The Right (and Wrong) Way to Cheat

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Cheat meals are a hot topic in the health and fitness industries. Recently, one of my twitter followers messaged me about cheat meals--he asked, “What’s the right way to go about cheat meals?” My response was simple, “Enjoy them! It’s what you do with the rest of your meals that matters most.” 

When I first started my fitness career, I hired an ex-bodybuilder as my coach. I followed him blindly—listening closely to his advice and executing just as he instructed. He had me on a very strict plan that tracked macros and emphasized carb cycling. This strict approach transformed my body, and although it was challenging, I was fortunate to have the willpower to follow such a regimen without having cheat food cravings.  

While the strict, no cheat approach worked well for me, others however may find that rewarding themselves for a job well done has psychological benefits, and helps them stay sane and on track. This approach can absolutely breed success, though I caution that there are pitfalls. 


The cheat/reward can set up the wrong emotional response to food, triggering your brain to associate “bad”, “unhealthy” foods with happiness. Cheat meals can also have negative physical effects--a sugary cheat meal can skyrocket your insulin levels, giving you a sugar high that causes you to crash later. You may feel good while you eat it, but a few hours later your body goes into sluggish mode. Once this happens your body may signal you to reach for sugary foods just to feel normal again. What began as a cheat meal now turned into multiple cheats--that is the problem with cheat meals, they can be a slippery slope if you’re not careful.  


Although cheat meals can backfire, if done properly and with control, they can be beneficial. This is especially true if you’ve been in a prolonged state of calorie restriction. Incorporating cheat meals after a cycle of restriction kicks the body out of autopilot and revs up your metabolism so that you can continue to see results.

If you’re going to have cheat meals, you must hold yourself accountable, and limit cheat foods within reach. Do not go buy everything you want all at once, rather only buy what you plan to cheat with and keep any other "bad" food out of sight. Having a cabinet or fridge filled with temptation is never a safe bet--you are more likely to go overboard and sabotage your success. 

Another key to cheating is preparation. Either plan ahead by reducing calories prior to the " scheduled cheat", or deduct those calories from your next meals. This approach will keep you in balance and on the path to success. 


Re-feeds are a common term in the industry and are dependent solely upon what type of diet you are following. After weekly dieting on low carbs, your glucose stores drop, causing you to lose energy and interest in working out, or even in many other tasks that require energy and focus. A re-feed is a strategic meal that refills those stores so that you can carry on, with a resurgence of energy and a full stock of glucose to help your body perform to its fullest potential. Beware though--re-feeds are not for everyone. If for example you’re on a diet with an even macro profile, where your calories are coming from protein, carbohydrates and fats equally (33.3%), then a re-feed is not necessary. 


The topic of cheat meals and re-feeds is certainly one that you can debate. The key point to take away from this article is that your decision to cheat should depend on the type of diet you follow. If you are just slightly under your estimated maintenance calories, then cheat meals may not have a place in your diet. On the flipside, if you’ve been in a calorie deficit for an extended period of time, throwing in some extra calories will help you keep balance. 

Whether you use a cheat meal or re-feed is up to you, but either one would help your metabolism while you diet. Regardless of your strategy, make sure to hold yourself accountable. Have a plan and do not go about it loosely, because a cheat meal can easily lead into a cheat day, which can lead into a cheat week, which is sure to throw you off track!

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