The Art and Science of "Cheat Meals"

This is one situation where cheating isn't a bad thing.
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Although many nutritionists and dietitians don't seem to like the word "cheat," a well-designed and well-executed cheat meal might very well save your sanity. It might even help you overcome a weight-loss plateau.


The gist of these cheats is to eat clean for the better part of your week, stay active and reward yourself by taking the shackles off your menu every once in a while.

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People of all sizes and fitness levels can successfully implement cheat strategies, but self-evaluation is a must. Consider your fitness goals, your day-to-day eating habits, and your previous dieting success or failure. These factors impact how -- and, more importantly, IF -- you can cheat.


It's not a license to binge. We're not trying to get drunk on food.

Jim White, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association

Can Cheat Meals Work?

The key to cheating (on food) is planning.
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Cheat meals work when planned for, says Jim White, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. He explains that after several days of consuming fewer calories than you burn, splurging can rev up your metabolism while stocking up glycogen for tomorrow's workout. It should also satisfy cravings that may nag at your daily diet.


Planning to eat some of your favorite less-than-healthy foods -- cookies, pizza, beer -- permits you to enjoy your splurges rather than feel guilty. If you've allowed for a cheat at some point during the week, you can loosen up a bit when you get to the office party on Friday.

Moderation, however, cannot be tossed aside. "It's not a license to binge," White warned. "We're not trying to get drunk on food."


The Single-Cheat Meal Plan

The simplest way to cheat is the single-cheat meal strategy. Once a week, plan a meal you love and crave. Eat reasonably, and don't go back for seconds.


A single cheat meal is practical and easy for anyone with focus and self-control.

"If you're just starting an exercise program and you feel like you've cheated the past 10 years," White said, "then you don't need to cheat."


To implement the idea, eat what you want until you're satisfied, not until you're stuffed, suggests Amy Goodson, sports dietitian for Texas Health Ben Hogan Sports Medicine. Go for two pieces of pizza, not the whole pie.

Goodson also recommends finding balance. If you love cheeseburgers, for example, have one -- but pass on the fries. Or cut the cheeseburger in half and share it.


Most important, says Goodson, don't out-eat your workouts. A caloric deficit is necessary for weight loss.

"Go enjoy something you love," she said, "but don't eat everything you've ever wanted in one day."

The 90/10 Plan

With this plan, you eat clean 90 percent of the time and never skip a meal. The other 10 percent is cheat time.


This method best suits women and people with desk jobs who burn a small, steady amount of calories throughout the week. Heavier people, emotional eaters and people who have struggled with dieting should stay away from this cheat strategy, White says. It may be too strict.

To implement the plan, figure out how many times you eat during the week. If you have three meals and a snack every day, seven days a week, then you eat 28 times. Therefore, you would allow yourself to indulge approximately twice per week.



The 80/20 Plan

Go for two pieces of pizza, not the whole pie.
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This strategy is the same as the previous one, but instead of cheating 10 percent of the time, you're permitted a cheat ratio of 20 percent.

Active people and athletes are geared for success with this plan. The 80/20 strategy allows active folks to enjoy their food while maintaining a comfortable weight, Goodson says.

She did add, however, that while this strategy may work for those who are in the beginning stages of losing 30-plus pounds, they should try to shift into the 90/10 plan as the weight starts to come off to prevent plateaus. People with desk jobs or sedentary lifestyles may find extra calories hanging around if they continue on the 80/20 plan.

To implement this strategy, determine how many times you eat during the week just as you did for the 90/10 plan, but permit indulgences 20 percent of the time instead of 10 percent. Also try to have your cheat meals rather early if possible; Goodson explains that this will allow you to burn more calories over the course of the day.

The Cheat Day Plan

The cheat day plan allows you to eat what you want for an entire day. You get full and stay full, but never eat so much as to make yourself feel sick, and you must strictly adhere to your healthier meal planning during the rest of the week.

White does not recommend the cheat day strategy for the average person or for those who are in the gym four days a week. This plan is meant for off-season bodybuilders, marathon runners and triathletes almost exclusively. Within 12 weeks of competition, however, bodybuilders should not cheat at all.


To implement the cheat day plan, eat high calories, protein and carbohydrates on your hardest day of exercise, says Matt Blades, a certified professional trainer and owner of Fitness-N-Fun in Florida. Lift once or twice, and run as well.

The day before cheating, eat few carbs to empty out your glycogen stores. That way, Blades says, you don't overstock while splurging the following day.

Following your cheat day, keep calories low. Blades says he often fasts the day after, drinking only water and taking vitamin supplements.

Blades never, however, recommends cheating to new clients. They must work diligently in his program, educating themselves about food for a good three months before the cheat concept is introduced.

All-You-Can-Eat or the Twinkie Diet

Some people believe they can follow a plan of eating whatever they want as long as they maintain a caloric deficit. They make a point of exercising frequently and using supplements to obtain necessary vitamins and macronutrients.

Do not do this.

Goodson, White and Blades all agree: This plan is a bad idea. While it's important to understand that more calories burned than consumed yields weight loss, it's equally important to understand that not all calories are equal. Your body needs nutrient-rich calories to succeed.

Weight loss is not always healthy. After all, "skinny people have heart attacks, too," noted Goodson. So it's best to avoid implementing the all-you-can-eat, or Twinkie, diet plan.

Eating healthier doesn't have to be excruciatingly strict. By staying active and making a concerted effort to fuel your body with the right nutrients, you won't set yourself back too much by choosing to enjoy a few slices of pizza or some spicy chicken wings. Just be sure to pick the plan best suited for you and don't out-cheat your workouts.


Honoring Your Body's Food Wishes

Stop counting calories and start honoring your body. Intuitive eating makes cheat meals an afterthought.

"We're born with a need to manage the amount of calories we eat," said Kristie Salzer, RD, LD/N and founder of Salzer Nutrition in Tampa, Florida. "Babies cry when hungry and stop when they're full. No one taught you that."

Salzer used to plan meals for clients, but now she teaches them to listen to their bodies. No food is off limits.

"I do not judge what [my clients] eat and the amount of it," she said. "I ask them to reflect back at how they felt after eating a doughnut or some Cocoa Puffs. Did you feel full? Did you have short-term energy? Long-term energy? How did it affect you?

"Society has moralized some foods -- not that there's anything wrong with [these foods] -- and they've gotten connected to our character," said Salzer. "My goal is to make food just another part of your life."



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