No, not cheating in sports, like Lance Armstrong; or in politics, like Vladimir Putin; or in love, like the entire population of Capitol Hill. We mean cheating on your diet, and reaping some unexpected benefits.
In fact, when it comes to weight loss, dietary cheaters almost always prosper. That's because under the right parameters, a weekly "cheat meal" has been proven to boost your metabolism and ward off feelings of deprivation—improving not only your ability to lose weight, but your ability to stick to your diet plan as well.
In fact, a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that dieters who took a two-week break from their low-calorie meal plan lost more weight than those who dieted consistently. The Australian researchers discovered that dieters who deviated from the prescribed diet dropped about 50 percent more weight, in addition to losing more body fat, than the consistent dieters. Although both groups ultimately gained a few pounds back six months later, the cheat day dieters weighed about 18 pounds lighter than those who didn't indulge in a few cheat meals.
Maximize the weight loss benefits and minimize the damage while eating the foods you crave. Here's how you can have a cheat meal (or two) on your diet—and still lose weight!
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."
Earn the Burn
One way cheat meals can boost the metabolism is by increasing levels of leptin, the "anti-starvation" hormone responsible for sending hunger messages to the body. When your body senses a calorie deficit, leptin levels drop, prompting the metabolism to slow down and conserve energy, according to a Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism study. Throwing a calorie-rich cheat meal into the mix tricks your system into thinking food is plentiful and that it's OK to burn through fat stores.
In the context of strict dieting, cheat meals can aid weight loss by temporarily boosting leptin. But if you've been lax with your meal plan, the leptin argument is a moot point. In other words, you have to be nice before you can afford to be naughty.
Don't Cheat When You're Famished
Some people pre-game a cheat meal by punishing themselves on the treadmill and severely restricting calories for days in advance. They're probably the same folks who sleep with the heat off and live by candlelight in order to save for a mini vacation. While creating a "calorie buffer" can be a smart cheat-meal strategy, overcompensating for a feast by "saving" calories for days in advance almost always backfires. You're more likely to overeat if you come to the table deprived.
Cheat in Moderation
There's a cheat meal and there's a cheat day… or days. And the latter—going nuts on the weekend because you've been on point with your diet during the week—is never a good idea. A solid diet and exercise program will help you lose 1 to 2 pounds per week—a deficit of about 3,500 to 7,000 calories. Consider that a Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics study found that average sit-down restaurant meal serves up 1,205 calories, and it's easy to see how cheating too big or too frequently, can undo your weight loss efforts in a matter of hours. If you're serious about losing weight, limit yourself to one cheat meal per week. Pick a date, a meal time and a restaurant; and put it in the diary.
Create a Calorie Buffer
You can minimize the damage of a cheat meal the day of your feast by "banking" the majority of your daily calories, primarily those from carbs and fats. There are a couple of ways to do this effectively. If possible, fast before the meal. In other words, if you're cheating at dinnertime, move your first meal to later in the day (lunchtime). Reducing the number of hours you'll be eating not only saves you calories, but it also shifts your body into a "fat burning" state.
Showing up to the table famished isn't a good idea either. So make sure you eat one high-quality, high-protein meal before your cheat, preferably with high-fiber, low-starch veggies to slow down digestion. A big green salad with simple grilled chicken breast and a squeeze of lemon, for example, would be an ideal pre-cheat meal because it maximizes satiety for the lowest amount of calories. You won't be starving when it's time to feast, and you'll still have your entire daily "allowance" of carbohydrates and fats in the bank. (If you're looking for a gentle plan for saving up those calories, try our one day detox.)
Work Out Before You Feast
Another trick to minimize fat gains from your cheat meal is to deplete your glycogen stores—the sugar in your system that your body burns up for energy. Why does it work? The body won't store carbohydrate as body fat until its glycogen reserves are full, so the emptier your tank, the more room you have for, say, spaghetti, before it ends up on your thighs. How do you do it? Hit the gym before your cheat meal (ideally before you eat anything that day). High-rep circuit style workouts are the best depletion workouts. Even 20 minutes can make a dent. Want an extra boost? Have a cup of black coffee before your sweat-sesh. Studies show caffeine can increase fat metabolism when taken as a pre-workout supplement.
Take Your Own Order
It's easy to be overwhelmed by temptations on the menu. Studies show that when people are presented with multiple food options, they eat more. Try to mentally limit the food choices you're allowed in advance of your cheat meal by focusing on the options you absolutely love and crave. Choose a restaurant with a menu over a buffet and, if possible, peruse the options in advance. Head to your restaurant with a game plan: Have a good idea of what you're going to order before the waiter arrives at your table. Stick to what you know you'll enjoy most, and skip the rest.
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."
Get a Table, Not a Booth
Resist the urge to grab a stool at the bar and chow down while you watch the game. Research shows that people who eat while watching television eat an average 10 percent more in one sitting than they would otherwise. Not only that, "distracted eaters" go on to eat up to 25 percent more total calories over the course of the day. You can savor every bite and save hundreds of calories, just by indulging in the dining room instead of the booths at the bar.
Order the BEST Type of Cheat Meal
Some cheat meals are better than others. And a high-carbohydrate, moderate-protein meal, however "naughty," can help you stay on track with your diet. Why? Carbohydrates have the greatest influence on leptin levels, which help you burn fat and feel satisfied. And protein has the greatest influence on satiety due to its influence on appetite-regulating hormones and high thermic effect—the process of digesting protein requires more energy of your body than any other macronutrient. Need an example? How about a few rolls of sushi? Steak and a potato? Pancakes and an egg white omelet? Spaghetti and meatballs? The options are virtually unlimited, so long as you …
Avoid the WORST Type of Cheat Meal
A high-fat meal causes more immediate fat storage than a high-carb meal. The reason? Dietary fat is stored as body fat more efficiently than carbohydrate or protein. For your body to turn a carbohydrate molecule into a very-different fat molecule, it has to use a chemical process that in itself burns energy (about 25 percent per gram of carbohydrate). On the other hand, dietary fat is chemically similar to body fat and requires hardly any energy for conversion. Moreover, fat isn't very effective at increasing leptin levels, so you miss out on the temporary metabolism boost. Avoid menu options that are particularly high in fat, like creamy pasta dishes, greasy pizza, battered or tempura foods and, unfortunately, most desserts. Cheat at your own risk!
Order a Few Rounds
… A few rounds of water, that is. Restaurant meals tend to be high in sodium, which throws off antidiuretic hormones—chemicals that control how much you urinate—and can leave you feeling dehydrated and bloated. Start replenishing your body while you indulge with a few large glasses of water. Drink a few glasses with your meal, before you hit the sack and when you wake up the next day. (And if you want to kickstart your jump back on the healthy eating train, try adding in a couple of the best teas for weight loss).
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.