What is a "Cheat Meal" and Can I Have One?

Almost daily I hear someone ask about or discuss cheat meals, so I believe this is a topic that needs to be addressed. A cheat meaI is a meal where you get to break your diet rules and eat something that is indulgent. But is it a good idea and how exactly do I get to partake?

Almost daily I hear someone ask about or discuss cheat meals, so I believe this is a topic that needs to be addressed. A cheat meaI is a meal where you get to break your diet rules and eat something that is indulgent. But is it a good idea and how exactly do I get to partake?

Why do people have cheat meals?  Also what are the supposed benefits of a cheat meal? Cheat meals are something often used as a reward for achieving a goal or a milestone toward that goal. I have also heard cheat meals used to satisfy a particular craving which would help you adhere to your diet. Cheat meals are also often used to increase leptin levels (the hormone which controls hunger) and also "reset" your metabolism. The other major reason for cheat meals I have heard is to refill your glycogen levels in your muscles and liver which will give you more energy for future workouts. 

What is the down side to a cheat meal? Most importantly cheat meals, like so many things, have a very different meaning to different people.  I have often seen the cheat meal used as an excuse to partake in a bacchanalian feast often lasting all day or the majority of a day with a week's worth of calories being consumed in the period of several hours. Sadly, this will have detrimental consequence to the individual's goals and objectives.

Will I really feel better after my cheat meal? The psychological benefits of a cheat meal are very individual. Personally, cheat meals are often disappointing for satisfying my cravings. My expectations are almost always greater than realization. For example, the cheeseburger never tastes as good as I imagined it would. It is something to look forward to after being strict to your diet for several weeks but I often feel a loss of the pride I felt while being strict with my diet.  I think this is something that you have to experiment with for yourself. 

Will a cheat meal rest my metabolism? In my research regarding cheat meals affecting leptin levels and metabolism, I found that the results are very mixed. There is some evidence that it does raise leptin levels but a single meal has only a small affect on leptin. This ties in closely with metabolism and I found little evidence to support this claim. In my personal experience, I occasionally feel slightly more energetic but often I have not. And I wonder if I just feel better because I got to go on a date with my wife to Marble Slab and simply got to relax a bit. 

Cheat meals increasing muscle and liver glycogen levels is supported by science. Now keep in mind that the effects of this are very short term and would likely be noticed for only a day at most. You may wake up the next morning, look in the mirror and think "Wow I look really good today!" This is because your muscles are filled with glycogen which is 3:1 water. This will go away quickly though so don't get use to it.

So are cheat meals a good or bad idea? As with everything, the devil is in the details.  The huge negative in cheat meals is the quantity of calories consumed. I cannot emphasize this point enough. Cheat meals are a horrible idea if you over consume. Eating 5,000 calories during your cheat meal will in fact set your gains back. I have seen this over and over. However if handled responsibly there may be some psychological benefits with minimal downside.

How do I safely have a cheat meal? It is critically important to put boundaries on a cheat meal that can be defined in advance. My advice is to limit a cheat meal by calorie. I would recommend that your cheat meal closely match the total calories of a typical meal. For example, if your cheat meal is ice cream and a typical meal consists of 500 calories, your cheat ice cream meal should have no more than 500 calories. Additionally cheat meal frequency should be limited to, at most, weekly but biweekly or monthly would be better. 

Used properly cheat meals can be an effective tool, but approach cheat meals with caution. From experience there are some benefits, but I have seen people's fitness goals get derailed because of uncontrolled cheat meals. 

Why do people have cheat meals?  Also what are the supposed benefits of a cheat meal? Cheat meals are something often used as a reward for achieving a goal or a milestone toward that goal. I have also heard cheat meals used to satisfy a particular craving which would help you adhere to your diet. Cheat meals are also often used to increase leptin levels which in turn "reset" your metabolism. The other major reason for cheat meals I have heard is to refill your glycogen levels in your muscles and liver which will give you more energy for future workouts. 

What is the down side to a cheat meal? Most importantly cheat meals like so many things, have a very different meaning to different people.  I have often seen the cheat meal used as an excuse to partake in a bacchanalian feast often lasting all day or the majority of a day with a week's worth of calories being consumed in the period of several hours. Sadly, this will have detrimental consequence to the individual's goals and objectives.

Will I really feel better after my cheat meal? The psychological benefits of a cheat meal are very individual. Personally, cheat meals are often disappointing for satisfying cravings. My expectations are almost always greater than realization. The cheeseburger never tastes as good as I imagined it would, for example. It is something to look forward to after being strict to your diet for several weeks but I often feel a loss of the pride I felt while being strict with my diet.  I think this is something that you have to experiment with for yourself. 

Will a cheat meal reset my metabolism? In my research regarding cheat meals affecting leptin levels and metabolism, I found that the results are very mixed. There is some evidence that it does raise leptin levels but a single meal has only a small affect on leptin. This ties in closely with metabolism and I found little evidence to support this claim. In my personal experience, I occasionally feel slightly more energetic but often I have not. And I wonder if I just feel better because I got to go on a date with my wife to Marble Slab and simply got to relax a bit. 

Cheat meals increasing muscle and liver glycogen levels is supported by science. Now keep in mind that the effects of this are very short term and would likely be noticed for only a day at most. You may wake up the next morning, look in the mirror and think "Wow I look really good today!" This is because your muscles are filled with glycogen which is 3:1 water.(1) This will go away quickly though so don't get use to it.

So are cheat meals a good or bad idea? As with everything, the devil is in the details.  The huge negative in cheat meals is the quantity of calories consumed. I cannot emphasize this point enough. Cheat meals are a horrible idea if you over consume. Eating 5,000 calories during your cheat meal will in fact set your gains back. I have seen this over and over. However if handled responsibly there may be some psychological benefits with minimal downside.

How do I safely have a cheat meal? It is critically important to put boundaries on a cheat meal that can be defined in advance. My advice is to limit a cheat meal by calorie. I would recommend that your cheat meal closely match the total calories of a typical meal. For example, if your cheat meal is ice cream and a typical meal consists of 500 calories, your cheat ice cream meal should have no more than 500 calories. Additionally cheat meal frequency should be limited to, at most, weekly but biweekly or monthly would be better. 

Used properly cheat meals can be an effective tool, but approach cheat meals with caution. From experience there are some benefits, but I have seen people's fitness goals get derailed because of uncontrolled cheat meals. 

(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25911631


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