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Are Cheat Meals Holding You Back?

cheat mealsWe all know the benefits of cheat meals. Physically, they “reset” many important hormones like leptin, and they can keep your metabolism from slowing to a standstill. Mentally, they help you keep your sanity. However, if not used the right way, cheat meals can keep your progress from moving forward, or worse – they can lead to you throwing in the towel all-together.

Yes, a Cheat Meal is Just That – Cheating

There’s a reason why they’re called “cheat” meals. It’s because you’re cheating. Our goal is to drop the fat, and eating a bunch of processed food works against that goal. We don’t need processed food to reap the physical benefits cheat meals provide. Having controlled healthy refeeds accomplish the same goal more efficiently. With cheat meals, going 3 steps forward and 2 steps back can be a successful way of achieving your goals, but that method does not work for everybody.

Sure, we’d all like to think that we can have our cake and eat it too, but realistically, the majority of people shouldn’t be having cheat meals – yet. Why do I say that? It’s because most people choose to have a cheat meal once/week, and unfortunately, one week is not enough time to master self-control over food. Too many times these too-soon cheat meals start a negative spiral of reverting back to old eating habits.

Processed Food is Addicting

Food is addicting – especially processed food. There’s a good chance that you are one of millions that share this food addiction problem. Do you think you could quit smoking for a week and then have a cigarette on the weekend without reverting back to your old ways? I don’t smoke, but when it comes to processed food, I have that problem. Do you?

If you do, I’d suggest a different approach. Get rid of the processed food completely. Yes, it’s tough – especially for the first few days. However, every day that goes by, things get easier. Get through the 1st 48 hours, and you’re 75% there. Make it through a week, and you’re in the home stretch. If you’ve gone a month – congratulations, you’ve just successfully changed your eating habits, and believe me, a month without processed food will completely change your body.

Does This Sound Like You?

Now, I understand that some of you might be thinking you’d lose your mind without a few indulgences. Everything in moderation. A treat here or there won’t hurt you. If these are your thoughts, I suspect that you are the very person I am directing this at. I know because I’m one of those people. If you feel like you “need” this bad food, you stand a good chance of falling off the wagon when you do have your cheat meal.

The “cycle” typically looks like this:

  1. You’re fed up with your current state of affairs and decide to make a positive change in your life.
  2. You start off your new lifestyle doing well.
  3. You make it past the first half of the week eating well. It was difficult, but you did it.
  4. You start thinking about the weekend when you can have (insert processed food here).
  5. As that day nears, that meal consumes more and more of your thoughts.
  6. It’s here! You ate it. It was great!
  7. It’s over :(
  8. The next day your cravings are back in full force. Bad eating habits want to take over.
  9. You step on the scale and realize you made no progress.
  10. You get discouraged and question why you’re doing all this hard work for nothing.
  11. You have another bad meal, which leads to another, and another.
  12. Repeat the whole cycle again in a few months.

Alright, so maybe you aren’t one of the people who can’t handle cheat meals (more power to ya – have them!), but if the above cycle sounds anything remotely close to you, I highly suggest that you put the idea of cheat meals out of your mind – not forever, but until you have mastered self-control, and you are much closer to your desired maintenance body composition.

Willpower and Motivation

Willpower and motivation are 2 very important commodities. Without them, we are doomed to fail. The number one way to keep their levels topped up? Show consistent progress. Taking 3 steps forward and 2 steps back can mess with your head, and if you aren’t seeing progress, you deplete your levels of willpower and motivation until you eventually give up.

Instead, put the cheat meals aside, and first work on making progress. I guarantee you that once you see your hard work paying off, your motivation will be at an all-time high, and the thought of having a processed cheat meal will just get in the way of your progress. Nothing tastes as good as making progress feels (I think that line sums it up better than the old “skinny” cliche). You can do without the processed food. I know you can. You know you can!

  • caroline

    hi i am 49 female my problem is my stomach a am waiting to get my galbladder out in about 6wks i go to a great personal trainer twice per week do 2 spin classes per week run 5k couple of times per month but my stomach never goes below 43inchs have u any idea wot i am doing wrong my trainer says when i get my operation over the weight and stomach will sort itself out

    • Coach Calorie

      Hi Caroline, is your trainer having you do any strength training? That should be the staple in your exercise routine. Besides that, all that exercise isn’t going to matter if your nutrition isn’t right. Eliminate processed foods from your diet. This is going to solve the majority of your problems.

  • Angela

    Great article, I am one of those people who used to hang out for a ‘cheat meal’ in the weekends that would end up being a two or even three day blow out with food. This month I decided to do the whole 30 and eliminate all processed food, dairy and sugar from my diet so that I could ‘reset’ my body and take control over my cravings and tendacies to binge eat. I may never again have a cheat meal as I cannot stop at one meal, but may have to indulge in my favourite foods once in a while such as birthdays so that I maintain control. For me its not about restricting the food I eat, its about being the best person I can be for myself and my husband and children. So saying no to crappy proceesed food that makes me feel bloated, crabby and tired seems like a easy choice. Thanks again for the article, it confirmed in my mind that indeed I am on the right path. :)

  • Vix- Miss Fitness Life

    A great way to refocus your thinking on cheat meals is to rename them refuel meals.

    The food can be good or bad, but the focus is on refuelling the metabolism by creating a spike of calories, to burn more fat, not on eating bad food.

    Refuel also removes any guilt…you are refueling, not cheating.

    Oh and when you refuel try not to have a whole refuel weekend :-)

    • Alejandra Cheverria

      Like! Refueling makes you think… I just need to up my energy… not overindulge… it can be about eating more yams, another piece of homemade banana bread in the morning or just more fruits/food for energy!

  • kelly

    Cheat meals don’t work for me because my carvings for these nutritionally deficient foods is long in the past.

    I do love the Cheat-Beer on Saturday nights though.


    • Debi

      Im with her.. a Fancy Cheat Beer.. none of that low carb stuff!. …. I could not have a cheat day of lasagna.. then go back to dieting.. so, Never eat foods that will turn you into a craving maniac..

  • Milly

    I’m very proud to say that only 4-5 weeks ago, that WAS me! I’d “broken up” with processed food for about 3-4 weeks and it was still such hard work to go without it. Then something happened – I started to really see results and realised the cost of giving up processed food was far, far less than the cost of not seeing results.

    I’ve now fallen into the other category – trying to figure out when and how often and can/should have a cheat meal, and it’s quite tricky. I had my first one the previous Sunday (after a gruelling Tabata and abs class) and it worked a treat (pun inteded ;) ). I decided to go for it again this Sunday (following the same classes), but two days in and I’m not feeling the benefits whatsoever. Will defo pass on a cheat meal this Sunday and just recover with extra protein/fat instead, and see if a 14 day cycle works better.

    Thanks for all your great tips & articles Coach!

  • Sean G

    For the past year I have been very dedicated to eating clean and working out. Initially my workouts were simply 20 30 minutes of cardio and have quickly migrated to 6 days a week workouts alternating cardio and weight training. I generally Lift for an hour to an hour and a halft on Tue, Thur and Sunday and combine that with HIIT workouts 2 times a week and longer internval cardio and swimming(1.5 to 2 hours). I am not a fan of the scale and do not know how much weight I have lost, but would estimate that it is somewhere in the neighborhood of 270 down to 210-215….I do not really care as most of my clothes fit better(waist of 44 to 36)…blood preassure from 140/85 to 117/65. Recently I have found that my eating habits are not quite as pure as I would really like them to be. I generally eat well all week and will occasionally have some processed foods(mostly sweets(ice cream is my down fall). This only happens every week or so but does seem to be occuring more frequently than I would like. I do not feel like I am going backwards, but do fell like I have stalled. I try to eat 5-6 meals every few hours and my question/commet is this. in lieu of a snack I have been eating a 200 calorie quest protein bar a couple times a day, do you think this is a processed food that should be replaced with “real” food? This is the only processed food I eat and am simply currious of your opion of these power bars.

    • Coach Calorie

      Hi Sean, I really don’t like protein bars. They are usually filled with all kinds of “weird” things. There are a few bars out there that are natural. They have only nuts and fruit basically, but no protein. You’re going to be better off with real food. Having a bar every once in a while as a meal replacement when you’re on-the-go is OK, but I wouldn’t make them a staple in your diet.

    • Alejandra Cheverria

      Have you tried greek yogurt and berries? Or adding casein to the yogurt and freezing it for a bit to make a delicious night time “Ice cream”like snack — I also find, when i’ve been craving ice cream — it’s a texture and fat thing.. Are you getting in enough avocado, coconut/oil, nuts? I agree with CC about real food ftw forever buuuut, if you must QB is really pretty good in comparison to most bars out there.. ingredients being: whey, fibre, almonds, water, a bit of salt and whatever your flavor is.. if it’s chocolate — they add cocoa, if it’s banana bread.. they add nuts and actual banana.. so, I’d say.. QB is great. Ingredients list is less than 10 ingredients, most at home bars that I make are just that 7-10 ingred — oats, diff dried berries, almond butter, almond milk, nuts/seeds, added fibre,choc nibs … I’d cut one bar and keep the other for a desperate no other food on hand or as a pre workout. That’s just me.

  • Suzanne Digre

    Honestly, I could not agree with you more on this. Excellent, excellent article!

    • Coach Calorie

      Thanks Suzanne :)

  • http://www.personalbestlex.con Angela

    Awesome article -and sooooo true!

  • Bev

    This is so me!!!! I start off my week so good. I prepare my meals for the week on Sunday but by Thursday I’m thinking about my cheat meal for Friday or Saturday and by the time the weekend is over I’ve had several cheat meals!! By Sunday I am totally disgusted and disappointed with myself and of course there was no progress for the week and I start the wekely cycle all over again. I am really going to make an effort to commit to healthy eating for an entire month and hopefully that will be the start of a new habit because the old one isn’t working!

  • Annie

    I agree with this article 100%. Cheat meals can be a bad thing especially for someone who is petite. And they DO set one up for cravings. For me though, it’s not about eating the crappy processed food…I can turn any kind of food into a cheat binge..even broccoli. What I have found works for me is to do a little intermittent fasting. For some reason, this totally stops my cravings. I might feel some natural hunger, but there are no insane cravings. The intermittent fasting allows me to concentrate on other things besides when my next meal will be coming and I am much calmer…. it’s weird actually.

    • Coach Calorie

      I’ve experimented with IF too, and it showed some promising results. However, it also amplified my binge eating disorder, so I went back to smaller, more frequent meals.

  • Elise C. Baron

    I Leave 1 day a week that I don’t binge eat, but I eat a food / meal not on my meal plan . . . . .reward for week of good nutrition, in moderation . . . .found it to be the best way to ward off the cravings and slipping up during the week

  • Jonathan Parker

    In recent months, my cheat meals are pretty much eating more quantity of “healthier” choices I already eat. My cheat = more than 1 portion of a good thing. I rarely eat bad food any more – no desire to derail what I’ve worked so hard at to attain.

  • Michele K

    Thanks for a really informative and honest article. I have to admit that I have an issue with cheat meals – I just don’t get why you would want to cheat. I’ve read (in many places) that cheat meals are necessary, that you need them so your body doesn’t go into starvation mode. I don’t get it. Surely, if you are nourishing your body adequately you’re not going to go onto starvation mode. Am I understanding things right? Perhaps I need to get a better understanding of the ‘refuel’ concept here. So, is cheating necessary?

  • Coach Calorie

    Cheating, as in eating processed foods, is not necessary to be successful. However, periodic spacing of “refeeds” can help keep the fat loss moving forward. By refeed, I simply mean eating about 50% more carbs and dropping your fat intake down for a day. The frequency can be anywhere from every few days to 2 weeks to not having to do them at all.

    Cheat meals are more for psychological satiety.

  • Martha

    Thanks for a motivating article! But what do you suggest if you work in the bakery? I work in the bakery and it is so hard not to take a cake.

  • Andrea Thayn Griffin

    Thanks for the validation. Every single time I have “felt” that I needed to go without cheat meals for at least a month or so, I’ve had someone tell me that was way too strict, and I “deserve” to reward myself for my hard work…and I’ve been a sucker and listened to somebody else instead of myself. Today’s the day I start listening to myself about what I need to do to truly transform myself!!! :) Here I go!

  • Coach Calorie

    That’s certainly a test in willpower! Hard to give advice on that one. Maybe you can indulge without binging? If you keep your calories under control, 10% of them could come from your bakery food each day.

  • MsAnita

    I am wicked confused, one person tells you yes one person tells you know and I have come to the conclusion that you got to do what is good for you and what works for you, yes I will have a cheat meal but that cheat meal is not pigging out on pizza wings. fries burgers you name it.. it is maybe pasta or and one slice of Italian bread.. I do not eat junk food any more like I use to sit down and eat a whole bag of chips or a whole 1/2 gallon of ice cream with a full glass of soda.. I use to that was 100 lbs ago.. those foods will never be in my mouth.. but yes there is the occasional piece of cake or pie it seems like only around the holiday time… if I do cheat it is a large meal something that I normal do make in the week time.. but again if I don’t see the scale moving down, then I know what I need to do.

  • Coach Calorie

    It’s definitely not an excuse to binge. Keep calories under control and you’ll be fine.