It’s impossible to stick to a healthy diet 100 percent of the time. Cravings and the urge to just let loose come and go for everyone. Even The Rock, who’s as famous for his strict diet as he is for his movie roles, allows himself to indulge every once in awhile. So, while it may seem like a cheat meal can derail your healthy goals, in fact, it can actually be important to your diet. Here, we break down why cheat meals are important and how they can actually benefit your diet and fitness routine.
It all has a lot to do with metabolism.
There are two main hormones that we need to focus on here: leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is the hormone that regulates your appetite and controls satiety; it signals when you’re full. Your leptin production depends on your calorie intake; if you are in a calorie deficit or consume excess calories, your leptin will decrease and increase respectively.
On the other hand, ghrelin is a peptide hormone that tells you when you’re hungry. When you are trying to lose weight and are following a low-calorie diet, your ghrelin levels can actually increase.
Cheat meals can regulate our hormones
When you’re on a weight loss diet, you should consume fewer calories than what your body needs to function normally (this is called your TEE – total energy expenditure). However, overtime your body will grow used to a low-calorie diet and adjust accordingly, which can lead to a plateau.
A cheat meal high in calories and carbohydrates can actually assist jumpstarting your metabolism and regulating these hormones. This way, you encourage the body to keep burning these calories, instead of adjusting to this lower intake.
One study separated healthy, non-obese men into three groups.
Each of these groups then underwent four three-day periods, during which they consumed:
1. 70% of their TEE (underfeeding)
2. 130% of their TEE (overfeeding)
3. 100% of their baseline TEE (eucaloric diet).
This study showed that when the subjects were underfed, their leptin decreased. It was only when the men overate that their leptin production returned to ordinary, proving that a cheat meal is needed to actually replenish your leptin levels to its normal state.
Another study, which focused on females, also proved that increasing your calorie intake, by upping carbohydrates (https://aaptiv.com/magazine/types-carbohydrates), can actually encourage leptin levels to grow by as much as to 28 percent. It also showed an improvement in 24-hour energy expenditure by seven percent. This means that it will help you burn more calories within the 24-hour time frame of your meal without any needed extra workouts or training.
Cheat meals motivates us.
What better incentive to stick to your healthy diet than knowing that you have a cheat meal waiting at the end of it?
Certified Holistic Health Coach and Aaptiv trainer, Kelly Chase believes that “You should have a cheat meal one to two times per week.” She is an advocate for the 80/20 lifestyle, which is, “eating, exercising and living a positive lifestyle 80% of the time, and indulging in not-so-clean treats 20% of the time.”
With an indulgent reward acting as the light at the end of the tunnel, people find that they are more motivated to remain healthy that 80 percent of the time. Plus, that meal will definitely taste yummier knowing that you’ve earned it!
Cheat meals give us a mental break.
A cheat meal also provides a much-needed mental break. Constantly trying to resist your cravings can be exhausting. By indulging in a meal, you’re able to relax, stop thinking about calories, and enjoy your food.
How to Enjoy a Cheat Meal
Now you know the importance of a cheat meal. Here are some hacks on how to make that cheat meal count.
Remember, it’s a cheat meal, not a cheat day.
Cheat meals should be about compromise. Most people tend to have an “all or nothing” mentality. Have you ever had a couple of slices of pizza and thought that adding some garlic bread on top wouldn’t matter? It actually does, especially when it’s time to resume your healthy diet.
So, enjoy that pizza, but opt out of the extra soft drink and garlic bread. This way, you can satisfy those cravings while still being responsible.
Choose quality food.
Chase emphasizes using the “best quality ingredients.” Try to find better alternatives to ultra-processed foods so that you can go all out with your cheat meal, while still staying as healthy as possible. For example, “If you’re going to eat a cheeseburger as your cheat meal, choose a burger that is made from all natural, grass-fed, hormone free beef. If you’re going to have pizza, try making the dough from scratch to ensure [that] you know exactly what ingredients are going into the food you’re about to consume,” she says.
Chase extends this advice to cover all foods, even desserts. If you want to make cookies, she suggests that you “make them with almond meal, green banana flour, coconut flour, or flaxseed meal versus bleached enriched wheat flour.” She also says, “Use honey or coconut sugar instead of refined white sugar.”
However, if making food from scratch isn’t your thing and you prefer packaged foods, she suggests foods with shorter ingredient lists. Look for packaged foods “with as little ingredients as possible,” she instructs; this way, you know you are getting the best option.
It’s all about balance.
Studies have shown that cheat meals high in carbohydrates are best, as they have a bigger effect on leptin production than those higher in fats. But, don’t forget to balance everything out with some protein and healthy fats.
It can be hard to not feel guilty after a cheat meal. You may be scared of derailing and undoing all your hard work, but you shouldn’t. You worked hard to earn it, so enjoy it!
And, if you stick to Chase’s advice, you’re setting yourself up for success. As she explains, “There are always healthier substitutions and, so, when you indulge, you will be satisfying your cravings, yet [you] won’t feel the need to feel too guilty about it.”