3 Reasons Cheat Meals Are Bad for You (& What To Do Instead) [2019 Update]

Sit down.

We need to talk.

I know what you’ve been doing…

Before you try and deny it, do us both a favour and don’t.

I’ve seen the evidence.

It’s written all over your face, you can barely hide it.

Your behaviour is different, your attitude has changed and you’re not the same anymore.

You’re cheating and we both know it.

Shhhh.

You don’t need to explain it.

Believe it or not I understand.

I understand how tempting it is, how desperately you want it to work and how easy it is to fall into the trap.

You see I’m sat here speaking from experience.

I’m not pretending to know.

I’ve sat where you are now, done the things you’ve done and overcome the struggles you’re going through.

I intimately understand the lure of the cheat.

Now I want to show you the way out.

In this article we’ll explore 3 reasons you shouldn’t use cheat meals and what you should do instead.

But first…

What is a Cheat Meal?

Cheat meals are a planned overindulgence to help undo some of the side effects of being in a calorie deficit.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

In reality however they’re more akin to getting drunk after a stressful day.

You feel great when you’re doing it, but you wake up the next day feeling like crap and with more problems than before.

All the supposed benefits are becoming problems and you’re stuck in this cycle of good during the week and cheating at the weekend.

You see, the cheat meal promises that for one meal or day you can eat whatever you want.

Anything goes; pizza, burgers, chocolate, sweets, pancakes, and more.

Is it any wonder it’s not actually a good idea?

In return for eating this you’ll;

  • Reset your metabolism

  • Stay out of starvation mode

  • Get a mental break from the rigours of dieting

Although this sounds great, it reads less like a break from dieting and more like a break from reality.

You see, cheat meals aren’t resetting your metabolism (as if it were a computer you can turn off and on again) instead they’re restoring hormonal balance, which would be great if they were any good at it.

Hint: they’re not very good at doing this.

As for starvation mode, all you really need to know is that it’s a myth – continued fat loss does not result in weight gain.

Can you hear how ridiculous that sounds?

Good.

I wrote more about starvation mode here if you’re not convinced.

As for giving you a break from dieting I do have to concede that maybe having a cheat meal will help you counteract some of the negative effects of being in a calorie deficit.

However, if your ‘break’ from dieting ultimately results in weight gain, is it really giving you a break?

Isn’t it more likely that it’s fucking with your progress and causing more stress?

Food for thought eh.

What are Cheat Meals Meant to Do?

Ok, whilst you’re getting over the fact that I used a swear word I’m going to continue.

You with me?

Good, let’s get down to business.

To understand why people recommend you have a cheat meal I first need to introduce you to Leptin and Ghrelin.

Leptin and Ghrelin are hormones found in the body that work together to bring about hunger harmony;

  • Leptin makes you feel full after meals (1)

  • Ghrelin makes you feel hungry when you haven’t eaten

When eating around your maintenance calories these hormones help you maintain your weight and stop you from eating either too much or too little. (2)

However, when you’re eating in a calorie deficit and losing weight your body responds by reducing the amount of Leptin you produce.

When this happens, Ghrelin runs wild and there’s nothing Leptin can do to stop it.

This means you feel hungrier more often, and when you do eat you feel less satisfied afterwards.

Pretty shitty right.

Your body is literally conspiring against you.

But wait, cheat meals.

This is where they come to the rescue.

The only problem is they’re about as effective as the Avengers against Thanos in Infinity War.

That’s right, we all know how that ended.

Sure, cheat meals are sold as the key to;

  • Restoring Leptin levels

  • Reducing hunger

  • Increasing your metabolic rate

The problem is, not only are cheat meals a detrimental way to diet but they’re also not the most effective way to raise your Leptin levels.

I know you might love cheat meals but they’re no good for you.

I’m going to show you 3 ways they’re bad for you, then I’ll show you what to do instead.

If you’re still not convinced, then I’ll leave you to it.

Deal?

Deal.

#1

Cheat Meals Reinforce the ‘Good’ Food vs. ‘Bad’ Food Mindset

The idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food is a train of thought that permeates every part of the fitness and diet industry.

You might know it as ‘clean’ & ‘dirty’ foods, but what you call it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is this the fact that creating this divide between different foods is not healthy.

Sure, popular opinion dictates that knowing which foods are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’ can help you make better food choices, live a healthier life and reach your goals faster.

However, the reality is that labelling foods this way is actually distorting your relationship with them, whilst giving you unhealthy, unproductive and downright unnecessary eating habits.

Think about it.

How many times have you uttered the words, “it’s fine to eat a lot of it because it’s healthy or good” and “I can’t each too much of that because it’s bad or unhealthy”?

The real problem is that categorising foods as either good or bad generally leads you to eat more of both.

If you see it as ‘good’ your tendency is to think you can eat a lot of it without gaining weight.

If you see it as ‘bad’ your tendency is to adopt an ‘in for a penny in for a pound’ mentality and overeat.

Both lead to an increase in calories.

Both lead to weight gain.

Both create a bad relationship with food.

Both stem from a misguided understanding of food.

The main issue is that cheat meals only serve to reinforce this idea as the whole concept is built around treating yourself or giving yourself a break from your diet by eating foods you like.

Naturally, if you’re taught you need to take a break from your diet to do this then your diet foods must be good and the foods you like must be bad…

If this weren’t the case, you could eat the foods you like whilst you diet.

Right?

Wrong.

Yet the view that view that foods are bad still persist.

Why?

Good question.

I believe it’s because the so-called ‘bad’ foods are generally;

  • High in fat

  • High in sugar

  • Low in vitamins and minerals

This means the they’re generally higher in calories but lower in micronutrients (chicken pizza compared to chicken, rice & veg).

Over time the diet industry has slowly demonised these types of foods in response to a growing obesity epidemic and a strained effort to educate people about food, weight and dieting.

This trend deepened the divide between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods giving rise to restrictive eating and cheat days or as you know it, guilty feelings and self-loathing.

Have you ever noticed how when you cheat or stray from your diet you are racked with guilt and often end up going all out?

I mean god forbid you eat cake outside a birthday party.

Or popcorn outside a movie theatre.

You animal.

You disgust me.

Be gone.

I joke, but this is a real stigma for some people.

Which is ridiculous.

Particularly considering that if you were to see food more neutrally and allow room in your diet for the stuff you like, then you wouldn’t need to categorise foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

You wouldn’t need to use cheat meals to justify the good and the bad.

No longer would you lose control and eat enough doughnuts to qualify for shares in Krispy Kremes, be entered into their hall of fame and generally feel like shit.

#2

Cheat Meals Encourage Over-consumption & Binge Eating

Speaking of eating too much and feeling like shit, how many times have you had a cheat meal only for it to turn into an all-day throw caution to the wind blowout?

Be honest now.

I won’t judge.

I used to train 5-6 times a week, eat a ‘good’ diet and use cheat meals.

Did I see great results?

Was I ripped, lean and toned?

No, I’d go to the supermarket with my brother and best friend on Saturday night to buy our cheat meal and royally screw everything up…every week.

We would buy everything.

Seriously if you can think of it, we bought it.

We’d then go home and gorge ourselves on all the good stuff we’d bought.

This went on for months, years even.

Why?

Honestly, a few reasons;

  • I was eating a restrictive diet

  • My calorie deficit was too big

  • I trained too much

All of these things contributed to my inability to control myself when I was finally around the food I’d been withholding from myself.

I didn’t understand why at the time.

I was too invested to take a hard look at my situation.

However, when you consider that research shows restricted eaters consume significantly more than non-restrictive eaters, it gets easier to see why. (3)

Then if you throw in the fact that restricted eaters also showed greater craving, liking and desire to eat cued foods it’s even easy to see why cheat meal gets out of control.

I know what you’re thinking…

“That’s great Theo but I’m much more controlled than you.”

Ok, maybe you are.

At least more than I was back then.

Maybe you’re feeling so superior that you’re even thinking of sticking with cheat meals.

If you are, then quickly consider this.

It’s true, cheat meals could work if you’re not eating a restrictive diet.

It’s also true that if this were the case you might be able to control your food intake when cheating.

But here’s the kicker…

If you could do that (and it’s a big if) then cheat meals still wouldn’t be the most effective way to restore your Leptin levels.

I know I’m saying it a lot but it’s kind of the point of this article.

So…I’m trying to drive that point home.

Which brings us to the next point.

#3

Cheat Meals are Ineffective at Raising Leptin Levels

You might ask yourself why this even matters.

I wouldn’t blame you.

Cheat meals are a way you can escape your shitty weekday diet whilst maintaining the illusion that it’s doing you some good even when it’s not.

It’s just a lie to tell yourself so you can eat the foods you want unchecked.

It’s a problem.

A false economy.

And it all comes back to Leptin.

As we talked about before the point of cheat meals is to raise your Leptin levels and counteract the side effects of eating in a calorie deficit, namely hunger.

Except cheat meals are simply not very good at doing this.

Why?

Mostly because you’re eating all the food you love, you know the high fat, high sugar, big mix of carbs and fat type foods.

Why does this matter?

Well, because it’s an increase in carbohydrate, not fat that raises your Leptin levels. (4)

In fact, fat overfeeding has no notable effect on Leptin levels at all. (5)

This means although the tasty foods you crave might make you feel better in the moment; they aren’t doing much to move the needle when it comes to Leptin.

More than this, there is research showing not only does carbohydrate raise Leptin levels but carbohydrate overfeeding also increases energy expenditure over a 24 hour period, whereas fat overfeeding did not. (6)

In other words, eating more carbohydrates than normal raises your Leptin levels and help you burn more calories, fat doesn’t.

Still not convinced?

Ok, let’s look at the results of a study. (7)

This study measured the changes in Leptin levels in 22 young, healthy subjects after eating either carbohydrate meal, fat meal or fasting. *

*the carb and fat meals were isoenergetic which means of the same caloric value

The group was split down the middle; 11 women and 11 men.

In both genders, they found that the leptin response was higher after eating the carbohydrate meal, when compared to both the fat meal and those who fasted.

Add to this the fact that your body is predisposed to use carbohydrate over fat (when both are present) as its primary energy source and you can see why it’s time to do away with cheat meals.

Time to do away with the sloppy, uncontrolled binges that lead to overindulgence and weight gain.

Hopefully you’re now thinking “how do I do this?”

Refeed Days = The Cheat Meal Solution

Right so we now know that carbohydrate is superior for raising your Leptin levels.

The question now becomes “what does this mean?”

Or maybe it’s still “how do I do this?”

Either way…answers.

 

What Is A Refeed Day?

A refeed day is a planned increase in calories to help counteract the negative effects of being in a calorie deficit and restore your Leptin levels.

It’s a useful tool to help prevent and/or overcome fat loss plateaus when losing fat.

A refeed is different from a cheat meal because it requires you to increase carbohydrate intake within a set calorie goal.

This means even though you will indulge and eat more than normal, you’re given a structure to stick to.

This helps create an ‘all of the benefits none of the negatives’ type situation and decreases the likelihood that you’ll slip into binge eating behaviours.

 

How Often Should You Refeed?

Your typical cheat meal is once a week but with refeeds it’s a bit different.

Instead of painting everyone with the same brush, you’ll use your current level of progress to figure out how often you should have a refeed day.

You can get pretty specific with the exact frequency of refeeds breaking it down into multiple categories, but I won’t bore you with the unnecessary.

Here are 2 different refeed schedules;

  1. Approx. 10% body fat (20% for women) / can see your abs most or all of the time / are pretty lean and have been dieting a long time? – start with 1 refeed day per week

  2. Approx. 15% body fat (25% for women) / can’t see your abs / not that lean and/or have just started dieting – start with 1 refeed day every 2 – 3 weeks

You can adjust this schedule based on how you respond to your refeed days.

If you find doing a refeed once every 2 weeks helps alleviate the side effects of being in a calorie deficit and keeps the weight loss going, stick with it.

However, if you find the hunger comes back right away and your fat loss is still stalling then you could increase refeeds to once a week.

Don’t be afraid to experiment and see what works for you.

 

How Do You Do A Refeed Day?

The key to a successful refeed day is boundaries.

If I just tell you to go and eat more carbs, chances are you’ll go crazy and I’d be no better than the cheat meal advocates.

This is particularly true if you’re knee deep in fat loss.

So…

I won’t do that.

Instead let me give you some simple guidelines to help you structure your refeed;

  • Increase your calorie intake to maintenance or just above, for most people this will be a 20 – 30% increase in calories

  • Maintain a good protein intake of between 0.8 – 1 g per lb of body weight

  • Keep fat as low as possible, aim for something like 20 – 30 g

  • Use all your remaining calories for carbohydrates

 

What Should You Eat When Refeeding?

What are you thinking about right now? Is it cereal, popcorn or pancakes? Or is it cereal popcorn pancakes…they sound pretty good right.

Definitely lots of carbs in those bad boys.

Or maybe you’re thinking, “this seems too good to be true and I know what Theo usually says about things that are too good to be true…”

If you are, you have a valid point. But…

Have you been reading???

This is not too good to be true, it’s just true. (And yes, you can eat cereal, popcorn and pancakes). You can also eat pasta, rice and potatoes.

As for what you should eat when refeeding? It’s pretty simple.

Carbs, carbs and more carbs. Some protein. Very little fat.

However, if you’re looking for a list of approved carbohydrates then here you go;

  • Cereals

  • Popcorn

  • Pancakes

  • Syrup

  • Pasta

  • Rice

  • Potatoes

  • Breads

  • Oats

Note: aim to eat foods that will help keep you satiated and don’t just rely on cereal, popcorn and pancakes. Of course, you can include these types of foods but be sensible and get a variety of foods with a mix of high and low nutritional value.

Making it Work - Dietary Moderation

At 3,000 words you’re probably beginning to fatigue, so I’ll try and keep this short and sweet.

Everything I’ve written here only works if you sort out your diet, this includes not only what you eat but your attitude towards it.

If you don’t then it’ll all be for nothing and you’ll quickly find yourself back at square one.

Face stuffed.

Guilt on max.

Progress halted.

So, how do you make it work?

Hint: reread the subhead for this part.

The secret ingredient is moderation.

You see, the only reason cheat meals are so popular is because you force restriction upon yourself for the rest of the week. Then when you cheat, you go crazy.

It’s like stopping yourself from sleeping all week and saying you’ll only nap for a few hours at the weekend.

What happens?

You only think about sleep all week and as soon you lie down at the weekend you fall into the deepest sleep and don’t wake up for 72 hours.

Go figure. Expecting anything else to happen is ridiculous.

Replace ‘sleep’ with ‘food you like to eat’ and you can see why you need to allow for moderation in your diet.

What does moderation mean?

Dietary moderation is allowing room in your calorie allowance for some of the foods you like whilst maintaining a diet that is both nutritionally rich (vitamins & minerals) and appropriate for your goals.

In other words, don’t eat like an idiot. Get most of your calories from whole food sources which provide the macronutrients and micronutrients you need. Then if you want a pizza or burger and chips from time to time, have it. Equally, if you want ice cream or a couple of biscuits most evenings then do that too.

The key is to find the balance that allows you to stay healthy, reach your goals and not fight against your diet.

If you can do this then you’ll succeed.

Refeeds will become an invaluable tool on your journey and you’ll finally be able to wave goodbye to binge eating behaviour.


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