Let’s face it, dieting is hard.
With so much conflicting advice floating around, it’s little surprise most people are a bit lost.
And one such area of concern is the so-called cheat meal.
While some trainers will say it’s fine, others will say it’s worse than strapping dynamite to your face and running through a candle display store.
So today I’m going to give you the lowdown.
Because let’s face it, most of us have been in a situation where we’ve followed a healthy diet for a week or two, and then “it” happened.
By it, I mean temptation got the better of you..
And before you knew it, you were sat on the kitchen floor at 3a.m. with chocolate cake all over your body.
I’m speaking from first-hand experience. If you look closely enough, you can still see the mental scars on my kids.
And usually this leads us down a dark path, we spend the next day angry at ourselves for falling off the wagon or, sometimes, even punishing ourselves by trying to restrict calories in order to make up for our mistake.
So allow me to put your mind at ease.
The next time you find yourself wanting a so-called “cheat meal” – you shouldn’t worry about it.
It’s totally fine.
All of my clients have these meals, in fact I enforce it as part of their nutrition plan.
In today’s article I’ll explain why enjoying your favorite cheat meals is actually a damn good way to hit your fitness goals.
The Bad Food Dilemma
People often send me email messages like these through my Contact page:
- “Hey Russ, every time I try eating healthier I only last a couple of weeks before quitting.”
- “My diet is like a never ending cycle – I eat healthy, I binge, I start over.”
- “I was doing so well, but I totally let myself down tonight and had pizza. So ashamed of myself right now.”
Hey. I totally get it.
I mean, I have personally felt the wrath of the food gods before, going from feeling happy in my body to feeling like Jabba The Hut, all in the space of one unhealthy meal.
So here’s the truth:
Eating your favorite cheat food isn’t going to wreck your diet.
In fact, it’s not even going to make a dent in your overall progress, so don’t beat yourself up about it.
Enjoying those treat meals is something I highly recommend doing for two reasons:
- It’ll keep you sane when times get hard (and they will if you are dieting to lose weight)
- It will boost your metabolism and actually help you to burn more body fat
Making A “Cheat Meal” Work
Most of us are trying to diet too hard and too fast.
And you can’t fucking blame us.
Ever left the TV on late at night?
You’ll wake up reciting the script to some god-awful infomercial about how a guy got abs in 28 days using one special method trainers don’t want you to know about.
It doesn’t matter if that one weird trick was fucking photoshop.
Because when you look down at yourself, you feel fat as fuck.
If you are restricting calories in a bid to lose some weight, it only takes a few weeks before it become damn near impossible to resist even the slightest urge to eat “bad” food, and this in turn also creates the temptation to binge eat out of sheer frustration when the inevitable happens and we reach a breaking point.
If you’ve also got that judgey motherfucker at your workplace who likes to point out the calorie content of your food with a raised eyebrow, or tell you that they find losing weight easy, well it’s a recipe for disaster (pardon the pun, I couldn’t resist).
You’re not being “weak” in finally reaching that breaking point.
Quite frankly, I’m amazed you’ve held it together for this long without being called into your manager’s office to listen to workplace guidelines on why flying headbutt’s are not acceptable behaviour.
You see, the biggest problem here is that people often pigeonhole food into good (or “clean” if you do Crossfit) and bad (unhealthy, dirty, syns, it all means the same shit).
I want you to stop doing that.
Because straight away this creates a feeling of cheating or being naughty if you fancy eating some pizza.
And we all like to be naughty.
Suddenly, eating the forbidden fruit is all you can think about doing.
But this nonsense notion of “good” food and “bad” food couldn’t be further from the truth!
Look, we all have an annoying friend who dishes out free lectures on why their healthy breakfast bowl of rabbit food makes them a much better person than you. But no matter how good they tell you it is, you know it tastes like chewed up paper balls.
And all you really want to do is perform a diving moonsault into a skyscraper box of cheerios that was in no way designed for the consumption of one sole human.
The trick here is to learn that it’s all about balance and moderation.
The 80/20 Rule
All of my clients still eat pizza. They still eat ice cream. And they still eat pancakes. I actually encourage them to factor these treats into their muscle building or fat loss diets.
The key word is moderation.
They follow my 80/20 rule – around 80% of their total calories will arrive via healthy, nutritious foods that support their training goals, with the other 20% arriving via foods they simply want to eat because it’s nice.
They are free to squeeze those treats in daily, weekly or whenever they want.
So the answer to the question “How many cheat meals should you have per week?” is as many as you need, so long as you stay within your calorie or macronutrient targets and adhere to my 80/20 rule you will still get good results.
Freedom is a great thing, right?
Meanwhile, your typical “clean eater” falls into the path of a rigid diet during the week, followed by a day of binge eating at the weekend.
They’ll tell you it’s a high carb day, but it’s not. A high carb day is still structured around healthy foods.
This approach makes absolutely no sense to me, because it’s easily possible to undo a week’s worth of calorie deficit with one huge day of junk food and/or alcohol, and it will also fuck up your metabolism if this approach is followed long-term.
Instead,try a more flexible approach to dieting. You can work just about any treat food into your daily calorie targets without compromising on your progress.
Nobody needs to eat 100% healthily all of the time. I repeat, N-O-B-O-D-Y.
Heck, when filming for Rocky IV – his leanest role – even Sylvester Stallone used to tuck into some fast food every few days.
Sure, there are people who will tell you that they eat “100% clean” in a bid to impress you.
I meet those people all the time in the gym. And usually these are the same people who like to call food “fuel”, while hijacking every conversation to make it about how awesome they are because they need constant praise to stick to whatever they are doing because they are empty inside.
If you know for a fact that you could not live that way, don’t try to force yourself.
Your diet should not feel like punishment.
The “best” diet is the one you can stick to long-term.
A 2002 study from Louisiana State University, researchers compared the effects of following a rigid “clean eating” diet versus a diet which allowed the subjects to enjoy a more flexible approach.
They discovered that the participants on the rigid diet experienced far greater cases of disordered binge eating and mood disturbances, whereas the flexible dieters experienced lower rates of overeating and mood swings. (1)
So try to stick within your daily calorie targets, and use my 80/20 rule (80% of your food should be good, healthy choices while the remaining 20% can be any foods which you simply want to eat).
By following the 80/20 rule, my clients are able to easily stay on top of their diets while still enjoying their favorite treat foods along the way.
The Key Word Is Treat
Notice I said treat, not cheat.
In fact, other than this article, I never use the phrase cheat meal.
It gets back to my point about pigeonholing foods as good or bad.
The word cheat implies you are doing something wrong – and you’re not!
If you were to ask me the last time I ate a cheat meal, I’d tell you I cannot remember. But if you asked me about the last time I ate pizza, well, that was yesterday.
The fridge will win the battle on occasion. That’s perfectly fine. You’ll win the war. The war on fat.
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- Stewart T.M., et al. Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite. 2002 Feb;38(1):39-44