The idea of a “Cheat Meal” is so ubiquitous that it belongs on the highest shelf of wherever the plaques for Hall of Fame of Fitness Ideas are stored.
Preferably with a platinum finish and surrounded by pizza boxes, brownie tins, ice cream cartons, and 3 or 4 bottles of your favorite local craft beer.
I think that would enshrine the entire idea quite nicely.
The basic idea of a cheat meal is that you follow your diet 90-95% of the time and then you cheat on it and go hog-wild and consume whatever you want (this usually turns into the entire contents of your refrigerator).
Sadly, the idea of a cheat meal has been substantially misnamed and the completely valid reasons for meals like this are overshadowed by too many youtube videos of “Epic Cheat Meals”.
Let’s take an actual look at “Cheat Meals”, redefine them, and then talk about what they are, why to use them, and how to put them into practice.
Quit calling them Cheat Meals
The word cheat is defined by our good friend Merriam-Webster as:
- To deprive of something valuable by the use of deceit or fraud;
- To influence or lead by deceit, trick, or artifice;
- To elude or thwart by or as if by outwitting.
Related: 3 Things You Can Learn From IIFYMers
None of these definitions really fit the entire idea of a “cheat meal” which is usually 1 of 2 things: Going off your diet as a mental break from the monotony of eating the same thing over and over again while feeling deprived for long periods of time; And smartly planned periods of higher calorie intake above and beyond your normal calorie intake.
In scenario 1, it doesn’t make any real sense to call them “cheat meals”, as you really aren’t deceiving or framing anyone and getting something valuable. Your aren’t influencing anything through trickery or deceit, and you aren’t eluding or thwarting anyone.
What you are really doing in scenario 1 is taking a break from your diet for a meal and putting your goals a little bit further out of reach.
In scenario 2, it REALLY doesn’t make sense to call them a cheat meal. In fact, they are actually planned into the program and they are simply just, “eat a little more” days.
You can dream up a ton of scenarios or examples and none of them really fit into the definition of “cheat”. So I think at this point we can all stop calling them cheat meals and call them, “higher calorie meals” and move onto how to strategically use them during your program, regardless of the goal.
Use Them Strategically During a Cut
Two key aspects of cutting need to be given specific attention to optimize the success of the cut:
- Consistently maintaining a calorie deficit
- Maintaining training volume.
Higher calorie meals placed strategically during a week can make a cut substantially more effective on both aspects.
First, it is abundantly clear that there is no magic 24 hour window in which you have to maintain a deficit and then it reset the next night. Calorie deficits are best thought of as continuously moving windows over periods of several days to several weeks.
One can fluctuate low calorie days and high calorie days and maintain a deficit. The use of higher calorie days can break up the mental monotony of dieting, help alleviate consistent strings of days with high hunger signals, and also prevent some of the potential issues that arise with continual low calorie intake.
Side Note: This is anecdotal, but one of the things we find with a lot of people is that if we build in some variety and insert higher calorie meals and days into their cutting cycles rather than a continuous, monotone calorie deficit and low food intake they tend to have better results and fewer plateaus.
While it is possible this has to do with “metabolism” it may also be purely a placebo thing where it leads to better adherence, but it is an interesting thing we have observed working with thousands of people
Now back to our second point, stringing together weeks of low calorie (especially low-carb) intake is a surefire way to reduce your ability to train hard and to train at a high volume. One of the big things we know drives both muscle growth and fat loss is high quality volume work.
Having higher calorie meals interspersed at smart intervals (every 4-7 days) is a good way to help people maintain training volume and keep recovery at a decent level during hard cutting cycles. Operationally this looks like planning higher calorie days and meals around the highest volume, most taxing training session of the week (typically leg day or deadlift day).
Plan Them Out so They Don’t Get Out of Hand
We have changed our view of cheat meals to now being higher calorie meals that are actually part of the plan. THIS MEANS THEY SHOULD BE PLANNED FOR! Failing to plan is planning to fail … or something inspirational like that. While cliché, this is actually a fitting concept.
Let me illustrate with what often results from an unplanned cheat day.
You are in a cutting cycle and you have been dieting pretty hard all week. It is Friday night (which means “cheat day”) and you pick up some meat, buns, and a 6 pack on your way home.
You grill up hamburgers while downing a few brews, load them with bacon and avocado and devour them. Then you down the entire bag of frozen fries you pulled out of the oven. Then there is the dessert, because every cheat day has to have dessert, so you pound a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.
You are on a roll and you are thinking, “I’ve already put down 2,000 calories, what’s another 500”, so it is onto the left over piece of cake sitting in the fridge. You are clearly thirsty at this point so you pour a big glass of milk.
You dial it all into myfitnesspal and 5,500 calories later “cheat day” just offset the 3,000 calorie deficit you built up during the week.
Don’t be like Templeton from Charlotte’s Web and let things get away from you:
This type of cycle turns these smart, high calorie meals, into real roadblocks in your training. Planning them out ahead of time and knowing what you are going to eat makes things more manageable and makes these days far more effective. Typically, just winging it doesn’t work out so well.
The Wrap Up
Calling them cheat meals is inaccurate and misses the entire point of what they are.
When you are dieting or cutting, periods of higher calorie intake make a lot of sense from an adherence standpoint, a training quality standpoint, and a long-term success standpoint.
Since these higher calorie meals are now part of the plan, you better plan for them and not let them becomes Templeton’s Smorgasbord.