Should You Feel Guilty About Cheat Meals?

Key Takeaways

  • Cheat meals are those that either exceed the number of calories or macros relative to your typical diet.
  • Cheat meals aren’t necessarily bad, and may offer certain metabolic and mental benefits.
  • Planning cheat meals in advance is the best strategy for reaping the benefits of cheat meals without derailing your body composition goals.

Generally, suppose you are following a structured weight loss diet, muscle building diet plan, or regimented diet program of any type. In that case, you will have certain restrictions in terms of what you can and cannot eat, or potentially when you can and cannot eat if you are intermittent fasting. 

Cheat meals offer a break from the rigidity and monotony of your diet plan. But are cheat meals bad for weight loss or building muscle? Is it OK to incorporate cheat meals? Are there benefits of cheat meals? Keep reading to find out about the pros and cons of cheat meals.

The Problem With Ultra Restrictive Diets

Although there is a lot of controversy about the “best weight loss diet,” the healthiest diet plan, the best foods to eat for weight loss, macro ratios for weight loss or building muscle, fasting, etc., the nutrition and medical community generally agree that you do need to sustain a caloric deficit in order to lose weight.

However, one problem with many weight loss diets is they are overly restrictive. By nature, if you need to be in a caloric deficit, you are likely not able to eat as many calories as you would like because you are not eating as many calories as you are burning (if you’re following a diet for weight loss that has been calculated appropriately).

Furthermore, suppose the diet plan you are following is particularly restrictive or you need to lose a significant amount of weight so you will be restricting caloric intake and food groups for an extended period of time. In that case, you may grow to feel deprived of the foods that you enjoy eating or the amounts of specific foods that you may love.

For this reason, a lot of people start on a weight loss diet only to abandon it after several days, several weeks, or several months because they miss the foods that they love or find that the diet is just too restrictive to be feasible long-term in daily life, or in social situations where you might want to eat out occasionally, share a celebratory meal with loved ones, or are traveling and are unable to find the limited foods available on your diet meal plan.

This is where cheat meals and cheat days come into play.

Metabolically, cheat meals can be beneficial as well. Chronic caloric restriction decreases the satiety hormone, leptin, and can slow your metabolic rate. “Overfeeding” with excess calories or carbohydrates with a weekly cheat day can increase leptin levels, and may help stoke the metabolism.

Should I Have Cheat Meals?

There isn’t a single universal answer as to whether cheat meals are bad for you, or will sabotage your results, or if there are benefits of cheat meals because it will depend on the type of diet you are following, how often you have cheat meals, what you eat in these cheat meals, and so on. 

That said, here are a few things to consider when trying to decide the pros and cons of cheat meals:

1. What Are Your Goals? 

This factor is huge. Everyone has different health and physique goals with their diet so the impact of a cheat meal will largely depend on your goals. 

Suppose you’re trying to build muscle and bulk up. In that case, the impact of a cheat meal will be far less significant than someone who is on a strict weight loss diet or who has underlying health conditions in which eating some of the foods you choose in a cheat meal may be delirious to your health, even in the short term.

2. What are Your Daily and Weekly Calorie Targets? 

The more calories you are able to eat in a day based on your body size and activity level, the less likely a cheat meal will significantly impact your overall progress. 

Someone who is on a strict weight loss diet and has a smaller body size and lower activity level may follow a diet plan that provides 1500 calories per day. For this individual, a 1,000-calorie cheat meal will have a bigger impact if it is a frequent occurrence than someone who can eat 3500 calories per day, and consumes the same number of calories in a cheat meal.

3. What Do You Consider a Cheat Meal? 

There isn’t a universal definition of a cheat meal. Someone who is following the keto diet would consider a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal with bananas a cheat meal because it would put them over their carbohydrate limits for the day. Someone who is trying to transition to a plant-based diet might consider a burger a cheat meal. 

You will need to think about the foods and calories that you deem “unsuitable“ or the foods you try to avoid for one reason or another and make your own definition for what you consider a cheat meal.

4. How Many Calories Are Your Cheat Meals? 

If you are trying to lose weight or gain weight, you should be tracking calories. There isn’t a set number of calories for a cheat meal as it will depend on how much you eat and how many calories you need to eat based on your diet plan and goals. 

5. Do Your Cheat Meals Fit into Your Weekly Calorie Goals? 

Calories are a unit of energy for the body. Throughout any 24-hour cycle, the body experiences temporary calorie surpluses and calorie deficits based on your activity level and when you just ate. Just because you have a cheat meal once per week doesn’t mean that you can’t lose weight over that week as long as the other days, offset are still put you in a caloric deficit by the end of the week. 

Your weight may increase after a cheat meal day largely due to water retention, but you do not need to be in a caloric deficit every single day to lose weight over the week, month, or any extended period of time. All that matters is the overall average of the caloric balance during that time.

Can I Have Cheat Meals and Lose Weight?

Losing weight requires achieving an overall caloric deficit.

If you want to lose one pound per week, you need to generate a caloric deficit of 3500 calories per week, which works out to about 500 calories per day. 

However, you don’t need to maintain this deficit every single day. As long as your average weekly caloric intake is below your average weekly caloric expenditure, you will lose weight at the rate of one pound for every 3500-calorie deficit you generate.

Weekly Energy Balance Calculation

For example, let’s say that you burn an average of 2500 calories per day and you want to lose one pound of fat per week. You would need to eat an average of 2000 calories per day to burn the extra 3500 calories per week to lose a pound of fat. 

You could have a cheat meal once a week that bumps your daily intake to 3000 calories per day. Then, you would need to cut 1000 calories over the other six days if you want to maintain the same rate of fat loss. This works out to just 167 calories per day, so you could have 1833 calories per day, or cut 300 calories two of the days and 400 calories one day, and then keep the other days at 2000, etc. 

It doesn’t matter how you split up the calories as long as the average over the course of the week or the month, puts you on target for the weight loss deficit you need based on your goals, activity level, and intake. 

Keep in mind that the recommended rate of fat loss according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) should not exceed 1 to 2 pounds per week.

Watch Out For Too Many Big Cheat Meals

If you are trying to lose weight, massive cheat meals can set you back if you’re not careful. Again, let’s imagine you want to lose one pound of fat per week so your everyday diet puts you right in that zone around a 500-calorie deficit.

Then, you go hog wild on a weekly cheat day every week where you are eating about 2000 calories more than your body needs and decide not to adjust your caloric intake or expenditure in the next several days to compensate. 

Now you will only be achieving a caloric deficit of 500 calories six days per week. This means that you are generating a caloric deficit of 3000 calories but then overconsuming 2000 calories one day per week, resulting in a net caloric deficit of just 1000 calories per week.

Because it takes a deficit of 3500 calories to lose one pound of fat, it will now take you 3.5 weeks to lose a single pound of body fat.

This rate of fat loss is extremely slow and can be very unmotivating for people, particularly given the fact that generating a caloric deficit of 500 calories per day six days per week will take plenty of discipline and can feel depriving.

Therefore, a massive cheat day every week can largely undo your weight loss efforts. That said, a cheat meal doesn’t need to be a weekly indulgence and certainly doesn’t need to be as dramatic. You might prefer to have a huge cheat meal but only do it once a month or every few weeks and that may have very little impact on your overall, physique and health goals, or you may just want one more moderate approach to cheat meals every week. 

Should You Feel Bad About Cheat Meals?

Overall, as long as you're not eating too many ultra-processed foods too often and you typically stick to your weekly calories on average, cheat meals can be perfectly fine in your diet routine. In fact, many sports nutritionists recommend having cheat meals both from a metabolic as well as a social standpoint. 

It’s rather unsustainable to never eat any foods you love. This can lead to intense cravings and eventual binges or may impact your mood, leading to depression and irritability. 

Furthermore, because our culture is often centered around food in social settings, following a strict diet and never granting yourself leeway to deviate from your meal plan can cause antisocial behaviors or isolation. This can further impact your mental health and can certainly be unsustainable in the long term.