Anyone who has been following my blog for any length of time knows that I am big supporter of incorporating treats into your diet. Whether you call it a cheat meal, treat or off-plan meal (personally, I prefer the latter as it doesn’t have any negative connotations), they are important for a number of reasons.
Following a strict diet for any length of time will slow your metabolism. If you are consuming a caloric deficit, you will need to keep reducing your calories over time to continue to see fat loss. However, you will reach a certain point (typically when you consume less than around 1400 calories per day) where your body will start holding on to fat instead of burning it. Having the occasional off-plan meal, where you indulge in whatever foods you are craving, will shock your metabolism and send you back into fat-burning mode.
Aside from the physical benefits of off-plan meals (which have been hotly debated!), my favourite reason for indulging is the mental benefit. It can be mentally exhausting to follow a strict diet for weeks or even months without a break.
When I first started eating ‘clean’, any time I had a craving I would write it down and have it on the weekend (when I typically had a cheat meal). As I became more and more comfortable with eating typically labelled ‘bad’ foods without gaining fat, I learnt to indulge more frequently, in smaller meals throughout the week.
However, I do firmly believe you can overdo cheat meals. Some people eat perfectly all week, and then feel they deserve an entire day (or even two!) off their diet. I’ll admit that I really struggled with this about a year ago. On the weekends, my diet would go out the window and I would eat everything in sight. I was frustrated because I wasn’t seeing the physical changes I expected; my cheat day or weekend would derail all my progress during the week.
While I completely support adopting a free attitude towards food and not labelling foods as good and bad, there are some things to keep in mind to ensure your off-plan treats are not standing in the way of your goals:
- Until you feel perfectly comfortable and in control of your eating behaviour, schedule your cheat meals in advance. Initially, I recommend one cheat meal per week. Stay committed to your nutrition plan knowing that you will be able to eat the food you desire in just a few days’ time.
- Eat and drink whatever your heart desires for 90 minutes only. By having a 90 minute window, it prevents thinking that since you ruined breakfast, you might as well overeat at lunch and dinner too. No. You have 90 minutes and that’s it – then you are straight back on the path of healthy eating.
- I find it best to schedule a cheat meal on a Saturday or Sunday night. There should be no temptation to carry it over to the next day.
- If you do not want to eat off-plan, then no one is forcing you. If you are seeing great progress and feel motivated, you can absolutely skip the scheduled treat meal and continue with your plan as normal.
- By the same token, don’t go weeks and weeks without having an off-plan meal. Usually, if someone tells themself they ‘truly’ don’t want anything and are happy following their nutrition plan until the end of time, it is a big red flag for disordered eating behaviour. Indulging in a big meal or dessert will not set you back. Learn that eating healthy is about enjoying things in moderation, too.
- Do not try to reverse the effects of the cheat meal by performing any extra exercise or skipping meals. While working out on the day of a cheat meal can help in ensuring the extra food is going towards muscle growth, don’t become obsessive about it. Eat all your meals as normal.
- Although I typically tell clients to eat ‘whatever they want’ during a cheat meal, there are some limitations. If you hit a fried food buffet and down a bottle of wine, consuming upwards of 10,000 calories, you will go backwards. A general rule of thumb is that, on a day where you have an off-plan cheat, you should not consume more than 3 times as many calories as a normal day. For example, if you normally consume 1500 calories per day, do not eat more than 4500 on cheat day.
How often do you have off-plan meals?