Perhaps one of the most thrown around fitness hashtags on social media is that of the ‘#cheatmeal’, or ‘#cheatday’. And understandably, it is an attractive concept to those of us battling the rigours of a diet. But does this pre-meditated meal, or day, of gluttony in fact bolster the likely success of a diet, and ultimately improve our body composition?
The answer is yes and no. I will be clarifying something quite simple that the cheat meal enthusiast usually overlooks; either intentionally (to feel more entitled to indulging) or naively (unaware of the scientific rationale behind a cheat meal).
A ‘cheat meal’ denotes a meal that strays from accepted ‘diet’ foods; or simply junk food eaten in the context of a diet. Similarly, a ‘cheat day’ is a whole day of eating in this manner.
Personally, I despise the above terms as they pertain to eating behaviours. ‘Cheating’ on food would imply that the act of eating healthily is burdensome, and that foods are inherently bad or good. This is a silly mindset, begotten from a silly label; we shouldn’t pigeon-hole foods. However, I will continue to use this terminology for this article since it is unfortunately trending in the fitness world…
Healthy eating is a lifestyle that should be enjoyed – having a planned ‘cheat meal’ at the end of the week immediately renders the rest of our diet as a chore and lends itself to a lack of mindfulness. We are always looking ahead to that occasional ‘guilty pleasure’, rather than truly/mindfully appreciating the wholesome foods that should comprise 90+% of our diet. Mindful eating is one of the biggest catalysts for success on a diet.
The bigger concern with labelling a food ‘good’ or bad’ is that the majority of people aren’t able to rationalise why they describe particular foods as such. Instead of blindly categorising foods, we should better understand the effect certain foods will have on us physiologically and emotionally.
This is where it partly becomes subjective and our own self-awareness, through years of eating a variety of foods, should allow us to make informed decisions; not taking credence from some barbie doll on instagram with a fitness & marketing cert.
Anyway, the predominant argument for a cheat meal(s) is that it raises a ‘master’ hormone known as leptin. Here is a brief snapshot of leptin…
- Is secreted from white adipose tissue that interacts with the hypothalamus to reduce hunger
- Levels increase with with overfeeding or increased adipose tissue
- Levels decrease with starvation or reduced adipose tissue
- Decreases the urge to eat and increases physical activity to produce a negative energy balance
- Has an inverse relationship with the hormone ghrelin
- Usually correlates with insulin resistance; insulin essentially stimulates the release of leptin
As we can see from the brief outline above, leptin plays a pivotal role in someone’s level of leanness. The key thing I want you to note, however, is that leptin levels increase with overeating… NOT cheat meals/junk/fast food. I mention this because I believe most people miss the mark by associating the leptin surge with junk food, instead of the calorie surplus.
Yes, the energy-dense nature of junk food will indirectly boost leptin (given the individual achieves an excess of calories by the end of the day), but if you are still in a calorie deficit despite eating your cheat meal… you won’t be exploiting the full benefit of this king hormone.
So, in the context of a fat loss diet, the strategic boost in leptin can be achieved by simply implementing a calorie surplus day with a higher volume of less processed foods (AKA foods you would consider ‘healthy’).
On a muscle gain diet, where one is almost invariably in a state of positive energy balance, I don’t believe the ‘cheat meal’ is necessary since our leptin levels will remain at least sufficient.
The other argument for this junk meal is the psychological benefit, and this is indeed a valid argument. Eating foods that we deem unhealthy but crave, particularly when dieting, can upregulate serotonin & dopamine; 2 feel-good hormones that improve our mood, and indirectly increase leptin.
For extremist personalities, the cheat meal can quite easily devolve in to a day of bingeing, and thus undo your week’s efforts of hitting your daily targets. This is a considerable downfall of this approach to dieting.
I would rather be slightly less stringent during the week, simply choosing the best options available in any given social situation you find yourself in. Aim to be in the ballpark with your calories and macros, and you will be sweet.
Dieting should not impede your social life; as mentioned above, you should come to learn what constitutes healthy eating in accordance with your own body, and choose foods that make you feel good while supporting your goals!
You can find diet-friendly foods at literally any restaurant and, if not, customise their menu! Boost leptin by eating a higher volume of whole foods on your surplus day, and avoid the chance of GIT distress from your date with a Big Mac meal.
While I personally don’t advocate cheat meals, I am not dogmatically against them because I know they are effective for many dieters. I primarily wanted to enlighten you as to the science behind their use, and the main agent for spiking leptin that many people don’t realise: a calorie surplus… not ‘cheating’ on your meat & potatoes 😉
Be careful with social media platforms like Instagram. A great deal of cheat meal proponents make out as though they eat this way all the time; OR for those fitness celebrities who do eat this way (i.e. ‘flexible dieting’) to achieve their calories/macros, they don’t disclose that they are on some form of performance enhancing drug. The optimal diet doesn’t exist. Find what works for you through trial and error.
Let me know whether you personally endorse ‘cheat meals’ 🙂