Cheat Meals: Good or Bad?

The Right Way to Cheat and Still Reach Your Fitness Goals

Cheat meals are a debated subject and always a personal choice. Recent research on the hormone leptin, which regulates hunger, food intake, and energy expenditure is causing quite a stir in the health and fitness industry.

Calorie restricted diets will show a drop in leptin levels, and since the hormone is synthesized primarily by our fat, the body will hold onto those stores not wanting to give up energy in starvation mode. The outcome is a slowed metabolism and no fat loss with lowered leptin levels.

The remedy suggested to kick up the leptin levels is to periodically increase calories to maintain a higher metabolism and successful weight loss. Some are opting to use cheat meals as a solution to not only rev up leptin levels but also enjoy foods not typically on their “eat clean” menus.  

Cheat Meals Keep You on Track

couple eating hamburgers and french fries
Daring Wanderer/Stocksy United

Calorie shifting has become a popular way to maintain a fit lifestyle, enjoy some treats, and not feel deprived.

The 90/10 rule supports eating healthy food 90 percent of the time and allowing for 10 percent splurges during the week. This would be considered a strict “eat clean strategy” but still allows for some indulgence. This has both physiological and emotional health benefits. 

The most popular 80/20 rule supports lean proteins, good carbs, and healthy fats being consumed 80 percent of the time, leaving 20 percent for cheat meals and snacks. Cheat meals are designed to promote a positive diet outlook, stave off cravings, and keep you on track with overall health and fitness goals. If you usually eat around 1500 calories on your diet and have 2300, for example, don't stress—the extra calories on that single day will not completely derail your diet.

Are Cheat Meals Right for You?

Cheat Meals
Cheat Meals Aren't For Everyone. Biddiboo/Getty Images

Several factors should be considered before deciding if cheat meals or days are right for you. People struggling with an emotional eating disorder may be triggered toward an unhealthy binge scenario. In this case, indulgence may not be the best option. Some may feel so much psychological guilt indulging that the emotional setback may not be worth the comfort calories.

Those new to adopting a healthy lifestyle may not know how to moderate a cheat meal. This could lead to a downward spiral and several days of splurging.

Cheating smart to keep the leptin levels normal and metabolism boosted will be the key to maintaining a fit body.

Should I Pig Out on Cheat Day?

Cheat Meals
Cheat Meals are Not Meant to Overeat. Michael Hipple/Getty Images

The recent discovery of increased leptin hormone levels helping with weight loss doesn't mean a free ticket to gorge on everything in sight on a cheat day.

Studies have shown increasing calories by 20 percent is all that is needed to spike leptin levels and boost metabolism. That would mean over-indulgence wouldn't be wise on a cheat day. Considering a cheat meal may be the better choice to ensure you stay on track.

Research indicates leptin hormone is more responsive to carbohydrates and not proteins or fats. This means healthy carbs should be considered when enjoying a cheat meal or day.   

Cheat Meal Ideas

Heathy Cheat Meal Ideas
Cheat Meals can be Healthy. Lauri Patterson Vetta/Getty Images

Planning a cheat meal with a carbohydrate focus will be the best “re-feed” to stimulate the body to burn fat more efficiently. The idea of a cheat meal is to place you back into maintenance calories where the body feels balanced.

Trudging through the week on reduced calories takes a toll on the body. Refueling with a cheat meal has been found as a positive benefit to reach and maintain your fitness goals. 


Davoodi SH, Ajami H, Ayatollahi SH, Dowlatshashi K, Javedan G, Pazoki-Toroudi HR. Calorie Shifting Diet Versus Calorie Restriction Diet: A Comparative Clinical Trial Study. Int J Prev Med. 2014; 5(4): 447–456. 

Kelesidis T, Kelesidis I, Chou S, Mantzoros CS. Narrative Review: The Role of Leptin in Human Physiology: Emerging Clinical Applications. Ann Intern Med. 2010; 152(2): 93-100.

Healthy Eating for a Healthy Weight. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Accessed 2016.

Eat More, Weigh Less? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Accessed 2016.

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