Everyone loves a good cheat meal. After four and 1/2 days of strict adherence to a diet, you wash down pizza on a Friday night with a couple of beers, then maybe a side of pancakes with your syrup and butter on Saturday morning. Wine and sushi sound relaxing for a Saturday out with friends and while you’re at it, Mimosas for Sunday brunch with your running buddies after a particularly brutal morning run in the heat. After all, it’s all about balance, right?
Cheat meals have been recommended in the fitness space for decades because they give you a mental and a physical break from dieting. There’s certainly no harm in occasionally indulging in your favorite foods, but I would caution some people from adopting the cheat weekend mentality.
If your cheat meal turns into a recurring cheat weekend, depending on your personal goals, your results, and health may suffer.
DON’T CHEAT; INDULGE
If you follow me on Instagram, you probably already know that sushi is my favorite food. I enjoy unhealthy indulgences too; I don’t prefer to call them cheats. Why? Because cheating implies that it’s wrong. You wouldn’t cheat on your spouse, an important test, or your taxes, would you? (Would you? I won’t tell.) Then don’t cheat on yourself or your health.
I don’t diet. Diets don’t work long term, so I don’t cheat on my diet. Instead, I do my best to make balanced, healthy nutrient-dense choices most of the time while allowing occasional indulgences. Is it just semantics? Maybe, but I believe that mindset matters.
The word cheat conjures up feelings of failure, guilt, and shame. The word indulge brings a sense of pleasure and enjoyment. The words that you use to talk to yourself matter.
FOR FAT LOSS: FOCUS ON A WEEKLY CALORIE DEFICIT
If fat loss is your goal, you want to remain in a weekly calorie deficit. A calorie deficit means you consume fewer calories than you burn for the week, which can be achieved by a slight reduction in calories or an increase in exercise (but never an extreme on either front). If you eat well and control your calories all week then find yourself overindulging on the weekends, you could forfeit the progress you made Monday through Thursday.
The main issue with overindulging on the weekends after staying in a deficit all week is that you undo the deficit and either return to maintenance calories or go into a surplus, which can stall or reverse your fat loss progress.
For example: Suppose your maintenance calories are 2300 a day (this is an example, everyone is different, yours may be more or less). You eat 1900 calories a day Monday through Thursday. But then Friday rolls around and out comes the wine and pizza, which you don’t need me to tell you, the drinks go down, and the calories add up quickly. You easily go into a surplus for the day. It’s probably not an issue for one meal, but if you surplus again on Saturday or Sunday, you can kiss your weekly deficit and weekly progress goodbye.
STRATEGIES TO STAY ON TRACK THROUGH THE WEEKEND
FLIP IT AROUND
Instead of heavy restrictions during the week and saving all your indulgent foods for a calorie-bomb weekend, spread them out of bit throughout the week. When we restrict all week, we’re more likely to over-indulge on the weekends. I prefer to eat any indulgent meals during the week when my schedule is more structured, and I am less likely to overdo it. I flip it around, I try to loosen up a bit during the week and am stricter on the weekends.
Sometimes over-indulging is a habit. Do you crack open a beer on Friday night because you truly are enjoying it, or because it’s a habit? Is that pancake feast a Sunday tradition? Could you replace it with something else? Ask yourself: Is this habitual or intentional? If poor choices are a habit, work to break the cycle by replacing with a healthier alternative. If it’s intentional and occasional, then enjoy!
CARB-CYCLING: REDUCE CARBS ON WEEKENDS
Carbohydrate cycling can allow you to enjoy the benefits of low-carbohydrate eating without any of the potential pitfalls. You enjoy mostly healthy carbs Monday through Thursday (with occasional carbohydrate indulgences if desired), then reduce your carbohydrate intake on the weekends only. The fact is most of those cheat meals we love so much are processed carbs: pizza, burgers on a bun, french fries, chips, ice-cream, etc. If we make a plan to reduce carbohydrates on the weekends only, we easily can control calories and the types of foods we are choosing.
STRIVE FOR BETTER, NOT PERFECT
Do the best you can with what’s reasonably available. You don’t have to be perfect but aim to make better choices based on what’s feasible. If you find yourself at a restaurant, how can you make the best of it? Maybe order a salad with the dressing on the side, or eat a burger without the bun, or order a fruit cup instead of fries, or cut everything in half. Make a small choice to improve at every meal. All those little changes add up.
MAKE THE BEST OF MEALS ALONE
When you eat alone, make the healthiest choices. I usually eat breakfast and some lunches alone. I make those alone meals the healthiest I eat all week, so when I share a meal with friends or family, I can loosen up a bit. There is not a lot of joy in scarfing down a fast food breakfast sandwich in your car. There are plenty of delicious, quick, and easy breakfast ideas that are healthier and more satisfying. Save the indulgences for when you are bonding with other people.
EAT WITH INTENTION
Eat indulgent foods with intention. If you plan to inhale a meal while barely paying attention while watching television, it might as well be a chicken salad, because you’re not going to taste it anyway. Enjoy your food, chew slowly, and remove distractions (put away your phone). Stop eating when you feel satisfied. If you’re going to eat it, then at least enjoy every second of it.
AVOID HEAVY RESTRICTIONS
Heavy restrictions may lead to over-indulging for some personality types. If you allow treats in proper portions occasionally, they lose their forbidden fruit qualities.
I aim to follow the 80/20 rule. 80% of calories come from whole, nutrient-dense foods and 20% from treats. For most people, while remaining in a calorie deficit, this will allow weight loss while still occasionally enjoying treats.
ADJUST FREQUENCY BASED ON YOUR PERSONAL GOALS
No one can tell you how or what to eat (except maybe your doctor or a registered dietitian if there are health concerns). You get to decide based on your goals, lifestyle, and personal preferences. Honestly, how much you choose to indulge is a personal decision and may change based on your current life situation and goals.
If your goal is to remain at a healthy weight and feel pretty good in your clothes, then there is a lot more room in your diet for indulgences. If your goal is to lose 40 pounds, get extra lean, build six-pack abs or qualify for Boston, then you may have to be a bit stricter with the quantity and quality of what you consume, at least for a period.
There’s no right or wrong. It’s what you want to achieve for yourself.
There may be times when you loosen up the reigns and enjoy, maybe during the holidays or extended vacations, and other times you prefer to eat a bit leaner, during a training cycle or to get ready for your beach vacation. It’s healthiest to cycle in and out of times of restrictions.
How do your weekends usually go? Are you ready to break an unhealthy cycle and make better choices? Which of the above strategies can you implement this weekend to make better choices without feeling deprived? Choose the one that seems the most achievable and start there. I’d love to hear about it.
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Questions? I’d love to help.