The Hard Truth About Cheat Meals for Fat Loss

Before you smash that triple cheeseburger, there are a few factors you may want to consider if you're looking to get lean.

Nobody sticks to their diet perfectly year-round. Yes, to become lean, strong, and muscular, one needs to ingest a specific amount of nutritious foods, but that doesn’t mean burgers, pizza, and even beer are permanently off the table. Even the leanest and largest people on the planet have what are known as cheat meals — aka a dietary free-for-all where a person following a strict eating plan indulges in what they want. 

Here’s the thing, though: the concept of cheat meals is a tad dated. Below, you’ll learn about what cheat meals are, the benefits and downsides of cheat meals, and different types of “cheat” strategies. It’s ok to eat off your plan, but there also may be a better way to think about it.

A cheeseburger, french fries, and beer
Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

What Are Cheat Meals?

The terms cheat day, cheat meal, diet refeeds, and diet breaks are sometimes used interchangeably by coaches and athletes. Research indicates that up to 50% of competitive physique athletes use cheat meals when preparing for competition. (1)(2)

Murray et al. defines a cheat meal as a meal in which one’s restrictive and meticulously calculated dietary regimen may be abandoned for a brief influx of “prohibited” foods without regard to quantity or macro/micronutrient composition. (3)

Perhaps a better way to paint a picture of a cheat meal is to imagine there was a gym bro encyclopedia that covered all the essential training vocabulary (like bench press benefits, how to get biceps veins, and valid excuses to skip leg day). In this literary masterpiece, under the cheat meal entry, there would be a picture of the Rock smiling next to a couple of pizzas, two dozen chocolate brownies, and a gallon of milk. 

That’s what a cheat meal is. An opportunity to eat whatever you want, in unlimited quantities, under the pretense that it will boost your metabolism and help you to prevent muscle loss while dieting.

How Cheat Meals (Are Supposed to) Work

The general idea is that inhaling a face full of food will boost your metabolism, improve appetite hormones, lower stress hormones, and help you retain muscle — all with the expectation that this will yield better dieting results when you return to dieting.

The primary theoretical mechanism behind cheat meals is leptin. Leptin is a hormone that regulates your appetite and energy expenditure. It gets released from fat cells, so the more fat you have, the more leptin you produce, leading to more calories burned and less hunger. Carbohydrates tend to increase leptin more than fat, so cheat meals, cheat days, refeeds, and diet breaks are probably more effective by primarily increasing carbohydrate intake (4). In response to a cheat meal, leptin levels increase significantly (5). So what’s not to love about cheat meals? You eat fantastic food, kick-start your leptin, and then get shredded. Well, it’s not that simple.

The Downsides to Cheat Meals

The surge in leptin after a cheat meal is only temporary. After an acute spike, levels quickly drop back to normal. This transient increase in leptin doesn’t meaningfully increase metabolic rate, decrease hunger signaling, or help you hold onto muscle, though. 

In actuality, the supposed benefits of a cheat meal likely do not outweigh the impact of having consumed a massive number of calories in a brief period. While the cheat meal probably feels excellent at the time, all it likely does is setback your fat loss efforts.

Cheat meals are arguably more beneficial from a psychological perspective. It is undeniable that long-term fat loss phases are both physically and mentally draining. 

The idea is that indulging cravings by having a cheat meal can rejuvenate a dieter’s motivation to adhere to their nutrition plan. To the disappointment of all cheat meal enthusiasts, the research on this concept isn’t supportive. One study found that consuming a significant surplus increases appetite in subsequent days, not decrease the desire to indulge in those foods. (6)

Some people may struggle to return to their comparably bland diet after having a taste of hyper-palatable foods. Exposing oneself to tasty meals may cause several days of binging to occur before they get back on track. 

The research shows that the more calories you consume at a cheat, the harder it is to get back to dieting. This inability to get back on the plan is more prevalent in novice dieters. A more seasoned dieter may quickly get back on their plan, as they usually have hyper-focused goals. The Rock’s brand, as an example, is primarily tied to how he looks, so it’d behoove him to keep eating chicken and rice. 

The (Potential) Benefits of Cheat Meals

An influx of calories may set most people back, but there are some potential reasons to cheat on your diet when implemented with intelligence and purpose.

Improved Training Quality

Another commonly held belief among gym rats is that cheat meals help you train harder as increased carbs boost muscle glycogen for enhanced performance. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for folks to eat a cheat meal before a hard training session — like a heavy leg day or planned one-rep max

This explanation doesn’t entirely hold up, though, because glycogen stores are not a rate-limiting factor for strength training performance. 

Woman performing lat pulldown
Maksym Fesenko/Sutterstock

That said, there may be some psychological benefit to having eaten a lot of calories and carbohydrates before a tough training session. The placebo effect can be a powerful thing, and if the belief that a cheat meal will improve performance, it might well do. This is why it’s important to use research as a guide rather than a prescription. A good coach works to get the best results for their client. Sometimes this goes against what a PubMed enthusiast posts on training forums. A good coach knows the theory and how to apply it to best suit their athlete’s needs. 

Lower Stress and Better Brain Function

Proponents of cheat meals often suggest that they reduce stress hormones such as cortisol. Another supposed benefit of cheat meals is an increase in cognitive function. An increase in focus that lessens mental strain when returning to the diet is widely cited as a reason to cheat by many coaches and athletes.

The research does not bear this out, though. It suggests the exact opposite. Firstly, fasting increases cortisol, but overall caloric restriction doesn’t. Dieting isn’t as physiologically stressful as many claim (7). As long as your diet doesn’t impact your sleep or appetite, your caloric intake largely doesn’t matter regarding stress hormones. (8)

There seems to be an exception to the research cited above when a person has been dieting for a long time and/or is very lean. Two case studies conducted by researchers on bodybuilders prepping for a show for six months reported increased cortisol levels. The participants in these studies dieted down to around five percent body fat (9)(10). While the subject’s cortisol levels increased, there is no evidence that a cheat meal would repair this. The fix would be to take a diet break (more on this below), increase calories above maintenance, or regain some body fat.

In other studies assessing brain function when dieting, they have reported no difference in hunger, fullness, brainpower, memory, mood, or reaction time in a variety of subjects (11)(12)(13). Fasting during Ramadan has also been shown to have no impact on brain function. Even soldiers undertaking strenuous training showed no difference in mood, mental performance, and reaction time when calories were restricted. (14)

Taken together, this research does not support the theory that dieting on a structured and consistent calorie deficit increases diet fatigue, stress, or brain function. Long-term and consistent dieting rather than calorie cycling may improve brain function because once nutrition becomes habitual, it is easier to sustain. (15)

While scientific research on cheat meals doesn’t support their use, there is a growing body of research on the cheat meal theme variations. Cheat days, refeeds, and diet breaks are all strategies that have been investigated. Some show promise too.

Different Cheat Approaches

Cheat meals are the most well-known diet strategy for physique enthusiasts, but a couple of other approaches may be as, if not more beneficial. 

Cheat Days

Cheat days include a string of back-to-back cheat meals and result in a significantly higher than normal consumption of calories. Ordinarily, these extra calories come from carbohydrates and fat. Generally, a cheat day pushes calories significantly over maintenance needs. A surplus of around 10 percent is common, lasting one to three days is reported in the research. (2)

Even in healthy individuals, a 50% surplus refeed day doesn’t cause them to eat less the next day. (16) The body’s production of leptin adapts too quickly (within 12 hours), so temporarily eating more food in an attempt to trick the body into pumping out leptin long-term is a flawed strategy. (17)(18)

Refeeds

A refeed is a brief period of overfeeding in which caloric intake is raised slightly above maintenance levels, usually by increasing carbohydrate consumption. (19) Simply put: refeeds are more “controlled” cheat days that usually consist of foods already on one’s meal plan. So instead of eating a cheeseburger and french fries, you’d eat more rice with your meals. 

Since questions have raised about the physiological benefits of cheat meals and cheat days, refeeds have become increasingly popular. One study found that three days of eating over your maintenance by 30 percent increased leptin. However, when the participants lowered their energy intake back to dieting levels, the increase of leptin disappeared almost immediately. (20)

It appears that leptin is controlled more by body fat levels than acute calorie intake — even when someone eats a significant cheat meal (think an entire pizza). Research shows that physique competitors don’t fully restore leptin until one’s body fat returns to pre-prep levels (21). 

The only time people can elevate leptin high enough (approximately +40 percent) to decrease food intake the following day is when they ate 55 calories per pound of body weight. That equates to 11,000 calories for a 200-pound person.

Thus, to meaningfully increase leptin levels when dieting, the solution on paper is actually to get fatter. This concept runs completely counter the primary goal of dieting so, trying to manipulate leptin to facilitate faster fat loss is largely doomed to failure. A better approach is to accept that dieting to get shredded is hard and to focus on dieting strategies that get the job done.

Based on the existing research, cheat meals, cheat days, and refeeds do not offer an advantage over consistently staying in deficit continuously. Taking a more consistent dieting approach could, in fact, be superior for two reasons.

Firstly, it generally allows for a better protein balance to aid muscle retention. Secondly, matching a workout regime to a consistent calorie intake is far less complex than trying to adjust for large variations in calorie intake from day today.

Diet Breaks

As the name implies, a diet break is when one eats off their macros or meal plan for about one to two weeks. You’ll eat slightly more calories than you were eating prior to the diet break, but won’t gorge yourself on high-fat, calorically dense foods. 

Who Are Cheat Meals For?

According to a lot of the research, competitive physique athletes see a lot of success using cheat meals. Given that this is a collection of experts at getting shredded, it should indicate that cheat meals can be used effectively.

Being effective is not the same as being optimal. While it is possible to get lean using cheat meals, they are probably best reserved for experienced dieters (e.g., physique competitors) and/or individuals with a hyper-focused short-term goal (e.g., stepping on stage, a photoshoot, landmark event). 

The chances are that a cheat meal is only effective for those with lots of experience handling the after-effects of such a meal and for those who have an imminent and important goal to work towards. However, following a more constant deficit will deliver the same and probably better results in most cases.

How Often Should You Cheat?

From a purely physiological perspective, it’s hard to make a case for using a cheat meal to enhance your body composition. 

From a sustainability, psychological, and practical perspective “cheating” on your diet is inevitable. You are a human, not a robot. Special occasions occur and cravings crop up. Life is to be lived and enjoyed

Sometimes embracing the human experience and enjoying blowing the diet off is needed. Trying to grind out a strict diet is impossible. Instead of trying and failing to be perfect all the time, it may serve most people better to be consistently good instead of sporadically perfect. Thus, rather than considering the occasional high-calorie indulgence “cheat meals,” just call them life. Enjoy them when the opportunity arises and then move on.

Wrapping Up

There’s enough evidence to suggest that hitting your macronutrient goals consistently is the most effective way to succeed when it comes to meeting your weight loss or weight gain goals. You want to find and employ a strategy that can be adhered to consistently.

Cheat meals are not a magic fat loss tool. More seasoned dieters who have high adherence to a program can probably have a cheat meal and bounce back just fine. Many others, however, may fall victim to the urge for more junk. 

This isn’t to say you can’ eat tasty food. Fitting a slice of pizza or an ice cream bar into your daily macros is possible, and just enough to potentially curb your cravings.  

Here’s the long and short of it: If a cheat meal is likely to trigger a bonanza all-you-can-eat buffet binge then it’s best avoided. If it allows a person to enjoy some a celebration or quality time with friends or family and won’t derail them from their goal, it is to be enjoyed.

Cheat meals are not a hack to get shredded eating whatever you want. They are simply a tool that, more often than not, is best left in the toolbox.

References

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  3. Murray SB, Griffiths S, Hazery L, et al. Go big or go home: A thematic content analysis of pro-muscularity websites. Body Image 16: 17–20, 2016.
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  7. Nakamura, Yuko & Walker, Brian & Ikuta, Toshikazu. (2015). Systematic review and meta-analysis reveals acutely elevated plasma cortisol following fasting but not less severe calorie restriction. Stress. 19. 1-21. 10.3109/10253890.2015.1121984. 
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  14. Shukitt-Hale, Barbara, et al. “Effects of 30 Days of Undernutrition on Reaction Time, Moods, and Symptoms.” Physiology & Behavior, Elsevier, 15 Apr. 1999, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031938497002369. 
  15. RJ;, Attuquayefio. “A Systematic Review of Longer-Term Dietary Interventions on Human Cognitive Function: Emerging Patterns and Future Directions.” Appetite, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26299715/. 
  16. Deighton. “A Single Day of Mixed-Macronutrient Overfeeding Does Not Elicit Compensatory Appetite or Energy Intake Responses but Exaggerates Postprandial Lipaemia during the next Day in Healthy Young Men.” The British Journal of Nutrition, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30696504/. 
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