One of the most common questions I’m asked about my approach to nutrition is whether I recommend having one cheat meal per week, or a handful of treats scattered throughout the week. As usual, there is no correct answer and my response will be on a case-by-case basis.
First of all, I should clarify that I don’t really like the term “cheat meal” as it implies that you are doing something wrong; however, for the purpose of this post, I will refer to it in this way as most people will know what I’m talking about.
Everyone’s definition of “clean” food will vary, but it usually involves lean meats and dairy, complex carbs such as rice and sweet potato, and healthy fats including avocado and nuts. A cheat meal usually refers to anything outside of this – favourites including pizza, burgers, ice cream and fries.
For beginners who are just taking their first steps towards getting healthy, I typically recommend limiting their cheats to just one per week. If someone is trying to make a lifestyle change, allowing “treats” into their daily plan usually makes it harder for them to adhere to having just one – generally, people will assume that if having one chocolate biscuit per day is allowed, then why not two, three or four?
Beginners also tend to have an all-or-nothing mindset, which thrives on perfect adherence to a plan throughout the week. They are much more likely to respond positively to a single cheat meal as a reward for their good behaviour throughout the week. In their heads, one off-plan meal will not set their progress back. Many can’t wrap their heads around the idea that they can get leaner while eating so-called dirty foods every day.
One final point to consider is how well your body processes cheat meals. For anyone who has a restrictive past or any kind of adrenal problem, trying to scatter treats throughout the week creates a nightmare insulin response. These kinds of people often have problems digesting simple carbs, which in turn means bloating, sluggishness and weight gain from something as simple as a bowl of ice cream. Therefore, I typically recommend anyone with a compromised insulin response to stick to just one cheat meal per week.
It is also worth noting that the cheat meal itself is completely optional. I am in favour of them as they provide a mental break from dieting and help to maintain motivation (how depressing is it to think that many of your favourite foods will be off-limits for the entire 8-12 week+ duration of a diet?).
I often give my clients the option to have a cheat meal once per week, but they are welcome to skip it. If you are dieting in the correct way (slow and steady with a relatively high number of calories and adequate carbs and fat), you shouldn’t really be craving junky types of foods anyway.
This strategy is popular with the if it fits your macros (IIFYM) crowd. You are given a certain target of macronutrients each day to hit, and provided you can work your “treat” into those numbers, you can eat it to your heart’s content. Most non-IIFYMers assume that they can therefore eat junk all day long, but it’s really difficult to meet high protein counts in particular if you do so.
In reality, it will often mean that someone has something like a pop tart post-workout. some chocolate after dinner or a bowl of pasta. This approach is best for someone that has full control over their emotions when it comes to food. If you’re the type of person that can’t eat one oreo without devouring the whole packet, then this method of eating isn’t for you.
A true IIFYMer will spend quite a bit of time counting macros and seeing what they have leftover at the end of the day. This is the downfall of the diet for me – I don’t like the idea of “saving up” macros so you can have a blow-out at the end of the day.
For my more advanced nutritional clients, I typically work treats into their plan. For example, I might give them the option of oats, sweet potato, bread or a bagel for breakfast (the latter two are not necessarily unhealthy foods, but foods that have recently been condemned by the clean eating community). Post-workout, they may have some fruit, rice, pasta or even ice cream. I generally ask what someone’s favourite foods are, and then do my best to work them into the plan – within reason.
There is no reason why you can’t make changes to your body while still eating some of your favourite foods. Obviously, you will have to make some kind of change, because you will never see results by continuing to do what you are already doing. By cutting down on the frequency of your treats (e.g. instead of having dessert twice a day, limit it to once), as well as your portion sizes and the calories you are consuming elsewhere, you can easily include “naughty” foods in your nutrition plan.
For about two years, I religiously stuck to the once-weekly cheat meal strategy. I was 100 per cent on point with my diet all week, and then had a massive blow-out meal on the weekends which sometimes spilled into multiple meals.
This did not foster a healthy relationship with food. I absolutely hated my weekday diet and kept a running list of all the foods I was going to devour on Saturday night. Having such a huge cheat meal every week completely undid all my hard work during the week – if I was only in a 500 calorie deficit each day, I could easily eat all of those calories back in a single meal of pizza, a few drinks and ice cream.
When I started eating more calories overall, I found it very difficult to get all of those calories from “clean” sources, so I started introducing more foods into my daily diet I would have previously turned my nose up at.
Up until a week ago, I was having 2-3 burgers and 3-4 desserts a week, combined with daily dark chocolate and at least one meal involving pasta and bread each week.
Last Thursday, I started my proper diet to cut weight for my next competition. I have already lost almost two kilograms, but I still eat something most people would consider “junk” each day. I can still lose weight while eating treats daily, as my calories are lower overall and I am not eating as many treats as before. I am still eating dark chocolate every day, but I’m not eating any desserts out, and limited bread, pasta or oats (as I have no portion control around these foods!).
You do not need to be a tupperware-hoarding freak to lose weight. I am still eating bacon, sausages, cheese, tortillas and curries, but the majority of my meals are quite plain so I can shed weight.
I don’t count my macros, therefore I don’t follow IIFYM (unless we’re talking about my favourite hashtag – #ifitfitsyourmouth). I have a rough idea of how many calories I should be hitting, but my individual macros change day-to-day.
I love eating the way I do as I never feel deprived. I do not have any foods that are off-limits, and I know when it is a good time to indulge and when I shouldn’t.
I encourage you to try both approaches for at least 4-6 weeks to see what you prefer. Remove the good and bad labels from food, and focus on how certain foods make you feel.
Do you prefer to have one big off-plan meal, or multiple treats throughout the week?