Allowing yourself some freedom with your diet can be very helpful for your mind and your body. However, overdoing it can set you back.
To be completely honest, I don't like the term "cheat meal." Cheating automatically implies that you're doing something wrong and you should feel guilty about it. When in fact, you're actually not cheating on your diet; you're merely allowing yourself some freedom, which makes your nutrition regimen more sustainable and sometimes your body actually needs it. Some people like to call cheat meals free meals, treat meals, splurges, maintenance meals, etc. Whatever you call it, make it so that you don't feel guilty about what you're doing and can still follow these guidelines:
If you're dragging in the gym, your body may have completely exhausted your glycogen stores. A higher carb meal may be exactly what you need to give yourself an extra boost. Just don't treat every gym slump like this.
This meal would ideally be immediately after your most intense workout, if you exercise first thing in the morning, or the night before an intense workout. That way you can use those extra carbs and calories to refill your glycogen stores and give your body an extra boost in the gym!
Have a plan of when and what you're going to eat. Decide how often you plan on treating yourself. Do you need it once a week or once a month? It's usually more helpful to plan for extra calories on the weekend or at meal(s) when you know you're going to eat out. Look over the menu before you go out and choose 2 or 3 options of what you might order. If you're attending a party, look at all the food options first, before you start filling your plate. Planning is key. If you don't have a plan, those good intentions could quickly go out the window..a cheat meal can turn into a cheat day or a well-balanced meal out can turn into a quick run through the drive through.
This is an opportunity to eat what you like, not see how much you can eat. If you're craving pizza, have 2-3 slices, but not a whole pie. Avoid buffets and instead go to a restaurant where you will order off a menu, or only get one plate of food at a party. A good key is to eat a half-portion of that food you've been craving. Eat slowly; take your time to savor and enjoy your meal. I can't stress enough how important it is to stop when you're full.
3. Meal Types
Choose a balanced meal that will satisfy your craving. I recommend a meal that has protein and carbohydrates and, is most importantly, nutrient rich. Meaning, avoid meals that are highly processed and full of refined sugar. Complex carbs and protein use more energy to digest and are typically what make us feel full. So, try to stay away from meals that are high in fat, especially saturated fat, like fried foods. For example, a meal of fried oreos, ice cream, and a side of soda won't exactly do the trick. That's not to say you can't have these foods, but I wouldn't have all three and it definitely should not be your whole meal. Some examples of balanced cheat meals include sushi, steak and potatoes, spaghetti and meatballs, etc. My personal favorite is a smoked salmon BLT.
4. Avoid Trigger Foods (in the beginning)
Trigger foods are foods that you can't just have one of, that if you have just one you crave them constantly, or foods that make you crave other foods. They can derail your diet. If, for example, pizza makes you want chocolate, and you have to have a soda with it, and then you crave pizza every day after you eat it, then pizza would be a trigger food. For some people, this is the salty-sweet combo. For example, if you eat pretzels, you have to have chocolate with it. Maybe before you know it, the whole bag is gone. You might want to try an alternative, or one without the other, or just avoid them all together. You need to be able to have your meal, and say "ok that was great, but I'm good now."
5. Drink water!
Last, but certainly not least, drink water! Drink 1 glass before your meal, 1 glass during, and 1 glass after to flush out all that extra sodium and bloat these meals might cause.
Free meals, treat meals, cheat meals, splurges, or whatever you call them, can make or break your new dietary regimen. Remember, it's important to have balance for your diet to work.
By Stacey Bala, MS, RD, LDN
Oak City Nutrition, LLC
A Registered Dietitian with experience and success providing medical nutrition therapy and nutrition counseling to clients in person, over the phone, and via webcam. Her experience includes counseling clients for weight loss, diabetes, pre-diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, kidney disease, PCOS, IBS, celiac disease, food allergies/intolerances, transitioning to a vegetarian diet, etc.