For many people with a fitness fetish, unerring adherence to a meal plan is the high road to progress.
This isn’t the case for everyone, though.
Others believe that periodically eating large, high-calorie meals, known as “cheat meals,” helps immolate your cravings for “unclean” fare before your urges get out of hand, which ultimately yields even better results.
Are cheat meals a dieter’s cheat code? Or are they just a convenient excuse to overindulge guilt-free?
Get an evidence-based answer in this article.
The term “cheat meal” (sometimes also referred to as a “refeed meal”) is a meal you eat as part of a weight-loss diet that doesn’t “adhere to the rules” of your diet plan.
In other words, cheat meals involve “off-plan” eating, where you consume a meal containing more calories than other meals you regularly eat and usually larger portions of foods you tend to limit.
Many people believe that cheating involves eating any “unclean” food (whatever that means to them) in any amount, but as you can see, my definition underlines the quantity rather than the quality of what you eat, as this is what dictates your body composition.
In fact, I prefer not to use the term “cheat meal,” because it’s not accurate in denotation or connotation and far too negative and loaded for what it describes. Instead, it’s better to reframe this discussion around treating and treat meals, which gives a proper flavor of the nature of untypical eating.
When you eat more calories in a day than you planned on eating, regardless of what foods you eat, that’s treating. And when you replace a large portion of your nutritious calories with nonnutritious ones, that’s treating, too. In other words, a treat meal consists of eating a lot more calories or a lot less wholesome food than you’d normally eat.
That said, the term “cheat meal” has implanted itself into the fitness world’s patois, so I’ll use it for the remainder of this article.
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Many people think of dieting as a purely ascetic exercise with little to no room for any indulgence. And while it does involve self-discipline and restraint, the occasional cheat meal is a boon in two ways:
Research shows that people who schedule cheat meals find dieting easier and more enjoyable and sustainable than people who stick rigidly to a calorie-restricted diet.
Occasional cheat meals also reduce cravings and the temptation to binge eat, which improves your ability to stick to your diet the rest of the time.
You generally want to keep your glycogen levels high because:
- It makes your muscles appear larger.
- It increases your energy levels, which makes for more productive workouts.
- It improves your body’s ability to recover, increasing how much muscle you build over time.
Now that you know why cheat meals are beneficial, let’s look at how to implement them to lose fat faster using the method I advocate in my fitness books Bigger Leaner Stronger for men, and Thinner Leaner Stronger for women.
Cheating doesn’t have to spike your calorie intake for the day, but it often will. If you do that several times per week, you can easily erase your calorie deficit when cutting and halt fat loss, or swell your calorie surplus when lean gaining and gain too much fat.
Limit yourself to just one or two cheat meals per week, whether as single larger meals or multiple smaller ones throughout the day, and you’ll find the right balance. This is another advantage of tracking your body composition over time—you get unambiguous feedback on whether you’re eating too much.
If you don’t set reasonable boundaries for your cheat meals, you run the risk of overindulging and undermining your diet.
A salient example of this comes from a study conducted by scientists at Washington University School of Medicine, which found that people who successfully diet through the week can prevent weight loss, or even cause weight gain, by gorging on one day per week.
Thus, I recommend ending cheat meals around maintenance calories (your total daily energy expenditure, or TDEE), which is generally 14-to-15 calories per pound of body weight.
You can surpass this ceiling by a small margin—5-to-10 percent—without issue, but if you eat much more than that, you’ll likely halt progress, especially if you do it often.
(And if you’d like even more specific advice about how many calories, how much of each macronutrient, and which foods you should eat to reach your health and fitness goals, take the Legion Diet Quiz, and in less than a minute, you’ll know exactly what diet is right for you. Click here to check it out.)
This is known as “calorie borrowing,” and it entails reducing the number of calories you consume outside of your cheat meal.
Generally, the best way to implement this is to eat less carbs and fat and more protein in every meal other than your cheat meal on the day you indulge.
Suppose you have a cheat meal planned at your favorite restaurant and you’d like to eat about 1,500 calories, which is about triple the calories in the dinner on your meal plan. You can create the room needed for this meal by stripping carbs and fat from other ones (leaving just the protein), thereby freeing up hundreds of calories to spend in your cheat meal.
Here’s a specific example: If you normally eat oatmeal with protein powder and walnuts for breakfast (around 500 calories), you could eat two scoops of protein powder mixed with water (around 200 calories). Then at lunch you could turn your homemade cheeseburger into a hamburger lettuce wrap, leave the butter off your broccoli, and skip the potato wedges, saving a couple hundred more calories.
Finally, instead of high-protein yogurt with muesli and fruit in the afternoon, you could eat just the yogurt (maybe with some protein powder mixed in, if desired). With these simple changes, you’ve created a large “calorie buffer” that allows you to enjoy your cheat meal without blowing by your maintenance calories.
Emphasizing carbs during cheat meals replenishes your glycogen stores, which makes your workouts more productive and improves your recovery (at least for a day or two).
Bear in mind, though, that when you emphasize carb intake during a cheat meal, you also have to minimize fat intake. That’s because eating carbs decreases fat burning, so your body stores most of the dietary fat you eat with the carbs as body fat.
Prioritizing carbs over fat is beneficial if you overeat during your cheat meal, too.
While overeating carbs or fat results in the same total weight gain, research shows that people who overeat carbs gain less body fat than those who overeat dietary fat (though, again, they still do gain fat).
Alcohol blunts fat burning, which accelerates the rate at which your body stores dietary fat as body fat, and it increases the conversion of carbs into body fat. And when you mix this double whammy with overeating, you get maximum fat gain.
Just one or two large alcohol-infused cheat meals per week can be enough to wipe out all fat loss and stick you in a rut.
Thus, the most “diet-friendly” way to drink alcohol is to:
- Limit yourself to no more than two servings per day while cutting and maintaining, and one serving of alcohol per day while lean gaining.
- Choose lower-calorie wines, beers, and spirits over higher-calorie drinks like heavy beer, cider, and fruity cocktails.
- Remain mindful of the calories in alcoholic beverages, especially when drinking more than usual as part of a cheat meal.
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Here are three cheat meal examples from my bestselling flexible dieting cookbook, The Shredded Chef.
They aren’t the calorific fast-food feasts that some people advocate, but if you’re looking for cheat meal ideas that you can make at home that are still healthy and macro-friendly, these are ideal.
- 1 tablespoon light mayonnaise
- ½ tablespoon water
- 1 teaspoon whole-grain mustard
- ½ teaspoon lemon juice
- Pinch of ground cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- ½ tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 ounce Canadian bacon, diced
- ½ small onion, thinly sliced
- 4 cups chopped kale (stems removed)
- Ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 whole-grain English muffin, split
- 2 tomato slices
- 2 large eggs
- Calories: 575
- Protein: 33 grams
- Carbs: 62 grams
- Fat: 24 grams
- To make the sauce, into a blender or food processor, add mayonnaise, water, mustard, lemon juice, and cayenne. Process until smooth. Transfer the sauce to a small bowl and reserve.
- To prepare eggs, add about 3 inches of water into a large skillet. Pour in vinegar and bring to a low simmer over medium heat.
- Meanwhile, warm oil in medium nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté the Canadian bacon and onion, stirring constantly, until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Remove the pan from heat and toss in kale. Stir until the greens wilt, about 2 minutes, and season with pepper.
- Toast English muffin halves until lightly golden. Place onto a plate, layering a tomato slice and kale mixture onto each half. Place the pan in the oven to stay warm (keep the oven turned off).
- Crack eggs into a mug one by one and slip them into the simmering water. Cook approximately 3 to 5 minutes, carefully removing the eggs with a slotted spoon once they reach desired doneness. Top poached eggs onto the prepared English muffins and drizzle with Hollandaise-style sauce. Serve.
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 (6-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed of fat and cut into strips
- ½ medium onion, chopped
- ½ cup thinly sliced mushrooms
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes with juice
- ½ cup dry red wine
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 bay leaf Salt, to taste
- 6 ounces quinoa rotelle pasta
- ½ cup chopped fresh parsley
- Calories: 440
- Protein: 44 grams
- Carbs: 44 grams
- Fat: 7 grams
- Warm oil in a large deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken and brown, cooking about 3 minutes per side. Add onion, mushrooms, and garlic; sauté until vegetables are tender.
- Add tomatoes with juice, wine, oregano, and bay leaf. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cover with a lid. Stirring occasionally, simmer until chicken is cooked through and sauce thickens, about 30 to 35 minutes.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Cook rotelle pasta according to package instructions. Drain the pasta, reserving ¼ cup of pasta water.
- Add both the pasta and reserved pasta water to the chicken. Cook 1 to 2 minutes, mixing until sauce sticks to pasta.
- Remove bay leaf and discard it. Garnish with fresh parsley and serve.
- 1 (6-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breast, trimmed of fat
- 1 whole-grain pita bread
- ½ tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons sliced olives
- 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
- ½ clove garlic, peeled and minced
- ¼ teaspoon dried oregano
- ¼ teaspoon dried basil
- Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
- ¼ cup fresh spinach
- 2 tablespoons crumbled low-fat feta cheese
- ½ tomato, seeded and chopped
- Calories: 461
- Protein: 49 grams
- Carbs: 38 grams
- Fat: 14 grams
- Preheat the oven’s broiler to high.
- Coat a small skillet with cooking spray and warm over medium heat. Add chicken to the skillet and cook 3 to 5 minutes per side. Remove chicken from the heat once juices run clear; set aside. Let cool and then chop chicken breast into small pieces.
- Meanwhile, place pita bread on a baking sheet and lightly brush with oil. Broil 4 inches from the heat for 2 minutes.
- In a small bowl, add olives, vinegar, garlic, oregano, basil, salt, pepper, and any remaining oil. Mix well to combine.
- Spread the olive mixture over the pita. Layer pita with spinach, feta, tomato, and chicken.
- Broil until feta is warmed and softened, about 3 more minutes. Remove from broiler and serve.
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A cheat meal is a single meal that involves consuming more calories than you typically would as part of your diet. As part of a cheat meal, you can also eat foods that you’d normally avoid while dieting to lose weight.
A cheat day is the same as a cheat meal, only your “cheating” lasts for an entire day rather than a single meal. During a cheat day, you spread out your extra calories by consuming more calories in each meal or incorporating more snacks throughout the day.
Many people who are new to dieting wonder whether it’s better to have a cheat day or cheat meal.
While both strategies can work, most people find cheat meals superior. That’s because spreading your calories out across several meals isn’t as satisfying as having one larger, more indulgent meal. It also requires more effort to track an entire day of “structured overeating” than tracking just a single meal.
Most people get the best results when they eat a cheat meal once a week or less.
This is enough to get the benefits without harming your weight-loss progress.
That said, if you’re intelligent with how you plan your cheat meals, you may be able to eat cheat meals twice per week without issue (though I wouldn’t recommend you eat more than this).
Finally, it’s worth noting that you don’t have to include cheat meals in your diet. Many folks do just fine without them.
Eating one cheat meal a week can actually help you lose fat faster by giving your brain a break from dieting and giving you more energy to push yourself in workouts.
If you want to know how to incorporate cheat meals into your diet to lose fat faster, follow the advice in this article.
The easiest way to set your cheat meal calorie limit is to end cheat meals around maintenance calories, which is generally 14-to-15 calories per pound of body weight for most people.
Occasionally surpassing this number by 5-to-10% won’t upset the applecart, but it will stymie your progress if you do this too often.
Yes, but eating a large amount of carbs will bring you out of ketosis, which often isn’t a pleasant experience, so it’s normally better to eat keto cheat meals that comprise mostly keto-friendly foods. (There’s also some very limited evidence showing that staying in keto for a while and then eating a bunch of sugar may increase the risk of blood vessel damage.)
Dwayne Johnson’s cheat meals are a thing of internet legend (google “The Rock’s sushi cheat meal” to understand why).
Many people wonder how he’s able to eat such enormous amounts of food and maintain a low body fat percentage. The short answer is, of course, that he doesn’t eat like this all the time, and eats less when he isn’t noshing platters of sliced fish and cookies.
Judging by some of his social media posts, he can eat large cheat meals because he severely limits his carb intake throughout the week, then splurges his “borrowed calories” on his cheat meals.
He also seems to schedule his cheat meals so that they fall the day before he appears shirtless in front of the camera. This ensures his muscles are loaded with glycogen and look full and dense.
Keep in mind he also followed a rigorous training plan and . . . uh . . . “supplement” regimen, which makes it easier to stay lean while inhaling large portions of food.
+ Scientific References
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- Samonina, G., Lyapina, L., Kopylova, G., Pastorova, V., Bakaeva, Z., Jeliaznik, N., Zuykova, S., & Ashmarin, I. (2000). Protection of gastric mucosal integrity by gelatin and simple proline-containing peptides. Pathophysiology : The Official Journal of the International Society for Pathophysiology, 7(1), 69–73. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0928-4680(00)00045-6
- Hokken, R., Laugesen, S., Aagaard, P., Suetta, C., Frandsen, U., Ørtenblad, N., & Nielsen, J. (2021). Subcellular localization- and fibre type-dependent utilization of muscle glycogen during heavy resistance exercise in elite power and Olympic weightlifters. Acta Physiologica (Oxford, England), 231(2). https://doi.org/10.1111/APHA.13561
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- Acheson, K. J., Flatt, J. P., & Jéquier, E. (1982). Glycogen synthesis versus lipogenesis after a 500 gram carbohydrate meal in man. Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental, 31(12), 1234–1240. https://doi.org/10.1016/0026-0495(82)90010-5
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