When on a specific diet for a fitness goal, the temptation to have a cheat meal can increase. While the motivation to stick to the plan is usually high in the first few days and weeks, staying consistent over a long period of time can be a struggle for people, especially if they are not particularly enjoying their meals.
In plans that many coaches provide, the occasional cheat meal is allowed. Yet how can you control the potential cravings for more cheat meals and can you still progress with your fitness goal if you occasionally sway away from your diet?
Firstly, it is important to remember what your goals are. If you are aiming to add muscle mass by eating a significant number of calories, then having cheat meals on a reasonably consistent, never mind occasional, basis is not going to prove to be much of an issue, provided you are not going well over your calorie target. Though for those who are trying to lose body fat, the issue of cheat meals becomes a much more delicate one.
If you can, avoiding cheat meals in the first place should be your first option if you want to see progress as quickly and efficiently as possible. However, there may be situations when you are unable to avoid a cheat meal, such as an outing with friends or family, so having strategies in place to reduce the negative impacts on your progress will be important.
One of the key strategies to use is managing and planning your calorie intake, especially if you are made aware of an upcoming cheat meal two or three days beforehand. If you are in a calorie deficit (burning more calories than you are consuming) of 300-400, then in the two to three days prior to your cheat meal, reduce your calories by an extra 100. Given that a cheat meal is likely to take you into a surplus on that day, adopting this strategy will reduce the impact of that surplus and balance out your overall calorie intake for the week, which matters more than your daily intake as results happen from consistency over a period of time and not overnight.
Another good way of managing your intake, which can be combined with the previous strategy, is to bank your calories for later in the day. To do this, approaches such as intermittent fasting (delaying your first meal until late morning and having coffee beforehand) can be beneficial because you are saving more calories for when you become hungrier in the afternoon and evening.
This does not mean starve yourself before that cheat meal, but just eating less than you usually would throughout the day. To make yourself feel full during this period, lean protein and vegetables are a great combination because they are relatively low in calories, help you stay on track with your protein target and can make you feel full in the lead up to your cheat meal whilst still have plenty of calories in the bank.
To reduce the negative impact of the cheat meal even further, try to get a workout in beforehand so that your output during the day is still high and therefore the difference between that and your calorie intake is not as high. In order to retain your muscle mass and strength whilst burning calories, a resistance training session that prioritises heavy compound movements (squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press) would be the most beneficial. However, if you are taking a day off from resistance training, a form of higher-intensity cardio (run, incline walk, cycle, swim, sport) would also be a good way of keeping that output high before your cheat meal.
Finally, when you get around to your cheat meal, try to go for a healthier option that is lower in calories (sushi, burger, steak, pasta). Processed fast food, as well as being higher in calories, will be harsher on your digestive system and short on nutrients. Large dessert too, such as anything chocolatey, will not be a great option due to it being extremely calorie dense and not very filling – however, in small doses, it will not be too damaging. In short, just do not binge!
If you have a spontaneous cheat meal and end up going into a pretty large calorie surplus for the day due to being unable to adopt the aforementioned strategies, then what you do thereafter will be key. For the following few days, drop your calories by an extra 100-200 from your initial daily target to create a larger deficit for yourself. This will then claw back those extra calories that you consumed during the day of the cheat meal and get your overall calorie intake for the week back on track, meaning that the overall damage will be reduced.
Implementing these useful strategies will be key to making sure that the occasional cheat meal will not negatively affect your fat loss progress. Enjoy your having cheat meal and spending time with good company but make sure that you are smart with how you manage your calories.
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