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What’s A Better Idea For Fat Loss: A Cheat Meal Or A Cheat Day?


One of the most common questions I get asked as an online personal trainer and nutritionist is whether a client is allowed to have a cheat meal, a cheat day or even a cheat week.

It’s a fair question, and one I’ll dive into in just a moment.

But first I’ll classify a 'cheat' as anything within a certain planned period of time in which calories are going to purposely and tactically go above maintenance level. In other words, you’ll no longer be in a calorie deficit and you know about it.

There are times where this is going to be ok. There are times where this is going to be completely out of the question. I’ll break down each one in turn!

Just to clarify, this post is not talking about a diet break. This is used when you have been dieting hard for a long period of time, and purposely raise calorie intake to maintenance level. Thus you never technically go into a calorie surplus. I talk more about these in my online coaching and use them accordingly dependent on a clients progress and length of time dieting.

With that said, let's get into it!

Cheat week

I’ll get this out of the way first. I’d say that having a cheat week is a big no-no. It’s going to be extremely difficult to recover from as you now need to track calories over a much larger period of time.

Say you have been on a diet for 4 weeks and have made progress. For week 5 you want to have a bit of a splurge due to all the progress you have made and decide bump up your calories by 1,000. That means you now have to make sure that you are going to have be in a larger calorie deficit for week 6 to make up for the fact you just added a lot of energy intake in week 5.

Let's be brutally honest, you're very unlikely to be motivated enough to stick with it, whether it's because yor cheat week was 'last week' and you no longer want to have an even bigger deficit for the following week, or because you think you can just 'go back to normal calories' and won't bother worrying over the extra energy intake.

It’s messy, unpredictable, and things can get out of hand very quickly. Especially if you have an unhealthy relationship with food which got you into your current situation in the first place.

If someone ever asks me if they can use these in their diet I usually tell them to move on to another coach because I know for a fact that they are not going to a) be committed enough to diet down, and b) will likely undo all of their hard earned progress as soon as they complete my coaching services.

I want clients to have massive results. And not just results; ever-lasting results. That’s why I’m more than happy to stop clients doing this, or even fire clients because I know that there are twenty more people waiting who are clearly more committed to their fat loss goals!

With that said, there are going to be scenarios where 3-7 days of restricted calorie intake is not the priority. Some examples of this would be:

  • a wedding or weekend away

  • social events

  • a holiday

  • business trips

  • a female client who has manipulated calorie intake to align with her menstrual cycle

These are some example of scenarios where I wouldn’t expect a client to remain in a calorie deficit if they don’t want to. These are generally times in peoples lives that should not be about excessive worry over protein, carbs and fat intake.

But here’s the key point I want to make; you should still have some form of self control and not go bonkers so that you destroy your entire progress. These types of events crop up all of time and it's important to get them right by not blowing it all on a single all-you-can-eat buffet.

Remember back to my post here on brainwashing yourself to a leaner body and you'e good to go. This will remind you that if you are at a wedding and it’s a buffet system then great. Go and enjoy a plate of your favourite foods. But not 3-6 plates with a mound of food, and alcohol, and dessert.

Cheat day

I tell my clients to completely avoid these altogether. I know from experience that these are some of the biggest long-term diet destroyers a person will come across. Probably even more so than a cheat week!

Why? Let me paint you a picture.

Let’s say that you have dieted successfully from Monday to Friday. But you’ve had it in your mind from Wednesday you want to have a cheat day on Saturday. What will this mean?

Breakfast is going to be something like a full-English breakfast. Bacon, sausages, hash browns. The works.

Next we have lunch. Now most people like to get out and about on the weekend. Maybe explore a new part of town. A new city. Or even catch up with some old friends. That could mean cake with your cappuccino, or a couple of glasses of wine with your panini. A quick take-away box from the local Thai of ‘healthy’ food or something quick and easy like a burger, hot dog and chips.

We roll into the evening and it’s time to paint the town red. So that’s more takeaway food, probably a pizza, Chinese or Indian. Wine, beer, gin. You name it. Oh, and don’t forget the kebab on the way home if it’s one of those nights!

Sound familiar?

Ok, granted the above is an extreme version of somebodies Saturday and I’ll agree with you on that.

But you forgot about part two; the part that everyone forgets – Sunday!

Because you have a calorie hangover (or an actual hangover) from the day and night before, because you are tired and can’t be hassled to cook, because you don’t ‘feel like having veg’, or because it’s a Sunday you say you’ll start again tomorrow!

I'll start again tomorrow. Ahh yes, the infamous dieting line said by people failing with fat-loss all over the World. If you hear these words you can almost guarantee failure. What you need to do is start again now. Not just because it's a Monday or because today is going to be too much of a struggle for you. Start with the next meal. Make sure it's packed with protein, fruit and veg and probably a big glass of water if you pounded the tequila shots the night before.

Otherwise what you find is that the process repeats all over again, granted this time with a lot less calories but still a calorie surplus and most likely an unhealthy day of food. Here's a graph to paint an unhappy picture of why so many people fail with fat loss:

Your cheat day was only meant to be Saturday. It’s turned into two days that has not only undone your entire week of effort, it’s probably even made you gain more fat as your weekly caloric intake is higher than your maintenance calories. So ditch them!

Cheat meal

From a long term dieting perspective, I think these are absolutely fine and should even be encouraged to a certain extent.

Why? Because dieting sucks. Really sucks. And a little bit of a treat at the end of the week is not going to undo all of your progress (however as we just discovered a cheat weekend almost definitely will!)

Remember, your calories can be calculated over a weeks period as opposed to a daily period.

Let’s say you’re a 30 year old female that can eat 1,600 calories per week in order to lose body fat. That’s a total weekly calorie intake of 11,200 kcal.

So if you wanted to bump your calories up on Friday night to 2,000 kcal then all you need to do is find somewhere else in the week to lower your calories by 400 kcal. So it could look something like this:

Monday 1,500

Tuesday 1,500

Wednesday 1,500

Thursday 1,500

Friday 2,000

Saturday 1,600

Sunday 1,600

Total = 11,200 kcal

or another example

Monday 1,600

Tuesday 1,600

Wednesday 1,600

Thursday 1,200

Friday 2,000

Saturday 1,600

Sunday 1,600

Total = 11,200 kcal

Psychologically you’ll feel like you’ve earned it and therefore you’ll enjoy the meal a lot more. You won't have the urge to horrendously overshoot calories because you know that you are back on the plan the following day, or had been on the previous days. You’ll feel happier in yourself because you feel in control and your likelihood of losing fat goes up by 900 points.

Committing to this method means you are able to enjoy a more flexible week of food, throw in some ‘taboo’ dieting foods into your recipe sheet and give you something to look forward to and enjoy!

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