Eating clean can be difficult when there are unhealthy options everywhere, tempting you to “cheat”. Whether it’s donuts in the office, cookies in the pantry or pizza at your friends house—we can all agree that it’s hard to turn down those foods all the time.
It gets to a point where you begin craving your favorite unhealthy food, wishing you were eating it instead of the chicken and broccoli you are eating out of your Tupperware.
Commonly, we see fitness icons posting photos of their extremely gluttonous ice cream sundaes, pizza binges and massive burritos, etc. that hold little to no nutritional value and excessive calories. That’s ok, that’s what they decided to cheat with.
But what if there was a way to cheat “smart”? Would you do it? Have a cheat meal that tastes great and helps you achieve your goals?
Should I Eat A Cheat Meal?
To your advantage, having a cheat meal isn’t going to completely derail your fitness efforts, even if you are cutting. It is possible to eat the foods you love and still lose weight. If you’ve ever heard someone say “food is good for the soul”, they are partially correct because cheat meals are beneficial psychologically (2).
If you eat clean all week and stick to your diet plan and decide to have a cheat meal on the weekend to reward yourself, you are aiding in your diet success. You are much more likely to stay consistent with your clean eating tactics if you allow some room for error—because, in reality, who is going to eat healthy 100% of the time? Especially if you are a food-lover.
We decided to put together a list of cheat meals for those of you on a strict diet, specifically for a cutting phase. Cheat meals may be more flexible when you are bulking and trying to gain weight/muscle. But since the cutting phase strives to lose weight, lose fat and get lean, cheating smart may be ideal for optimal results.
Since cutting is such a precise stage, most fitness experts recommend limiting your cheat meal to once a week, not one day a week… one meal a week.
Being at a calorie deficit and eating a low-carb diet may actually create a plateau in your results because your body loses as much weight as possible and then stops, bringing your metabolic rate to a halt.
In order to reactivate your metabolism, a cheat meal is in order. Eating that cheat meal will refuel the hormones that caused the plateau in the first place and get you back on track to see results. Now that we know that indulging in a cheat meal effects us both physiologically and psychologically, what types of foods are considered the smartest cheats for those who are cutting?
Go For The Carbs & Protein
Carbohydrates have the greatest influence on leptin levels, the hormone that burns fat. So basically, eating a high-carb meal will keep you satisfied while contributing to your fitness goals. Incorporating a good amount of protein will regulate your appetite and keep you full.
A high fat meal is more likely to be stored as body fat than a high-carb or high-protein meal. We know how tempting those deep-fried Oreos and greasy pizza may be… but greasy, deep fried, processed and sugary foods all contain fat you want to avoid as much as possible–especially when you are working so hard to maintain a successful cut.
Good Cheat Meal Examples
Sushi is a tricky one. You want to avoid anything tempura and all of the crazy sauces and spicy mayo commonly found on rolls. You can order rolls if you’d like, but nigiri and sashimi are going to be your “cleanest” options.
Nigiri is raw fish on top of white rice, while sashimi is just raw fish. Make sure you incorporate some form of fish into your order—and no, imitation crab doesn’t count. If you are trying to stick to your cut as much as possible, opt for nigiri and sashimi.
If you have a bit more flexibility, order rolls that seem the healthiest, because the ones with sauces, deep-fried shrimp, etc. usually contain a good amount of fat, which is what you want to avoid.
2) Cauliflower Crust Pizza
Let’s be real, who doesn’t crave pizza? Going with a cauliflower crust version eliminates some of the excessive carbs. You want carbs, but not that many…and getting one topped with tons of yummy veggies will ensure you’re getting fiber, which will keep you feeling full.
You can also get one with meat, but chicken is a smarter option than pepperoni because it is leaner. Opt for a pizza that isn’t super greasy. You can always pat the oils off of the top of it to eliminate some of those unwanted fats. This is a great option when you’re feeling like something with a bit of a crunch. The texture is great and the macros are surprisingly good.
Example Meal: BBQ Chicken Pizza with Cauliflower Crust (view recipe here)
3) Steak & Potatoes
Who doesn’t love a good ‘ol steak and potatoes meal? It’s a classic. Since most cuts of steak are higher in fat than other protein sources, it’s smart to save it for your cheat and eat leaner cuts of meat the rest of the time.
Cooking methods also contribute to fat content. Grilled steak is typically more lean since the fat is drained during cooking. Steak is more nutrient dense than you may think—it is rich in vitamin B12, which is responsible for keeping our nerve and blood cells healthy.
Pair it with a medium potato and veggies for a well-rounded meal that will please your taste buds. A perfect combination of protein and carbs and a good excuse to treat yourself at a nice steakhouse.
4) Spaghetti & Meatballs
A little pasta never hurt anyone. Spaghetti and meatballs is one of our favorites because it’s carb and protein dense and contains a small amount of fat. It hits all of your macros–which is one of the goals in choosing a “good” cheat meal.
If you order out at a restaurant, most places provide a whole-wheat or whole-grain pasta substitute, which is one step closer to a healthier dish. Another step you can take (if it’s available) is switching out beef meatballs for turkey or chicken for a leaner source of protein.
But the traditional is OK also—just remember to watch portions while indulging. Who doesn’t like comfort food like this traditional Italian dish?
Strategies To Follow
Now that we’ve given you some example meals, you just have a few more things to remember to ensure you engage in the most “successful cheat.”
1) Plan Your Cheat In Advance
There is no such thing as being over-prepared. Plan as much of your cheat meal as possible. Set a time, date and even plan the meal you are going to eat, if possible.
Have a night planned at a restaurant with your friends on Saturday night? Plan your cheat for that time. Check out the restaurant's menu online to map out what you will order. Planning all of these things will keep you on track and make you less likely to make impulse decisions that could be potentially harmful to your results.
2) Kill It In The Gym Beforehand
If you go beast-mode during your training session prior to your cheat, you’ll feel like you earned it even more. This will minimize your fat gains because you empty the glycogen your body stores for energy during your workout.
When you eat a cheat meal, you’ll load up on more glycogen, but it will go into those reserves instead of translating to extra fat on your body (in areas you probably don’t want it). Being active and burning calories is always a good thing– especially because your body will continue to burn even post workout. So that meal will amount to less calories.
Studies suggest that portions in the U.S. are incredibly large, which is why you have to pay attention to how much you’re eating. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, food portions in America’s restaurants have doubled or tripled over the last 20 years, a key factor that is contributing to a potentially devastating increase in obesity among children and adults (1).
A cheat meal is a chance to eat something you’ve been craving, or a favorite food. It’s not an excuse to pig out and go wild, or test your stomach’s limits. Strive to only eat half of the portion you’re given at a restaurant, or share with a friend.
4) Avoid High-Fat Foods
Some people may think that high-carb meals are worse than high-fat meals in terms of a cheat meal– but that statement is false. Dietary fat hardly takes any conversion to turn into body fat, which means that the greasy meal you choose to eat will be more likely to show on your body than the plate of pasta.
Picking something high in carbs, high in protein and low in fat is more beneficial than choosing one with high fat. Try to avoid anything greasy or sugary.
5) Get Back On Track
It’s important to keep your goals in mind so you don’t lose track of them. It can be easy to cheat once and then cheat a few more times. Staying consistent with your regular diet and fitness regimen and then taking a “quick” break and returning is basically what a cheat meal consists of.
Hopping back on your normal routine will minimize the effects of the one cheat meal, since it is a rare occurrence.
For ready-to-eat meals that will keep you on track year round check out these meals:
1. Larger Portion Sizes Contribute to U.S. Obesity Problem
2. The 90/10 Rule: Cheat Meals Actually Boost Your Metabolism And Help You Lose Weight