What You Should Know About Cheat Meals

Indulge Without Derailing Your Fitness

Cheat meals are a debated subject and always a personal choice. The good news is they have been shown to benefit our health and fitness. Research on leptin hormone responsible to regulate hunger and energy expenditure is indicated to become elevated during a meal with increased calories. Increased leptin levels help us to reduce body fat more efficiently. 

Calorie restricted diets will show a drop in leptin levels. Since the hormone is synthesized primarily by our fat, the body will hold onto those stores not wanting to give up energy in starvation mode. The outcome is a slowed metabolism and no fat loss with lowered leptin levels.

The remedy suggested to kick up leptin levels is periodically increasing calories to maintain a higher metabolism and successful weight loss. Some are opting to use cheat meals as a solution to heighten leptin hormone and enjoy foods not typically on their eat clean menus.  

Cheat Meals Keep You on Track

Close-Up Of Large Hamburger On Table
Cheat Meals Increase Our Leptin Levels. Jedrzej Kaminski / EyeEm / Getty Images

Calorie shifting has become a popular way to maintain a fit lifestyle, enjoy some treats, and not feel deprived.

The 90/10 rule supports eating healthy food 90 percent of the time and allowing for 10 percent splurges during the week. This would be considered a strict eat clean strategy but still allows for some indulgence. This has both physiological and emotional health benefits. 

The most popular 80/20 rule supports lean proteins, good carbs, and healthy fats being consumed 80 percent of the time, leaving 20 percent for cheat meals and snacks. Cheat meals are designed to promote a positive diet outlook, stave off cravings, and keep you on track with overall health and fitness goals. If you usually eat around 1500 calories on your diet and have 2300, for example, don't stress—the extra calories on that single day will not completely derail your diet.

Are Cheat Meals Right for You?

Several factors should be considered before deciding if cheat meals or days are right for you. People struggling with an emotional eating disorder may be triggered toward an unhealthy binge scenario. In this case, indulgence may not be the best option. Some may feel so much psychological guilt indulging that the emotional setback may not be worth the comfort calories.

Those new to adopting a healthy lifestyle may not know how to moderate a cheat meal. This could lead to a downward spiral and several days of splurging.

Cheating smart to keep the leptin levels normal and metabolism boosted will be the key to maintaining a fit body.

Should I Pig Out on Cheat Day?

The recent discovery of increased leptin hormone levels helping with weight loss doesn't mean a free ticket to gorge on everything in sight on a cheat day.

Studies have shown increasing calories by 20 percent is all that is needed to spike leptin levels and boost metabolism. That would mean over-indulgence wouldn't be wise on a cheat day. Considering a cheat meal may be the better choice to ensure you stay on track.

Research indicates leptin hormone is more responsive to carbohydrates and not proteins or fats. This means healthy carbs should be considered when enjoying a cheat meal or day.   

Will My Diet Be Ruined for the Week?

One or even two cheat meals per week will not derail your nutrition and fitness efforts. Consuming one splurge meal won’t make you fat just as one clean meal won’t make you thin. It’s what you’re doing consistently that impacts your body composition and overall health.

If you have implemented the 90/10 rule and eating healthy 90% of the time, enjoying a cheat meal is part of this plan. Eating this way allows you to indulge without guilt and provides psychological satisfaction. It’s difficult and unrealistic for anyone to remain on a strict diet 7 days per week without cheating. Maintaining a healthy balance with food intake is the goal

What can become problematic is when a cheat meal turns into a cheat day or days. Eating off track for three days or more is enough to make a negative impact on your weight and waistline. Vacation time is the worst offender with research reporting 61% of individuals gaining between 1 to 7 pounds in a 10-day period.  

The best strategy is planning your cheat meal which will take focus and self-control. It allows you to enjoy what you love without the guilt of derailing your excellent nutrition. Great cheat meal tips include:

  • Eat until you’re satisfied, not stuffed.
  • Don’t go back for seconds.
  • Share your favorite cheat meal.
  • Don’t let a cheat meal turn into a cheat day.

Can I Cheat on a Diet Plan Like Atkins?

Many individuals follow popular low-carb diet plans like Atkins that include phases limiting what you can eat. Atkins is a low-carbohydrate diet with four distinct phases to the program. The induction phase allows only 20 grams of carbohydrates per day and eliminates all grains, fruits, milk, yogurt, nuts, starchy vegetables, and sugar. This phase may not be the best time to implement a cheat meal.

Knowing how to cheat on the Atkins diet is a very popular question, especially given the strict rules per phase of the program. The other phases of the Atkins slowly reintroduce more nuts, low-carb vegetables, and small amounts of fruit. The final phase is considered a maintenance plan where eating healthy carbohydrates is acceptable only if your body can tolerate them. This still doesn’t allow much room to include a cheat meal and the reason diets like this are considered unsustainable.

Some Atkins users have worked around the system by using creative ways to include cheat meals. The most popular low-carb indulgence meals include:

  • Preparing low-carb pizza using Portobello mushroom caps for pizza crusts.
  • Grating cauliflower for rice.
  • Spiralizing zucchini or spaghetti squash to replace noodles in recipes. (Zoodles)

Cheat to Win

Planning a cheat meal with a carbohydrate focus will be the best re-feed to stimulate the body to burn fat more efficiently. The idea of a cheat meal is to place you back into maintenance calories where the body feels balanced.

Trudging through the week on reduced calories takes a toll on the body. Refueling with a cheat meal has been found as a positive benefit to reach and maintain your fitness goals. 

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