Should We Rule Out Cheat Meals?

A client of mine recently shared the nutritional information of a popular chocolate dessert in our coaching group. If you’ve visited the Max Brenner Chocolate Bar, you already know how ridiculously amazing their menu is, and the likeliness of it being a perfect destination for “cheat meals”.

There was some discussion about what a typical cheat meal at Max Brenner would include and the total calories consumed as a result which got me thinking. In a time where nutritional science has exposed us to information which can positively influence our eating behaviours and nutritional flexibility, why do people still fall into the “clean eating” & cheat meal cycle.

We know that we can pretty much consume any food we like and as long as our daily caloric intake doesn’t exceed our expenditure there is little to no concern of weight gain. We know that if we consume adequate protein we’ll set ourselves up for success in regards to the nutritional support of muscle growth. We know that if we base our diet around minimally processed foods we can include “fun foods” at little to no risk of health degradation, and simply fit them into our daily caloric goals and stay on track.

So why do people still choose to have cheat meals, which in the short-term move them away from their goals? Well, to make a case to defend this, I could simply suggest that temporarily moving away from your goals could improve the long-term consistency that leads to positive outcomes. If you have six meals per day because you still believe it speeds up your metabolism, you’re having forty-two meals per week. One meal out of forty-two can’t make you fat right? Well to be perfectly honest, it’s highly unlikely.

Sure we talk about structured refeeds and sticking to your daily or weekly caloric targets, but if a cheat meal gives you a chance to take a step back from the severity of your overly-restrictive “clean eating” diet, it probably has merit in keeping the cycle going towards long term progression.

But wait, if you can’t already tell there are a few key points I’ve touched on. Cheat meals are typically associated with low calorie diets or more specifically large caloric deficits. Obviously if you’re greatly under consuming calories for the majority of your week, you’re going to free up a fair amount to allocate towards cheat meals, without concern of weight gain by the end of the week.

Sure this works, but is it optimal? It really depends from an individual consideration.

If you’re looking to get in the best shape of your life whilst getting the most out of your training sessions from a performance progression standpoint, you really can’t make a case for cheat meals being the ideal approach. Opting for a more controlled diet that doesn’t make room for cheat meals would typically provide higher calories throughout the week, offering improved energy for each training session.

Could you imagine wanting to hit a squat PR for reps on a Friday night but you’ve been eating low calories all week because you want to “deserve” your weekend cheat meal? The chances of being highly energized are on the low end, compared to someone who has a more balanced approach to energy input (food) throughout the week.

However, if your goal is to simply drop a few pounds, make some smarter nutritional choices throughout the week, and start an exercise program to improve your strength, I’m not confident enough in suggesting that having a cheat meal will hold you back from reaching your goals. You’re probably happy with slower progression and don’t have any specific time-based goals in mind.

It really does come down to context.

Getting back on track in relation to what is optimal, I would highly recommend that you consider tracking your macros and taking a flexible approach to dieting, which allows you to allocate foods of your choice into your daily diet and greatly reduce the urge to binge, overfeed, of dream of cheat meals.

In saying that, if you’re having great success with your current dieting strategies, which includes taking a break from your diet weekly, you’re probably in a happy and progressive place.

Rather than having regular cheat meals, I prefer to track and monitor my diet more consistently, and opt for “relaxed meals” much less frequently. I prefer to take a controlled and tracked “diet break” periodically, and choose “optimal” more often than most.

Losing weight is easy, maintaining long-term weight loss is hard. Find a strategy that works best for you. However if you decide to opt for cheat meals, do yourself a favor and avoid reviewing the nutritional information of your delicious creations.

At the end of the day some things just simply can’t fit your macros, so if you aren’t currently dieting towards a specific time-based goal enjoy yourself at your own discretion.

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