Can including a cheat meal help me lose weight?

May 17, 2014

Q: I have often heard that cheating on a diet is an excellent way to continue making progress. Is there any science behind this, or is it just wishful thinking? If so, are there certain rules or guidelines that I need to follow in order to do it correctly?

A: From the time we are born, we are told that cheating is bad and should be avoided at all costs, but when it comes to dieting, cheating can be just what the doctor ordered to avoid stubborn weight-loss plateaus and stimulate new and exciting progress.

The science behind cheating

Most diets incorporate some type of low-calorie or low-carbohydrate plan that may work great over the short term but can eventually wreak havoc on important chemicals in the body needed to continue making progress. Hormones like leptin and grehlin, essential for fat burning and appetite control, can be altered by low-calorie diets, and the body can slip into starvation mode, bringing progress to a screeching halt. Thyroid function can also be affected by prolonged dieting, causing the metabolism to function at a snail’s pace. The introduction of a well-placed cheat meal can prevent this scenario, promoting hormone balance and providing a spark to ignite the body’s metabolic engine.

How do I cheat correctly?

Cheating on your diet should not be a free-for-all, but rather part of a larger system deigned to keep your metabolism firing on all cylinders so occasional high-calorie foods will be attacked and burned off almost immediately. General rules like eating five to six times a day, consuming a lean protein with every meal, drinking eight to 10 glasses of water a day should be standard protocol, but when you decide to cheat, just substitute the food of your choice as one of your normal meals and continue following the above rules. Cheat meals work best after a period of carbohydrate or calorie reduction because they shock your system and force your body to reset your metabolism, just like hitting the breaker switch at your house.

How often can I cheat?

When starting a weight-loss program, it’s important to understand you must change your lifestyle to wake up your old stubborn metabolism, so cheating too soon or too frequently when you still have weight to lose will not work well. Once the body is functioning at optimum level, adding a cheat meal can be a valuable advantage both physically and mentally. If your goal is losing weight and resetting the metabolism, I’d suggest including a cheat meal once a week on a higher-carbohydrate day to get the full benefit from the additional calories. If you are already in great shape and want to maintain while still having fun, I’d suggest cheating a couple times a week or setting aside one specific cheat day. A person with a healthy metabolism and a lot of lean muscle can handle an entire day of high calories as long as they jump right back and follow a strict plan the rest of the week.

What are the best cheat foods?

Cheat meals should be normal-sized meals made of high-glycemic carbohydrates that you would not normally eat in a healthy diet. They should not be followed by sugary desserts, and you shouldn’t cut back on normal meals just because you plan on eating what you want later in the day. Instead, be sure to get all meals in and follow the normal rules so your metabolism will function correctly and burn off the extra calories. Good choices for cheat meals are burgers with the toppings and bun, a couple pieces of pizza, a pasta dish, or other guilty pleasure that includes enriched white flour. It’s also important not to overdo it. Have the meal of your choice, enjoy it and get back to the system. You will find that not only will you be happy and satisfied to reward yourself for your hard work in the gym, but if done correctly you will spark new progress and burn fat off your body even faster than normal.

So even though getting in shape takes hard work and discipline, don’t be afraid to cheat - just learn to do it correctly and use it to your advantage.

  • Chris Antonio is a personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. He has been lifting for more than 20 years and has trained a wide variety of clients ranging from All-American athletes to the average person trying to get into shape. To send a question to the Ask the Trainer column, email Chris at or check out

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