Why a Weekly Cheat Meal Is the Key to Dieting Success (Really!)

junk food on a wooden table

Junk food most people eat for a cheat meal | iStock.com

A lot of us live for a weekly cheat day, but can this type of extreme eating really be beneficial? Yes and no. We spoke to Jim White, R.D. and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach, Va., about why this strategy might not always work. “People can do damage with a meal let alone a day,” he said. “A day can give them a license to overeat. I’ve seen people consume 5,000 to 6,000 calories and that can really sabotage a week of dieting.”

It’s not all bad news, though. Some evidence suggests going off a rigid diet can actually help you lose or maintain weight better than adhering to clean foods all the time. The argument used by many advocates for cheat days has to do with leptin, a hormone that helps maintain energy balance. Your body tells you it’s time to eat up when leptin levels drop, and this happens when you restrict calories. To illustrate the effect, one (admittedly small) study treated dieters with varying doses of leptin or a placebo during calorie restriction and found those who received the largest doses lost the most weight.

This clearly isn’t good news for those trying to lose weight because much of it has to do with restricting food intake. This is where cheat days come in, since they boost leptin and increase energy expenditure before the hormone levels begin to fall as you eat well for the rest of the week. Granted, much of the research on this topic is limited, often involving very few study participants. This means there may be some flaws to the argument.

White also pointed out the benefits of exposing yourself to different nutrients you might be missing by including some indulgent foods. “When you’re eating so clean, you often don’t get a lot of fat or fat-soluble vitamins,” he said. Our bodies need both of these nutrients in order to function properly, so eating richer foods really could boost your health. But because you really can go overboard by eating things filled with fat and sugar from sun-up to sun-down, White suggested choosing to indulge just for one meal.

Changing your mindset about taking a break from your diet is also a good idea. “The cheating connotation makes it sound like we shouldn’t be doing it, so I like to say it’s a treat meal or a kind of pass meal where we’re going off the plan,” White said. We asked him to share some of his other tips so we can all enjoy the foods we eat without losing control.

1. Figure out what kind of eater you are

Source: iStock

Chicken-fired steak with mashed potatoes | iStock.com

First off, figure out what type of eating plan works for you. Some people don’t want or need such an extreme meal if they’re able to incorporate smaller upticks in calories more frequently. “For people who are moderate eaters, I’d suggest a little bit of indulgence more often or every single night,” White said. Think a glass of wine with dinner or a few ounces of dark chocolate.

A lot of folks don’t find themselves feeling very satisfied after such a small treat, though. “If you’re one of those black and white people who can go on a diet and be disciplined, but need those meals to get you through, then do the indulgence meal,” White recommended. But people who do choose this method need to make sure food doesn’t become an obsession. “The one thing I’ll warn about with the black-and-white eating is it could lead to eating disorders or emotional eating,” White said.

2. Stick to a schedule

nutrition, diet plan

Scheduling a treat or cheat meal removes the guesswork | iStock.com

The best way to make a treat meal work in your favor is to plan for it. If you’ve penciled in a time you’re planning to go off your usual clean eating, it remove a lot of the stress. White himself uses this strategy, typically choosing Sunday night for his indulgence meal. “I notice that if I do it on Friday, I’m more likely to dip into the treat basket during the weekend,” he said.

It turns out, there’s some wisdom to the Sunday strategy. In a 2014 study, researchers found most people gained weight over the weekend and lost it during the week. By scheduling your treat meal during the weekend, you’re aligning with what you’d probably do anyway, while adding it during the week could lead to overeating on the weekend as well as your scheduled treat day. Constantly overindulging will just make the battle against gaining weight harder and could lead to other health problems.

Planning your cheat meal also gives you an opportunity to lessen the impact of such rich, heavy foods because you already know it’s coming. “If you’re eating an extra 600 calories with your meal, but shave off some during the day, it might not even be much damage at all,” White said. That being said, he doesn’t recommend skipping meals.

3. Indulge, but be smart about it

Bacon Cheeseburger

A juicy burger | iStock.com

Treating yourself means eating whatever you want. Before you load your plate with three servings of macaroni and cheese, it’s worth asking if you actually want so much or if you just feel entitled to it. Extreme overeating “can lead to a lot of bloating, weight gain, and just feeling crummy,” White warned. “I would definitely do it within reason.”

There are no set rules for figuring out exactly how far past a normal meal you should go, but White said, “I would recommend no more than doubling those calories.” Most of his male clients consume meals that are between 600 and 750 calories. This means a treat meal should be no more than 1,500 calories.

Also, consider the specifics of the foods you choose for an indulgence. “Eating a burger that has protein, iron, and zinc and cheese with calcium and vitamin D would be better than eating three doughnuts, which don’t have much nutritional value at all,” White offered. And seize any opportunity you have to add some vegetables, be it on a pizza or in a sandwich.

4. Cut yourself some slack

cheers, toast, party, friends

Don’t let yourself become so rigid that you can’t enjoy socializing | iStock.com

Holidays and parties can complicate eating, so don’t get too wrapped up in your meal plan. “I’m not a slave to anything,” White said. “If I indulge a couple of times in a week, I don’t feel guilty about it. I just try to work hard next week.” An extra cookie or beer here and there really won’t derail your diet.