What You Should Know About 'Cheat' Meals

How to Indulge Without Derailing Your Diet

Even with the utmost dedication, it can be hard to maintain a calorie-restricted diet without the occasional cheat. This is especially true if you are around others who are eating scrumptious foods or are in the grocery store passing aisle after aisle of foods you cannot eat. Over time, it can take a serious toll on you, bringing you down both emotionally and physically.

An occasional cheat meal will not likely do you any harm if you otherwise stick to your weight loss plan. They can even be beneficial. If used wisely, cheat meals can encourage you to persist by making you feel less deprived and/or rewarding you when you achieve certain goals.

Physical Benefits

Spaghetti and Meatballs

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The prolonged restriction of calories can lead to nutritional deficiencies and reduced muscle growth if you fail to consume the recommended daily intake of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and nutrients. Doing so can lead to a drop in leptin, a hormone that helps the body regulate hunger and metabolism.

Low leptin levels can lead to a slowing of your metabolism and reduced fat loss over time. By periodically increasing your calories with cheat meals, especially those high in complex carbohydrates, you can increase leptin levels and boost metabolism to promote fat loss.

Protein also plays a part, making you feel fuller faster by influencing appetite-regulating hormones. Protein also has thermogenic effects, increasing the burning capacity of calories during digestion.

To make a cheat meal beneficial, aim for foods high in quality proteins and carbs, such as steak and baked potato, spaghetti and meatballs, meat pizza, or a burger with a whole grain wheat bun.

Psychological Benefits

woman eating food sample

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People who struggle with emotional eating may have trouble moderating their intake and can get discouraged by the rigidity of most weight loss plans. Planned breaks from a diet can provide psychological relief and increase your chances of sticking with the diet. If this fails, it may be a good time to switch to a more balanced nutritional strategy that doesn't rely solely on calorie restriction.

One trick is to deplete your glycogen stores. Glycogen is the stored form of the blood sugar glucose that your body uses for energy. The simplest way to deplete glycogen is with exercise, effectively burning the glucose from muscles so that you have plenty of room for a cheat meal.

Even 20 minutes of moderate- to high-intensity exercise can help by burning calories rather than just restricting them. Exercise also boosts endorphins that promote feelings of well-being.

By adding exercise to the mix, you allow yourself to take a more sustainable approach to weight loss. Moreover, if you reach a certain fitness goal each week—for example, jogging a certain distance—you can reward yourself with a cheat meal.

Incentives like these can keep you from feeling deprived and allow to have a more positive outlook about weight loss, focusing on the benefits rather than the burdens.

How to Cheat On Your Diet

Couple enjoying a pizza.

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The best strategy for cheating on your diet is to plan your cheat meals in advance. This will help you maintain a positive outlook while keeping close tabs on your dietary intake. Whatever the weight loss plan, the ultimate goal is to burn more calories than you consume; it is as simple as that. So be strategic and keep a record of all the foods you eat and all the exercise you do.

Consider that a pound of fat equals roughly 3,500 calories. To lose a pound per week, you need to have a daily 500 calorie deficit (meaning 500 calories less than what you are currently consuming). You can trim some of those calories with diet and others with exercise.

You can estimate the target deficit by using a weight loss calculator that can assess both your weight loss goals and activity level. You can then journal your daily food intake and exercise output to decide when you can treat yourself to a cheat meal.

When incorporating cheat meals into a diet plan, use the 80/20 rule, consuming lean protein, good carbs, and healthy fats 80 percent of the time while leaving 20 percent for cheat meals and snacks.

Here are some other great cheat meal tips:

  • Don’t go back for seconds.
  • Don’t let a cheat meal turn into a cheat day.
  • Eat until you’re satisfied, not stuffed.
  • Never eat when you are famished.
  • Share your favorite cheat meal with a friend.
  • Sit at a table to eat rather than eating on the run.

If you usually eat around 1,500 calories on your diet and have 2,300 calories on a cheat day, don't stress; the extra calories will not completely derail your diet. Enjoy the meal and get back on track the next day without guilt.

A Word From Verywell

Trudging through the week on reduced calories takes a toll on the body. Refueling with the occasional cheat meal has been found to help people reach and maintain fitness goals. That said, cheat meals are a personal choice and not for everyone. If you are worried about any dietary issue related to your health or well-being, speak with your doctor or consult with a qualified dietitian.

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  1. Lecoultre V, Ravussin E, Redman LM. The fall in leptin concentration is a major determinant of the metabolic adaptation induced by caloric restriction independently of the changes in leptin circadian rhythms. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2011;96(9):E1512-6. doi:10.1210/jc.2011-1286

  2. Izadi V, Saraf-bank S, Azadbakht L. Dietary intakes and leptin concentrations. ARYA Atheroscler. 2014;10(5):266-72.

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