers to a period of time, usually at least 12 hours, when you consume a minimal amount of calories or no calories at all. Studies have found that leptin levels decrease after fasting for a period of 12 hours, which is why fasting before your cheat meal is a practice you should consider implementing into your program.
This is where most people get in trouble. Sure, it’s ok to splurge every once in a while, but having a cheat meal is not an excuse to eat anything and everything. Some food should flat out be avoided, such as trans-fats, highly processed and chemical-rich foods, and high fructose corn syrup.
It is fine to eat non-dietary foods every once in a while, but keep the real junk at bay. Fat or skinny, big or small, these foods can do a lot of harm and little-to-no good.
The leading issue with cheating is the likelihood of overeating. Once we mentally give ourselves permission to indulge, most people do just that and it can be hard to put on the breaks.
Planning is the answer. Lay out the exact amount of food you plan on eating and ignore the desire to reach for second helpings. Try your best to eat slowly as well. Don’t you want to fully enjoy this scrumptious, special meal? Mindfully savor each bite, and you’ll get even more out of your cheat meal experience.
Also, max your cheat meal at 500-1000 calories. When eating mostly real food, it’s pretty hard to eat more than 1000 calories without overdoing something. If it’s easy for you to pass that threshold, you’re most likely consuming a lot of highly processed junk food and/or you’re overeating.
Keep a food log or journal to track how much you’re eating on a daily basis, and to help you plan your cheat meal accordingly. In general, tracking your food is one of the best things you can do when you’re trying to lose weight.
Have a food you love, but know it’s your biggest weakness? Keep it away. It’s a lot harder to stick to your plan if you include these trigger foods. Yes, a cheat meal is a great time to munch on something you’ve been missing, but it’s not the time to binge on foods that make you lose control, which you are much more likely to do if you’re eating your drug-of-choice. Stay away from “drugs”, everybody!
Cheat meals are often high in carbs, so don’t forget to include protein. Protein helps to increase satiety, and is necessary for muscle growth and retention after exercise (remember, you’re doing a pre-cheat workout!). Make sure to include at least a 5oz portion of protein in your meal.
Sure, alcohol is mostly comprised of sugar/carbs, which happens to be our brain’s favorite source of fuel, but your cheat meal shouldn’t be filled with alcohol-based calories. Alcohol has no nutritious value and can affect your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar for hours after your cheat meal. It also interferes with your body’s fat metabolism and can hinder your weight loss efforts.5
One glass of wine, a beer, or a serving of liquor is fine, but if you’re serious about losing weight and getting lean, you’ll want to reconsider excessive drinking. “Cheating” is not synonymous with “drinking a lot of alcohol”.
Cheating should only happen once a week, or less. And opt for a cheat meal instead of a cheat day. This can help you avoid undoing a full week of hard work. It’s unwise to do a cheat day unless you’re already extremely lean and fit, or your goals are benefitted by a whole cheat day.
You should find that a single, well-planned cheat meal is effective at instigating that necessary metabolic boost to keep your progress going, and beneficial mentally because you won’t feel deprived of your favorite foods. After a really good cheat meal, you should be able to get right back on track with your nutrition and workout program without any major cravings.