Cheat Meals – The Science and Psychology Behind an Effective Nutrition Technique

October 13, 2015 — Leave a comment
Photo Credit: Muscle for Life

Photo Credit: Muscle for Life

Dieting can really be terrible sometimes. You’re trying to lose weight, adjusting your eating habits to promote fat loss, and all the while it seems like everything you love to eat is off limits. Over a long period of time, your ability to resist those little temptations will fade and all too often you will end up giving in and eating something that you know you shouldn’t eat. When this happens you get frustrated that you couldn’t resist temptation and you give up your diet, thinking that it is just too difficult and hopeless.

This is not an uncommon story. This is the story of the vast majority of people who diet.

Why? Why is it so difficult to stay disciplined when dieting and why is it so easy to give up at the slightest slip up? How are you supposed to stay on track with your nutrition plan if it is so difficult sometimes?

How Your Appetite Works

Leptin is a protein and is mainly produced by fat tissue. It regulates appetite and energy balance in the body. Ghrelin, also known as the “hunger hormone”, is a peptide hormone that is mainly produced by the stomach. It is an appetite stimulant that signals the release of growth hormone. Low-calorie diets have been shown to increase the production of ghrelin, leading to increased food intake as a result of an increase in appetite. This makes the temptation to snack and eat more intense and more difficult to ignore.

Changes in leptin and ghrelin levels can be seen in as little as 72 hours after reducing your caloric intake. Thus, you need a way to control these levels and prevent you appetite from getting the best of you.

Enter the Cheat Meal

A cheat meal is a meal that you have once per week in which you eat whatever you want. It is not a cheat day or a cheat 8 hours… It is one meal.

A cheat meal will by nature be high in calories. This abrupt increase in calories interrupts your body’s ghrelin production and increases your body’s leptin production. The result is a decrease in appetite over the course of the next few days.

Essentially, the cheat meal encourages your body to do the exact opposite of what it wants to do when dieting: eat too much, too often. Instead, you control your portions and caloric intake and then over-compensate with one meal. And it works.

Photo Credit: Bodybuilding.com

Photo Credit: Bodybuilding.com

The Psychology of the Cheat Meal

There is also a psychological aspect to the cheat meal that is also helpful. When you are dieting with no relief in sight, it can become difficult to remain disciplined. However, research has shown that a cheat meal gives you something to look forward to which makes it easier to resist temptation in the moment. On the other side of the cheat meal, the enjoyment felt by eating something you are craving results in an improved mentality toward your diet and a willingness to keep going.

Another effect of the cheat meal is since you have been eating healthy up to that point, the meal itself usually makes you feel uncomfortable afterward. While it might be totally worth it to you since you had to deny your cravings for so long, it at least serves to remind you that fatty, greasy, sugary, unhealthy foods do not sit well. I once ate an entire large pizza as a cheat meal (I do not recommend this… it was a huge mistake) and couldn’t move for two hours afterward. I didn’t eat pizza for a long time after that because that served as a reminder that pizza was not a healthy choice.

If you are trying to lose weight through dieting and exercise, incorporate a cheat meal into your weekly diet. Schedule it, look forward to it, plan it, and enjoy it. Then, get back to your diet for another week knowing that you have another cheat meal coming soon enough.

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