How to Cheat on a Diet (Sensibly)
At some point on any weight loss journey, you’ll want (and deserve) a cheat meal. The good news is that this doesn’t spell disaster for a weight loss mission, as long as it’s done sensibly. Here’s my guide on how to cheat on a diet.
This brings me to a point where I have to mention that if you are reading this article and expecting to learn how you can eat 5 bars of chocolate every day and magically become slimmer, stop now. This article isn’t for you.
This article is to show you how to cheat on a diet when your diet allows, but not destroy all of your hard work beforehand.
How We Lose Weight
We lose weight by being in a calorie deficit – in other words, we burn more calories than we consume. That’s it. You can follow whichever diet plan you like, but the long and short of it is this; you lose weight because you are in a calorie deficit.
Knowing this allows you to cheat on a diet but do so in such a way that you won’t ruin all of your hard work. You can still cheat on a diet and as long as you remain in a calorie deficit, still lose weight.
So, if you time your cheat meals properly and do them in such a way that you ensure you remain in a calorie deficit then your weight loss will pretty much continue uninterrupted, if not be accelerated.
The reality is that a cheat meal is not only good from a psychological point of view (staying on a diet without a break for a long time is psychological torture!), but plenty of well-respected practitioners actually recommend cheat days as a way of upregulating fat-brining hormones.
I can say that following a big day of eating in the past, I’ve actually looked better in the day or two after the meal – possibly because of the effect on hormones and fluid levels that the bigger meal has had on me.
So, how to cheat on a diet…
There is a way you can afford to eat an occasional cheat meal without derailing your diet. A sensible fat loss strategy will even allow for occasional days when you can relax the rules a little. Without such days, compliance with the plan will more likely than not, fail after any real progress has been made. All diets need scope for some degree of laxity.
The old saying in weight loss is the ‘good diet you’ll follow is better than the perfect one you won’t’
By eating your cheat meals at the right time, you will get away with limited damage as long as it is an exception and not the norm. You can’t have a cheat meal every day and lose weight consistently, because remember…
If you cheat on a diet too often, you simply aren’t on one!
Cheat Meals and Exercise
One thing that is absolutely imperative to sensibly cheating on a diet is exercise – the right kind at the right time.
A basic set of guidelines regarding pre-cheating exercise is it that it has to be…
- High intensity – lots of calorie burn
- Using resistance or at least HIIT
- Done BEFORE the cheat meal
How and when you time your cheat meal to avoid dietary failure is important, which brings us to a concept called ‘EPOC’, also known as ‘Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption’ or ‘Oxygen Debt’. You may also see this referred to in layman’s terms as ‘the after burn effect’.
After exercise, the body consumes oxygen at a higher rate than before the training session began. This elevated oxygen consumption is designed to bring the body back to its resting state by ensuring the following processes occur…
1. Energy replenishment. Among other biochemical processes, the body is working hard to actively replace muscle glycogen that has been used as a fuel source during the exercise session.
2. Temperature reduction. As we exercise, our bodies produce heat as energy is released from muscle tissue. Sweating and vasodilation help to reduce core temperature, and EPOC expends further energy to reduce the core temperature.
3. Reduction of heart and breathing rates. As the body stops exercising, pulse and ventilation reduce. These processes require energy, contributing to elevated expenditure.
4. Re-oxygenation of blood. Large amounts of blood oxygen are used to break down digested and stored food chemicals in the blood stream, turning them into a usable fuel. Due to the high use of oxygen during this process, there is a debt to be repaid post exercise.
5. Rebalancing of blood chemistry. During the exercise session, hormone levels are disturbed and respiratory waste products are produced. These need removing and rebalancing, which again requires energy.
This is why we have to exercise before we cheat on a diet.
Now, before we get carried away with EPOC, assuming we can eat anything we want as long as we have trained beforehand, we need to consider the following facts…
The level of EPOC is linked to the intensity of the exercise carried out beforehand.
A low intensity, steady-state cardiovascular workout will burn calories during its execution, but EPOC effect will be limited, as the intensity is not sufficient to generate a significant oxygen debt. Given the respiration during the workout is aerobic in nature, oxygen would be used as a significant part of energy production during the cardiovascular session, reducing any EPOC.
In English, the harder you work, the more calories you burn after you exercise.
Even at higher intensities, studies have shown that EPOC only increases resting metabolic rate (RMR) temporarily, with any significant effects wearing off after 12-16 hours.
In order to take advantage of any increased metabolic activity, the trainee would be best consuming the cheat meal within 3 hours of intense exercise, when studies have indicated that metabolic rate may be up to 13% higher than usual.
Post-exercise calorie consumption has been measured at between 50 and 150 calories per hour for the first 2 hours, depending on intensity of the exercise. This effect does wear off in time, as the previous paragraph states, with some studies suggesting that metabolic rate will only be elevated by around 4% 16 hours post exercise.
In English, the sooner you eat your cheat meal post exercise, the less damage you’ll do to your diet.
The real life application of EPOC as a weight management tool comes from its cumulative effect. Calorie burn by exercise is relatively modest – calories burned during even intense exercise than could be sacrificed from the diet with a structured and sensible eating plan. By exercising regularly however, the increase in RMR will have a massive effect on energy consumption by the body.
I like my clients to train with weights or do HIIT before a cheat meal because the higher release of growth hormone, the building of muscle tissue and the all-body nature of the exercise leads to a higher calorie burn overall, meaning EPOC is higher and the damage done to the diet by the cheat meal is limited.
How to cheat on a diet sensibly
I have my clients follow a system of nutrition which sees them increase vegetable intake significantly, eat appropriate fat and carbohydrate relative to their goals and in most cases, up their protein intake.
I also make sure they train with resistance 4-5 times per week, with or without me – this part is important.
As part of this plan, they are allowed 1 cheat meal per week, but they have to earn that meal with an intense session beforehand. This means they have exercised 5 times before they can cheat on a diet. The benefits are two-fold…
1. They know they have a day when they can eat foods they wouldn’t usually be allowed to, increasing compliance to their fat loss strategy.
2. The diet isn’t sabotaged by regular cheating – any cheat meal is offset by the training sessions they have executed to earn it.
In order to generate the highest level of oxygen debt, you will need to work at a high intensity. Keep your rest periods short, your work sets high and limit the session to no more than 60 minutes. The key here is hard work, not long duration. Try this sample session…
Mobilisation warm up followed by…
- 20 Kettlebell Swings (superset with) 20 Press Ups
- 15 Kettlebell Swings, 15 Press Ups
- 10 Kettlebell Swings, 10 Press Ups
- 5 Kettlebell Swings, 5 Press Ups
- 10 Pull Ups, 15 Jump Squats x 3
- 10 Overhead Kettlebell Snatches (per arm) x 3
- 45 Second Swiss Ball Plank x 2
This session performed 1-2 hours before a calorie-heavy meal will help offset the damage you will do to your dieting.
Also, you have to check if you’ve worked hard enough to earn a cheat meal. This is why I use a heart rate monitor. I like the Polar M400. It measures all of the data I need it to and has top-quality app support, which means you can chart your calorie burn accurately -see the image below for the kind of data can you quickly see via the Polar Flow app…
By monitoring your training intensity, you have all of the information you need when it comes to understanding your calorie burn, your exercise intensity and exactly how far you can push your cheat day!
A final thought on exercise and cheat meals…
I mentioned that I like my clients to exercise before a cheat meal and I explained why.
Despite this, in the past I’ve been asked by clients could they just train afterwards and undo the damage that way? The answer is, not really.
You should train hard before you cheat on a diet because it increases your metabolism immediately post exercise, therefore the rate of calories your body is burning in the aftermath. It’s also an incentive to work hard because you know you’re going to be eating extra food. They aren’t the only reasons though…
Have you ever noticed how you feel after a big meal? Sluggish, heavy and tired. Not exactly a great place to start when it comes to getting ready to exercise!
Additionally, a cheat meal often involves some kind of booze – again, not great fuel for exercise. Trying to train hard on a hangover would be nigh on impossible, so my best advice is earn a cheat meal, don’t try to pay it back by training after.
Chances are you won’t be able to!
Plus, isn’t is more satisfying eating a big meal knowing you’ve earned it? It certainly is for me!
Alternative Cheat Meal Strategies
If you have a cheat meal coming up, you can always adopt a fasting approach ahead of the meal – this is something I do if I know I have no chance of high intensity exercise in the lead up to a cheat meal, for example if I’m working all day before the meal.
In this case, I’ll fast all day before I have the high calorie meal, then will be able to indulge with a little more freedom. It means I can cheat on a diet without doing too much damage because all I’ve essentially done is consumed my entire day’s calories in one go, rather than over the course of a few meals.
You do need a lot of discipline go with this approach though, otherwise you can find yourself overeating really quickly.
It’s also important to note that this is only a worthwhile approach if you’ve exercised regularly in the build up to the cheating on the diet, otherwise you’re simply in a feast-famine cycle and that’s both unsustainable and difficult to control over the long haul.
It’s far more sensible to be consistent and measured in your approach, so use this fast as an exception rather than the norm when it comes to cheating on your diet.
The same old boring rules apply to fat loss – eat sensibly, move regularly. There are no fads and gimmicks, just honest hard work and clever food choices. Stick to the principles outlined here and you won’t go wrong on your mission to drop your excess weight.
I’ve written this guide so you know how to cheat on a diet properly. My aim is to show you that you can still lose weight, even whilst you cheat on a diet. You just need to know how to do it.
These are strategies I use and have given to my personal training clients in the past. I know them to be successful as they are based in science that has been tried and tested over the years, plus I’ve used them and have seen them successfully used by clients. That’s enough evidence to convince me!
Weight loss can seem daunting, but it needn’t be. If you have any questions, feel free to ask and I’ll help you all I can!
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