Do you have a real problem with cheat meals? You have a cheat meal (either planned or unplanned), you eat it with a combination of pleasure and guilt, and then either kick your entire diet to the curb, thinking “I blew this meal, I may as well just blow the rest of the week/month/year, and get back on track later.” Or, after the cheat meal, you practice ridiculous restriction, like the can of tuna and apple-a-day diet that Christian Bale used to lose a ridiculous amount of weight for the Machinist, so that he could look unhealthy.
If that’s you, I get you. A lot of my personal training clients often come to me, and “confess” their cheat meal. Almost like “forgive me father for I have sinned.” Then we do some undercover work, and find strategies that clients can use that matches both their physiology, as well as their psychology. Because I’m not there with you 1-on-1, personalizing your own strategy around cheat meals, here are 20 strategies that I’ve used with clients in the past, that helped them have their cake and eat it too (literally!). Although if your issue is emotional eating, and you really need help with accountability, just fill out this application form to see whether we can work together.
In no particular order:
Tip #1: Exercise Before Your Cheat Meal
If you know you’re going to be having a cheat meal, exercise before it. Doesn’t matter how much time before the meal, just burn some calories. Strength training, cardio, whatever. If you were going to exercise anyway, either lengthen your workout, or add a second mini-workout, that’s a bit easier than the first workout.
Tip #2: Exercise After Your Cheat Meal
Some people, if they exercise before their cheat meal, they feel like they now have permission to eat whatever they want. They might have burned 300 calories during their exercise, but end up putting away 600 calories more than they would have otherwise. For these folks, it’s better to exercise after a cheat meal, because you feel like every bite will make you have to exercise that much longer.
Either exercise a few hours later, once the food has settled, or the next day.
Tip #3: Exercise Both Before and After Your Cheat Meal
Let’s say it’s a whopper of a meal, and one exercise session just doesn’t amount to a larger percentage of that meal – try doing it before and after.
Tip #4: Plan What You’ll Eat Before Your Eat It
If you’re going out to a restaurant, check out their menu online before you go. This way, before the waitress can even give you the menu, give your order. The reason is if you wait until you’re already in the restaurant, you’ll be hungry. And when you’re hungry, you’ll usually go for the tastiest meal. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the healthiest meal. Now sure, cheat meals are usually not that healthy to begin with, but nonetheless, you can make better choices when you’re full, and not hungry.
Tip #5: Eat Less Before
At the end of the day, fat loss, muscle gain, and weight maintenance is just a game of calories. So if you know that you’re allowed 2500 calories per day, and that delicious cheat meal will be 1500 calories, just divide up the remaining 1000 calories between the 2 meals before your cheat meal.
Tip #6: Eat Less After
For some people, if they eat less before, they feel super hungry (or super entitled to extra calories) when the cheat meal does come, and end up putting away more food than they planned. For these folks, it’s easier to eat less after, because you don’t feel a sense of deprivation. You’re just full from that large cheat meal, so you naturally want to eat less. I personally prefer this strategy. My girlfriend prefers the former. No right or wrong way. Whatever suits your preferences and personality.
Tip #7: Eat Slowly
This works for a couple of reasons. First, there’s about a 15-20-minute delay between when you’re full, and when that sensation actually registers in your brain. If you’re eating quickly, you put away more food, so you go from hungry to stuffed/bloated. You miss that “full” stage. If you eat slowly, you catch that signal, and stop eating when you’re satisfied.
The second reason this works is because your savour and enjoy the food more, so you don’t need to eat as much of it.
Tip #8: Drink Water with Your Meal
Water occupies room in your stomach, and your stomach fills up. Since water has no calories, you get fuller with less food, but the food that you did fill up on was very satisfying.
Tip #9: Minimize the Variety
Ever notice how when you’re at a buffet, you finished eating everything – the meat, the pasta, the breads, the sushi, and you’re completely stuffed. You couldn’t eat another bite of the “main course.” But you still have room for dessert? That’s because hunger is regulated by the brain as much as it is by the stomach.
So if you minimize the variety of your meal, you eat less. Craving chocolate cake as a cheat meal? Then just eat the chocolate cake. Nothing else. Eat a lot of chocolate cake. Until you’re satisfied. You’ll still eat less than if you ate pizza plus chocolate cake. Limit your entire meal to just 2-3 foods.
Tip #10: Eat Healthy Stuff First
I have what I call my “Mandarin strategy.” I love buffets just as much as the next person. But I don’t like getting fat. So I fill up on healthy stuff. My first go-around is salmon and broccoli. And I get progressively less healthy with each round. Second round is beef and potatoes. Third round is sushi and/or pizza. Fourth round is dessert.
By the time I get to the third and fourth rounds, I’m relatively full from the first 2 rounds, I don’t have much room for rounds 3 and 4. They’re still super satisfying, I just don’t feel like having much of them. No sense of deprivation.
Tip #11: Have a Meal Before
Know you’ll be having a cheat meal, but eating healthy stuff at the location where you’ll be eating your cheat meal isn’t an option? Just have a meal before you go for your cheat meal. This way, you arrive with a semi-full stomach, and you’ll naturally want to eat less of the cheat meal. And even with smaller portions, it’ll still be satisfying.
Tip #12: Eat Alone
If this is an option for you, it can be very effective. When we eat around others, we all have “hungry eyes.” We see what others are having, and we want that as well. Also, just chatting with other people distracts us from the deliciousness of the meal, and from the fullness signals of the stomach and brain.
If you eat alone, there’s no one else’s food to look at, and you can really focus on your own meal, and listen to your body’s fullness signals.
Tip #13: No Distractions
Piggybacking on the last tip, if you are going to eat alone, make sure you’re 100% focused on your meal. Don’t watch TV while you’re eating, don’t scroll through your phone, don’t read the newspaper, just 100% focus on your meal.
For one thing, that meal will be more pleasurable, and for another, you can “hear” your fullness signals better.
Tip #14: Eat Your Cheat Meal with an Accountability Partner
As I mention in my article on the most important factor for body transformation success, it’s not your carbs, your fats, or your exercise. It’s your social circle. The 3-5 people you spend the most time with. So eat your cheat meal with someone who knows about your health/fitness goals, and put them in charge of being “the bad guy.”
If you want to take things a step further, give your accountability partner 2-3 choices of meals that you’d equally like to eat, and have them choose your meal. I’m from a communist country – I’m not good at making choices 😊 So if I relinquish partial control of my choices, and someone makes it for me, there’s a sense of closure.
Tip #15: Take a Picture of Your Meal
Before you start eating your meal, plan to take a picture afterwards, and send it to someone (let them know ahead of time that you’ll be sending it). You’re basically putting pressure on yourself to not eat a meal that would be embarrassing to show someone.
Tip #16: Plan to Have a Cheat Meal
If a cheat meal is part of the plan, then you’re just following the plan. You eat it, and there’s no guilt or shame. Some people find it much easier to get back on track after a cheat meal if the cheat meal was planned.
Tip #17: Plan Your Next Cheat Meal Before Your Current Cheat Meal
Often we consume a lot at cheat meals, because we go into them with a “scarcity mentality.” We don’t know when our next cheat meal will come, so we try to maximize this cheat meal. However, if you have a next cheat meal scheduled before you even start your current cheat meal, you don’t feel the need to stuff yourself as much as possible at this cheat meal.
Tip #18: Eat an Expensive Cheat Meal
For the cheap bastards among us, if our cheat meal is expensive, we’ll think twice about ordering seconds, or desserts, etc. Money is a strong motivator. So is losing money.
Tip #19: Don’t Drink Alcohol During Your Meal, and Don’t Smoke Cannabis Before Your Meal
Cannabis gives you the munchies, so you’ll eat more than if you were sober. Alcohol desensitizes you, so it “numbs” the fullness message going from your stomach to your brain.
Tip #20: Don’t Do Anything
In the grand scheme of things, a single cheat meal won’t do a heck of a lot of damage, and in the span of a week, it won’t make much of a difference. The body fights weight gain to some extent (in some people more than others). When you eat an abnormally large meal, your body heats up (heat burns calories), you start to move around more involuntarily (fidgeting), and (some TMI coming up) you lose more calories in your feces.
All attempts to keep your bodyweight stable. So even if you overeat by 1000 calories, some of those calories get burned. And the rest won’t make a heck of a lot of difference. There are 3500 calories in a pound of fat. If 100% of the calories you overate get turned to fat (and that’s not the case – it’s less than 100), it’s just over a quarter of a pound. No biggie.