That One Cheat Meal Does More Than You Think!

Byline: Paul Salter, MS, RD, LD, CSCS,

Updated November 2020

Should I have a cheat meal? That is a question we’ve heard thousands of times!

Firstly, we use the term ‘free meal’ at RP. Similarly to the term you’re more familiar with, having a free meal simply means you’re eating whatever you want at a given meal, with no regard to macro/calorie allotments.

We use ‘free meal’ instead of ‘cheat meal’ because the latter implies that you’re “doing something you’re not allowed to do.” The guilt associated with cheat meals often discourages dieters and ends up with them abandoning their diet altogether. A free meal however, allows you to have a relaxed meal without that guilt weighing down your progress. 

What to consider before having a free meal

The reality is: a free meal may add hundreds, if not thousands of calories to your day. And that’s assuming you stop at one meal and don’t let your free meal turn into a free day.

During a maintenance phase, a free meal may lead to a temporary increase on the scale, but the overall impact will be insignificant. The phrase “it’s one meal out of 30-40 meals each week” carries great weight here.

When you’re dieting, however, especially when you’re deep into a diet, the havoc this one meal may cause can be quite significant. And this is unfortunate considering that the deeper you are into a diet, the more pronounced hunger and cravings are. That “one meal” has a far greater impact than you think during a diet.

How your body fights your dieting efforts

Your body views a calorie deficit as a threat to survival (thanks evolution). To help eliminate this deficit and threat, your body adapts in a multitude of ways to conserve energy and prompt you to eat more. These adaptations manifest in the following ways:

  • Reduced metabolic rate
  • Reduced number of calories you burn when eating food
  • Reduced number of calories burned via exercise and non-exercise activity
  • Increased hunger and cravings

After just a few short weeks of dieting, your body has acclimated to eating less and has also reduced the number of calories it expands each day and heighten feelings of hunger. And these changes only intensify as you push further along. The impact your typical free meal has before embarking on a diet is drastically different when eaten during week nine of your diet.

The impact of that one meal…

Let’s take a look at the impact your favorite cheat meal – a few slices of supreme pizza – has on your weekly calorie balance when you are not dieting vs. when you are nine weeks in.

Example 1: Maintaining on 2,000 calories/day before dieting

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday Total Weekly Surplus Average Net/Day
2,000 2,000 2,000 2,000 2,750 2,000 2,000 14,750 750 +107

2: Eating 1,400 calories/day during week 9 of your diet

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday Total Weekly Surplus Average Net/Day
1,400 1,400 1,400 1,400 2,750 1,400 1,400 11,150 1,350 +193

In the first example, your metabolic rate is on cruise control at a healthy rate. The addition of 750 calories leads to you taking 137% of what your body is used to. Though the scale may be up the next few days, your body is very capable of handling this slight bump and the net average surplus for the week is 107 calories per day. More importantly, your body is not stressed from a calorie deficit, thus, isn’t looking to store every extra calorie as fat that is consumed above your usual intake.

However, in the second example, pizza night leads to you taking in 196 percent of what your body is used to. And if that 1,400 calories per day was supposed to be a deficit designed to drive weight loss, it was likely significantly reduced (or even changed to a net surplus). Your body is under tremendous physical and psychological stress at this point and is looking to store any additional calories it can get its hands on.

As you can imagine, the rate of weight loss will be slowed and you’ll likely take a step (or three) backward. But what’s often overlooked when this occurs is how you respond to this lull in progress. Too often, many will overreact and further reduce calories to “compensate” for the lull in progress. This leads to a further uptick in hunger and fatigue and likely another binge soon to follow. 

The result: a vicious cycle between very-low calorie and very-high calorie intakes. And ultimately, a poor relationship with food and the scale, a paltry metabolic rate, and unfavorable body composition changes. We want to help you avoid this mindset at nearly all costs!

The solution

Unfortunately, there’s no surefire vaccination against hunger when dieting.

However, if you choose certain foods like lean proteins, lots of fruits and veggies, and things such as healthy fats/carbs (these already make up the bulk of the basic foods in the app to begin with) you can help curb hunger a bit. The best analogy might be to think of 300 calories in terms of a Snickers bar (not very filling) or that same 300 calories via lean chicken breast, lots of fibrous veggies and some rice. The latter will be the much more filling food option. To help you with this, the RP Diet App has a satiety index sorter when you are choosing through the basics food list within the app. If you sort by the “Most Filling” it will do this for you! 

What matters most, however, is that you take a sustainable approach to weight loss – an approach focused on moderation and free from restriction. What we’ve found really helps is choosing a plethora of options from within the basic foods in the app. This gives members a lot of variety, but also focuses on the highly satiating foods that are perfect when dieting.

Rethinking that free meal? For some indulgent but diet-friendly flavors, check out the RP Cookbooks. Use code “freemeal” to save 15% on any of our cookbooks! 

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