There’s also a physiological benefit to temporarily tumbling off the nutritional wagon: A blast of high-fat, high-carb foods can spike your metabolism and replace depleted stores of glycogen, which refuels muscle.
Simply put, cheat meals can help you meet your goals, provided you don’t use them as an excuse to go crazy. We asked experts how you can ensure that they work for, not against, you. Here’s how to cheat without feeling guilty.
Plan to Cheat
Having a strategy is a key part of a cheat meal. Plan when and what you’re going to eat. Most experts agree that one shift at the trough per week is sufficient. It's a good idea to line up that cheat meal on a weekend or social occasion. “By planning your cheat meal, you know what you'll be eating and can cut a few extra calories earlier in the day," says Jim White, RD, ACSM Health Fitness Specialist and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios. This also allows you to really pick a favorite food instead of wasting calories on something you didn’t enjoy."
Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, Real Nutrition NYC, gives similar advice. “Pick your poison. If you’re going out, pick your splurge. Are you going to dig into carbs — like a bread basket or pasta — or dessert? Or are you planning on tossing back a few cocktails?” She urges cheaters to avoid consuming all three of those common categories at once sitting. “Focus only on one,” she says, adding that by saving the others for another time you can “enjoy without going overboard.”
Pair Your Increased Intake with Intensified Output
White recommends exercising the day you plan to have your cheat meal. “You’ll offset the extra calories you’ll be eating.” he says, adding that by creating a deficit, you can afford yourself some extra calories. Here's how to Lose 16 Pounds With This Full-Body Workout.
Don’t Pig Out
Wait, what? Isn’t the whole idea of this to stuff yourself silly, to make all the sacrifice worth it? Actually, no. The cheat meal is an opportunity to eat what you like, not a mandate to eat what you can. There are two ways you can stop yourself from gorging. First, set time restraints. “Remember it’s a cheat meal, not a cheat day,” says White. “Don’t go overboard and have a whole day of eating a lot of extra calories or eating a lot of junk food. So eat two to three pieces of pizza, not a whole pie.”
Shapiro advocates portion control. (Yes, even when cheating.) Her best advice is to order a half-portion of that thing you love. “Restaurant portions are way too big, so even when we plan on indulging we end up going overboard,” she says. “I always recommend my clients ask for appetizer-size portions of items such as pasta, and many restaurants will oblige. It’s more than enough to quench your craving without blowing your diet.”
Drink Plenty of Water
Just like portion control, drinking lots of water between slices of pizza or handfuls of buffalo wings will slow your feeding frenzy, help you digest the nutrients within your cheat foods more ably and sate your hunger sooner. Not a fan of plain H20? Whip up one of these 14 Detox Waters That Banish Bloat!
Take Your Time
Savor and enjoy. You’ve been looking forward to this all week, so appreciate the taste of your favorite foods and extend the fun. White adds that by slowing your roll, you’ll recognize when you’re full. That’ll help prevent overeating.
Even a Cheat Meal Should Be Nutrient Rich
Pick a meal that still has nutritional value instead of something with empty calories. If you’re choosing between Ding-Dongs and a Slurpee on the one hand, and a fully loaded cheeseburger, fries and a beer on the other, choose the latter. Take advantage of protein, fat and carbs, even if that’s higher in calories than foods that are processed, artificially flavored or full of ingredients you can’t pronounce.
Get Back on Track
“Everyone is entitled to a cheat meal, but no one is entitled to a cheat week—not even on your birthday,” says Shapiro. "Don't think, 'I just ruined my diet, so I’m going to keep eating whatever I want.'" Enjoy your meal and resume your healthy plan ASAP. “This will keep you moving in the right direction and won’t allow for any permanent setbacks,” she says. White also recommends purging the fridge of leftovers to keep temptation out of your reach.
Dragging in the Gym? Treat Yourself!
This tip might seem like the most counterintuitive of all. If you’ve had three or four lackluster workouts in a row, it may be that your body is glycogen depleted or in need of other nutrients. Cheat your face off, and see what happens. You might find that a plate of fettuccine alfredo will improve your morale and get you back in your groove. Just don’t treat every gym plateau with poutine. It’s much healthier to try listening to a new Spotify playlist first. And try one of these Best Workouts for Fat Loss and Burning Calories!