Let’s start this article off by getting something out of the way really fast… If you are in a muscle/weight gain phase you DO NOT need a cheat meal or a treat meal. You’re just lazy and glutinous! Ok now that, that is out the way...
What even are treat or cheat meals?
A cheat meal was coined not so long ago by fitness enthusiasts essentially looking for an excuse to binge on foods that are calorically dense and often nutrient devoid. An individual following this approach would follow a heavily restricted, low-calorie diet throughout the week, often eating bland, tasteless food, in an effort to lose body fat and then have a cheat meal on the weekend.
Simply put… they follow a starve / restrict / binge cycle.
Restrict food types, eat very low calories and then relax for just 1 meal or in some cases an entire day where you can then eat whatever and however much you want...
Sounds great right? I beg to differ…You see the issue I have with this approach is two-fold:
- It sets up a psychological association to food that is built on the values of food types being good and or bad, as well as tying emotion to said foods as well.
- Physiologically, the extreme intake of calories in these meals, which often reach the thousands, can completely offset all of the hard work completed during the week.
So not only are you potentially impacting your physical results with a cheat meal/day, but psychologically you’re also risking the potential for ongoing disordered eating patterns due to the emotional connections associated with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods alongside the act of binging.
Which is where the birth of the ‘treat meal’ then reared its ugly head. Suffer in the week, then ‘treat’ yourself to a meal on the weekend.
Granted this approach generally only allows a single untracked meal and not an entire day (so it beats cheat meals on that front), it still encourages a poor psychological association to food types.
WE ARE NOT DOGS! We do not teach good behaviour through a suffering and reward system. If anyone tells you it is ok to follow this approach, personally I'd question their ability to look at the bigger picture.
Will the cheat or treat meals hurt you psychologically in the short term?
Probably not, but consistent repetitive negative affirmations such as labelling food and attaching emotion to food types is a sure way to find yourself with disordered eating patterns.
And no… binging is not normal. It may be common, but it is not normal and it is certainly not healthy!
So...Now that we have the psychological aspect out of the way, what about the physical affects a cheat or treat meal can have on the body. Are they good? Are they bad?
Perhaps they are both? First and foremost lets set a premise for this argument…
During phases of overeating, which is the phase you are in prior to reducing calories in a diet, your metabolism is performing perhaps at its greatest it could ever achieve.
A fully fed system is a happy system.
But what happens when we cut calories?
Almost immediately, a short, sharp reduction in calories and the liberation of fat that ensues, also brings with it a cascade of hormonal changes designed to minimise starvation, to increase hunger signals and to reduce both the calories you burn at rest but also during exercise.
In a nutshell… your metabolic function slows down in an effort to prevent starvation.
Now I know that sounds bad, and sure it’s not ideal, but the level of severity people place on this negative adaptation is also far too high.
Does your metabolism slow during a diet… yes… but will it prevent fat loss… no, no it will not.
Sure, it may make losing fat a little less efficient, but the reality is that if you were to be placed in a prisoner of war camp with forced caloric restriction, weight loss would continue to happen until you are fed more food.
BUT…That doesn’t mean we can’t at least try and make fat loss a little easier both physically and psychologically. And we do this via CONTROLLED moments of overeating. Good news right?
So... let's get back to the argument now that we have some context.
What do we know?
- We know that excess calorie consumption leads to weight gain
- We know that calorie restriction leads to weight loss
- We know that long-term calorie restriction reduces metabolic rate
- We know that short-term excess calorie consumption increases metabolic rate
Knowing this, there is an argument for the promotion of acute excess calorie consumption from time to time during a weight loss phase to help improve metabolic health.
Furthermore, times of controlled overfeeding can also help with the psychological demands of dieting and allow you to maintain longer-term caloric restriction as well.
BUT…Remembering that excess calorie consumption leads to weight gain, it is easy to recognise that following a cheat/treat meal approach is not only psychologically risky, but given the likelihood of EXTREME over-consumption of calories, physically it is FAR TO EASY to OVER CONSUME calories and completely undo all of the calorie restriction during the week, rendering your net weekly FAT LOSS to ZERO.
Plus here is the kicker…The only macronutrient (protein, carbs, fats) that has a positive effect on metabolic health, as well as performance, is carbohydrates.
And another kicker…During phases of long-term caloric restriction, you have an INCREASED affinity to storing fat during times of over-consumption and the easiest macronutrient to convert to stored fat in this phase is DIETARY FAT.
So not only can cheat/treat meals promote disordered eating patterns and offset your weekly fat loss through excessive caloric consumption, but the composition of those meals, which is generally high in poor quality fats, can also increase your likelihood of lipogenesis (fat storage) as well.
Yeah, I know...It sucks. Cheat meals are fun, I get it… but it doesn't mean we should promote them. Plus there is a better solution anyway...
In my article “Eat More Pancakes – Burn More Fat” you can learn more about the practical application of refeed days, which can replace your cheat days and will allow you to still enjoy the foods you love but without impacting your long term goals.
And who doesn’t love pancakes?
Get reading, enjoy the refeed days and reap the rewards without the risk of negative change.