I’ve always disliked the term cheat meal; it puts such a negative spin on something that we all look forward to and savor. So instead, I prefer the idea of a treat meal because that’s essentially what it is; a planned meal that’s a little extra decadent and delicious. Terminology aside, the once weekly off plan meal is usually part of many regiments for any person living a fit lifestyle, competitive athlete or not. There is however a fine line between benefiting from this meal or experiencing some repercussions because of it, that can derail all of your hard work and progress.
For anyone who is trying to lose weight, treat meals are viewed as a way to stay sane during a strict dieting period. Unfortunately the typical diet tends to be too extreme or requires that one adapts their entire lifestyle around their new regiment or is only structured around the short term, leaving most saying “I can’t wait for this diet to be over”. Then the weight just creeps back on and the yo-yo continues, which is why diets don’t work. Treat meals should be part of an already healthy lifestyle, which by now you know involves consistent and intense exercise, plenty of restful sleep, staying well hydrated and adhering to a sound nutritional plan. When I say sound nutritional plan that means no sneaking in a bite here of this or that because a co-worker brought in box of fresh pastries just to be nice, or because a relative made a desert especially for you during a family gathering or because you had to try a bite of your niece’s leftover French fries just sitting there on her plate. It means lots of non-starchy veggies, lean proteins, some healthy fats, with whole grains, fruit and starchy veggies eaten mostly before and after workouts, and where everything you eat is portioned and measured out. Measuring and weighing your food is especially important for whole grains, fruit, starchy veg and fats because they are healthy in small portions, but if you just eyeball-it and end up underestimating your portion sizes, it will impact your body composition and your ability to lose fat, build muscle or maintain your current state. This also includes alcohol. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that the body processes alcohol similarly to sweets, so consider each beverage like a piece of desert. If you go for drinks with friends or host a barbecue at your home and have a few beers, cocktails or glasses of wine, think of it like having a bowl ice cream, a slice of pie and some smores all in a matter of a few hours on top of the meal that you’ll actually be eating, making those drinks impact your body in the way a binge eat would.
That being said, a treat meal is meant to be just ONE meal only, not a whole day of eating whatever you want. This meal should also be a combination of carbs, protein and fat, so a whole loaf of bread or bag of potato chips or a giant steak alone is not the best idea, in fact it will most likely leave you feeling pretty icky. Better options can include a veggie burger with fries, some sushi with tempura, pasta with bolognese sauce, a couple slices of pizza, and a piece of desert. Plan it ahead as best as you can and enjoy every bite of it (I know I do!). I usually eat my treat meal on Sundays since that is when we have a family lunch or what have you, but sometimes that changes. Sometimes if I have a get together with friends on a weeknight or go out for dinner with my fiancé or we order in, I’ll move the meal around so that I can enjoy whatever I choose without wondering how many grams of fat or carbs is in my food or whether there’s sugar added to the marinade in my grilled tofu.
A weekly treat meal can actually have a positive impact when it comes to your progress, but again it’s only going to be really effective if you are already following a fit lifestyle as listed above. When you are on a fat loss regiment, even during a maintenance phase, over time the body will adjust the rate that it burns overall calories leading you to a plateau, but a weekly treat meal has actually been proven time and again to allow the body to almost reset itself and its calorie burning capacity, ultimately helping you to continue to burn fat and reach your fitness goals. That’s why the majority of bodybuilders and fitness models will always include a special meal in their nutritional plan unless they are in the last few weeks leading up to their competition. Whenever I eat my treat meal, I tend to get slightly concerned after about whether or not I ate too much or too little or if it wasn’t balanced enough, but in the days that follow, my progress skyrockets each time and I see the change from the previous week. It’s a huge help to know that everything that I am doing during my prep is working and is completely effective without being extreme. What I do may not be the norm, but it certainly isn’t extreme in the least. A person who gets so busy with their work that they lose track of time only to realize that they haven’t eaten anything since breakfast at 7am and it’s now 2pm so they just grab the fastest thing they can, that’s extreme. Eating a well-balanced meal every 2 to 3 hours that you prepared in advance, not so much.
Another alternative to a treat meal that is gaining lots of popularity in the fitness community is what’s called a Refeed Day. A refeed involves taking one day (not necessarily each week) when your carb intake goes up while protein drops slightly and added fat is avoided altogether. While your usual day may consist of 40% carbs, 35% protein and 25% fat, the refeed is 70% carbs, 20% protein and 10% fat. Many swear by this and I’ve seen how effective it can be; refeeds were part of my 12 week fitness challenge last year and some people would look so cut the day after it was amazing, but it did not work for me. I wound up totally bloated for days while my muscles looked deflated. We’re all different and certain strategies are not “one size fits all”, maybe give both options a try for yourself to see how your body reacts and which works best for you.
Another potential option, is to occasionally through in a ketogenic-type day, where you drop carbs, increase fat, but keep the usual level of protein. Fat is great for satiety so one day like this every once and while can also work for you. Be careful with the types of fat though and stick to nuts, nut butters, coconut and olive oil. This option should not be weekly as it will definitely halt your progress, but once a month or so may work for you. Again, give it a try if you want to see whether or not it can benefit you.
A word of caution: Don’t overdo it on the treat meals and binge. This can be hard as it involves some serious self-control, but always remember that nothing tastes as good as being lean and fit feels. As long as you are not starving yourself or are under nourished with your nutritional plan, you should be fine, but if you are under eating and overtraining, that one treat meal may lead you to eating way more than you had initially planned. Eat wisely and slowly, really taste the food and savor each bite of it.
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