Once you’ve put together a proper diet consisting of the ideal amounts of everything you SHOULD be eating for your goal (losing fat, building muscle, being healthy, etc.), there is still one lingering issue…
What about all of those foods that you SHOULDN’T be eating?
You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? All of those wonderfully tasty and amazingly delicious foods that are some combination of junky, unhealthy, or just nutritionally useless. The foods that you are supposed to avoid or at least greatly limit from your daily diet but probably wish you could just sit around eating all day long.
Sound familiar? I bet you even have a couple of them in mind right now, don’t you?
Well, that would make you pretty normal, because the thing most people hate about eating right is that they have to limit or completely avoid many of the foods they love.
And this brings up some very interesting questions. Specifically:
- Do you ever get to eat those kinds of foods again?
- If so, when?
- How often?
- How much of them can you eat?
- Will doing this screw up your diet?
- Will it prevent or hinder you from reaching your goal?
And all of this brings us to a part of your diet that you’re probably going to like…
The Cheat Meal
I’ve personally seen this concept referred to in a variety of ways, most often:
- Cheat Meals
- Reward Meals
- Free Meals
For all intents and purposes, these 3 terms mean the same exact thing: eating something that wouldn’t normally be a part of the proper diet plan you have created.
You know, like the types of foods I described a minute ago. The ones you know you shouldn’t be eating, but still want to eat anyway.
Sounds like a pretty awesome diet concept, doesn’t it?
The reason it goes by (at least) 3 different names is because some people like to think of it 3 different ways…
- The “cheat meal” people view this as them cheating on their diet. Most of the smarter people in the nutrition field hate this term, because it implies you’re doing something really bad, and that type of thinking leads to guilt… which is the complete opposite of how a cheat meal should make you feel (you’ll understand why in a minute).
- The “reward meal” people view this as a reward for properly sticking to their diet for some predetermined amount of time. I personally think that’s kinda silly, because the positive changes to your body (and health) are the real reward for sticking to your diet consistently… not a cookie or a slice of pizza.
- And the “free meal” people view this as a chance to just be temporarily free from any real dietary restraints or guidelines. In terms of the actual wording, free meal probably makes the most sense of all.
But, like I said, it’s really all the exact same thing. And while “free meal” is my preferred choice for what to call it, I’m actually going to use cheat meal from this point on. That’s just what most people know it as, so I might as well go with it and avoid confusion.
Now, where was I? Oh right, explaining whether you CAN or SHOULD eat the foods you love.
Let’s start with the most obvious question of all…
What’s The Purpose Of Cheat Meals?
Cheat meals are all about helping you stick to your diet. The most common reason people fail to reach their goal (or fail to maintain it afterward) is because they stop eating the way they need to be eating.
Why does that happen, you ask? Well, because losing fat, preventing fat gain, or just being healthy in general requires a certain amount of restriction from the “bad” foods we all love to eat, and everyone hates that.
So, what often ends up happening is that people feel deprived and generally pissed off and annoyed because they miss eating the foods they really enjoy eating. And what happens next? They go off their diet and start eating them.
You deprive someone of something they crave (and are constantly surrounded by) for a long enough amount of time, and they will eventually give in to it. And that’s why diets fail.
But, that’s exactly where cheat meals help you succeed. What if instead of depriving yourself of your favorite foods for the rest of your life, you regularly plan out instances in advance where you will allow yourself to eat those foods guilt-free? Instead of torturing yourself until you reach your diet’s breaking point, you allow yourself to occasionally give in to your cravings and therefore prevent that “breaking point” from ever being reached.
That’s what cheat meals are: small planned breaks in your regularly scheduled diet that serve to keep you sane and happy. And since you planned for it, there’s no guilt involved. It was supposed to happen. By allowing yourself to eat the foods you love in this type of controlled fashion, the chances of short term and long term diet adherence increase significantly. And that right there is the purpose of cheat meals.
Now for the next most obvious question…
Will A Cheat Meal Hurt My Diet, Body or Progress?
As long as it’s done properly (more on that in a minute), the answer is NO.
A properly done cheat meal will NOT directly hurt your diet, your body or your progress. Like I just finished saying, as long as it’s done right, cheat meals often only serve to HELP with long term diet adherence.
Think about it. If you’re eating the “right” way 95% of the time, do you really think that other 5% is going to make any real direct significant difference in the grand scheme of things? Trust me, it won’t.
And that means eating some of those less-than-ideal junky/unhealthy/useless foods that you love from time to time will not directly hurt your ability to lose fat, build muscle, or accomplish any similar goal in any significant way whatsoever… as long as it’s done right.
So far so good, right? Now on to the question that’s probably right on the tip of your tongue at this point…
What’s The Proper Way To Use Cheat Meals?
This is the part where you are probably expecting a bunch of specific guidelines, aren’t you? Something about how a cheat meal can only contain X amount of this or X amount of that or only this type of food but none of that type of food and blah blah blah.
Well, the thing is, if I set a bunch of specific guidelines like that, it really wouldn’t be a cheat meal anymore, would it?
So, for that reason, there are no specific guidelines for cheat meals.
And that’s really why “free meal” is the true better term for it… it’s literally meant as a chance for you to be free.
The primary purpose is to give you a mental and dietary break and remove your usual guidelines and restrictions so that you are allowed to eat something you love without feeling guilty about it.
What I do recommend however, are two general guidelines:
- Don’t go too crazy.
- Don’t do it too often.
Now let me explain what that means.
Don’t go too crazy.
A properly done cheat meal is always done with some amount of moderation and control still intact.
Yes, it’s your chance to eat something you wouldn’t normally eat. But, that doesn’t mean it’s your chance to go completely insane and try to set some kind of eating record. Some amount of sanity should still exist to some degree.
What I mean is, have a few cookies, not the entire box. Have a slice or two of pizza, not the whole pie. Have a bowl of ice cream, not the whole container. This is where people go wrong with cheat meals. They throw all sanity out the window and just go crazy. That can’t happen.
Remember before when I said a properly done cheat meal wouldn’t directly hurt your diet or your progress? That’s because a properly done cheat meal isn’t so insanely large that it has that direct negative impact.
So, while you definitely do not need to measure exact servings or precisely count calories or anything like that, you still need to use some common sense and judgment to not go completely overboard.
Basically, don’t turn your cheat meal into a crazy meal. And also…
Don’t do it too often.
The exact frequency a cheat meal should occur doesn’t really exist. It you want to really get technical about it, it would vary based on the person and the exact type of cheat meal being eaten.
However, for most of the people, most of the time, 1 or 2 cheat meals per week is the maximum I (and most others) would recommend.
Now, for some people, that may seem absolutely perfect. That’s good.
For other people, this may actually seem like too much. Some people only want to have a cheat meal on special occasions like holidays or parties or family gatherings or something similar. That’s perfectly fine.
And for other people, this may not seem like enough. Well, too bad.
Remember before when I said a properly done cheat meal wouldn’t directly hurt your diet or your progress? That’s because a properly done cheat meal doesn’t happen often enough for it to have that direct negative impact.
That’s what makes it “properly done.” And that’s why it can’t happen TOO often.
Are Cheat Meals Right For Me?
You now have a pretty good understanding of what cheat meals are and how to properly use them.
The next question is… should you?
The answer seems like an obvious yes for everyone, doesn’t it?
Well, before you jump to that conclusion, you may have noticed my use of the word “directly” numerous times in the last bunch of paragraphs.
As in… “properly done cheat meals will not directly hurt your diet, your body or your progress.”
Now that you know what “properly done” entails, that statement should make sense. In the overall big picture of your diet, the occasional cheat meal really isn’t even a blip on the radar.
Like I said before, if you’re eating properly 95% of the time, do you honestly think that other 5% is going to do a damn thing? Nope, and that’s why as long as cheat meals are used properly and truly do only account for that small percentage of your overall diet, there will be no direct negative effect of any kind.
There will of course be a bunch of positive mental effects, which is the whole point and purpose of cheat meals in the first place.
But, back to my use of the words “direct” and “directly.”
The reason why I keep using them is because IT IS possible for properly used cheat meals to have an indirect negative impact on the diet, body and progress of certain people.
What I mean is, the answer to the “are cheat meals right for me” question depends solely on how YOUR answer will impact YOUR ability to stick to YOUR diet.
Because, when it comes to cheat meals or anything similar, I find that there are 3 types of people:
1. People whose diets will be ruined by it.
These are the people who lack some amount of control, will power, or whatever it is that allows a person to follow the 2 cheat meal guidelines I mentioned before.
You know… not going too crazy and not doing it too often.
These are the people that won’t be able to do it in the semi-controlled/infrequent way that it’s meant to be done.
For these people, a cheat meal turns into a cheat day. And a cheat day turns into a cheat week. For these people, getting a chance to eat the foods they love only sparks their desire for them to the point where they stray too far from their proper diet and eventually off it altogether.
In this case, cheat meals do more harm than good as it will definitely hurt that person’s diet, body and progress to the point where it can (and usually will) be ruined altogether.
These are the people who should NOT use cheat meals. If they can’t eat these kinds of foods in moderation, the best thing they can do is just not eat them at all.
2. People whose diets will be saved by it.
On the other hand, there are people who CAN follow those guidelines and use cheat meals properly.
And, in many cases, these are the people who will never stick to their diet consistently if it means they have to completely give up eating some of the foods they love.
These are the people who NEED to be allowed to indulge from time to time in order for their diet to work long term.
These are the people who NEED to know they CAN and WILL regularly get a chance to eat something that wouldn’t normally be a part of their diet.
If they couldn’t, it would drive them nuts and most likely force them to go off their diet too much and too often until it eventually ends up being the downfall of their proper diet.
In this case, their diet is saved by the use of cheat meals.
Being able to schedule in cheat meals from time to time helps to keep their cravings for those foods at bay just enough so that their diet can be sustained.
These are the people who SHOULD use cheat meals.
3. People who it really doesn’t matter for either way.
While they may be the rarest of all, there is another group of people who it just don’t matter much for either way.
I probably wouldn’t even think such a group actually exists, but I just so happen to be one of these kinds of people.
Cheat meals wouldn’t ruin my diet, and cheat meals wouldn’t save my diet. I am perfectly happy sticking to my proper diet the majority of the time with or without the use of cheat meals. It doesn’t really help or hurt me.
In fact, for a long time I would say I just never used cheat meals at all… EVER. Everything went perfectly fine with my diet and I didn’t feel deprived or tortured or unhappy in any way. I’m just weird like that, and I can only assume there are others out there just like me.
But then, a couple of years ago, I realized that awesome and tasty food is… well… awesome and tasty. I don’t know if I just forgot for the years before that or if I just didn’t care. But, now I kinda do.
I don’t regularly schedule cheat meals, but I do allow for them during pretty much any special occasion (holiday, party, eating out, etc.) and I enjoy it quite a bit.
I don’t need it, but I enjoy it, so I do it… properly.
So, Are Cheat Meals Right For Me?
Well, here’s what I recommend…
- If you are in group #1, I’d say no.
- If you are in group #2, I’d say yes.
- If you are in group #3 (which really includes anyone not in group 1 or 2), then I’d say maybe. It’s really just up to your own personal preferences. Basically, do whatever seems best for you.
And if you think you’re in group 1, 2 or 3 now and soon find that maybe you’re not really in the group you thought you were, be smart enough to make the switch to the group you’ll truly benefit from being in.
Whatever you end up doing as a result (using or avoiding cheat meals), it’s the right decision for you and the long term success of your diet.