Are Cheat Meals the Wrong Way to Go?

There are a ton of terms tossed around in the health and fitness industry of which I am not a fan. Are they all bad or wrong? No, not necessarily. Trust me, some very intelligent people use them. It isn’t about right or wrong. It is about analyzing what certain words can do to your overall outlook and how they can affect your behavior. OCD? Perhaps, but here it is anyway. If you haven’t guessed by now, I feel that cheat meals is one of these terms. While I believe the intention is good, I feel it is better to use a different outlook or at least be very clear about what it means.

What Is a Cheat Meal?

A cheat meal has become different things to different people, but for the most part, a cheat meal is food you can’t have in your program or diet on a normal basis (for various reasons). For example, you are following a very strict low-carb program and you decide you want two servings of rice with your vegetables and meat. This increases the amount of calories and carbohydrates you are ingesting that day so it’s cheating on your program.

Some people only consider it to be cheating if the food is unhealthy or junk food, if they stick to their allotted caloric needs or macros. Others don’t really have a clue what they are eating; they will go to a restaurant and order cake and call it cheating. In that case it begs the question, “On what?”

To be clear, the technical definition is:

1. To deceive by trickery; swindle: cheated customers by overcharging them for purchases.

2. To deprive by trickery; defraud: cheated them of their land.

3. To mislead; fool: illusions that cheat the eye.

4. To elude; escape: cheat death.


1. To act dishonestly; practice fraud.

2. To violate rules deliberately, as in a game: was accused of cheating at cards.

What sort of psychological game are you setting yourself up to play when you continually agree to this type of mentality? This is the point on which I want to focus and discuss regarding this topic.

I Once Had a Conversation with a Client that Went Something Like This…

Client: What do you think of cheat meals in your programs?
Me: Let me ask you a question. Do you cheat on your wife?
Client: No! You really think that is a fair comparison?!
Me: Stick with me. Why don’t you cheat on your wife?
Client: I don’t know…I love her very much. It just isn’t a thought for me. I’m a loyal kind of guy!
Me: So, you’re saying your reason for not cheating isn’t because it is wrong—correct?
Client: Well, I think it is wrong, but no, I don’t think that is why I don’t cheat.
Me: So, you would say you don’t cheat because you are satisfied with what you have—correct? So it doesn’t cross your mind to stray?
Client: Yes, I would say that.
Me: Then you need to learn to make your dietary habits match your marriage—healthy, satisfied, and with special indulgences if you behave.

The fundamental problem with cheat meals is that they give the wrong impression about good dietary habits. All food should have a purpose, even if enjoyment is the purpose. If you are following a very strict program/goal, you should allow yourself to eat food you enjoy whenever possible. Foods that are generally considered cheat foods often supply a high level of carbohydrate or fat response in the body that can be desperately needed while dieting down. If you are smart about your diet strategy and include structured higher days, cycling programs, or daily “treats,” than you move away from cheating and into optimization and happiness.

If you are happy with what you have, you don’t generally stray. Yes, sometimes it takes buckling down to achieve your goals which can leave little room for luxuries, but that should be short-term only. If it’s not, you aren’t really moving towards your goals, you are just lying to yourself.

Technical Reasons to “Cheat” All of the Time

Most of the food people consider to be cheat foods are either high in carbohydrates, fats, or both. Also, there is often a higher salt (sodium) level, especially iodized salt due to people usually restricting it in hypocaloric situations. Technically, all of these “cheats” can provide benefits during a dieting down situation. For example, in a hypocaloric state, it has been shown that thyroid levels decrease at a slower rate versus that of a low-carb diet. In fact, in VLCD studies, decreases in thyroid levels were severely blunted when carbohydrate levels were higher.

When fat intake is decreased, we usually see a rise in all sorts of problems from physical pain to depression. Refilling on both saturated and unsaturated fats can help quickly decrease the negative effects and return you to a better mental and physical state. Willpower is a physical thing that occurs in the body and it often decreases in a hypocaloric state, so fats and carbs can help with this among many other things. If you pay extra attention to the detail of your fat (e.g. vitamin D3) you can cross intake with specific supplementation as well.

Lastly, while it is known that iodine plays a role in thyroid regulation, supplementation of it alone in a VLCD doesn’t seem to do much. However, there is a suggestion that mixing it with a slightly higher intake of carbohydrates and calories can offset the negative effects of low iodine in the diet. There is also research to suggest keeping potassium and sodium levels high despite a low caloric diet has positive effects on metabolism.

Take Home Point

Making room in your daily program for carbs, fats, and salt is a good thing. It is not bad, foolish, swindling, trickery or cheating; it is simply smart dieting and good sense. For additional information, please check out The Fat Loss Troubleshoot.

1. O’Brian JT, Bybee DE, Burman KD, Osburne RC, Ksiazek MR, Wartofsky L, Georges LP. Thyroid hormone homeostasis in states of relative caloric deprivation. Metabolism. 1980 Aug;29(8):721-7.
2. Serog P, Apfelbaum M, Autissier N, Baigts F, Brigant L, Ktorza A. Effects of slimming and composition of diets on VO2 and thyroid hormones in healthy subjects. Am J Clin Nutr. 1982 Jan;35(1):24-35.
3. Mathieson RA, Walberg JL, Gwazdauskas FC, Hinkle DE, Gregg JM. The effect of varying carbohydrate content of a very-low-caloric diet on resting metabolic rate and thyroid hormones. Metabolism. 1986 May;35(5):394-8.
4. Reinhardt W, Holtermann D, Benker G, Olbricht T, Jaspers C, Reinwein D. Effect of small doses of iodine on thyroid function during caloric restriction in normal subjects. Horm Res. 1993;39(3-4):132-7.
5. The effect of varying carbohydrate content of a very-low-caloric diet on resting metabolic rate and thyroid hormones.Mathieson RA, Walberg JL, Gwazdauskas FC, Hinkle DE, Gregg JM.
6. 3. Jorde R, et al. Effects of vitamin D supplementation on symptoms of depression in overweight and obese subjects: randomized double blind trial,” J Intern Med, Sept 2008
7. Effect of dietary carbohydrates during hypercaloric treatment of obesity patients
P. asquaMli.,P arentLi,. M attiolMi, capelliG, cavazzinGi,. BaraldGi, .s orrenti, G.D eB enedettiPs.,B isoa, ndN .M elchionda
ClinjcMae dical, Universitddi BolognaV iaM assaren9t,i 4 3100B olognat,t aty
8. Dietary-induced Alterations in Thyroid Hormone Metabolism during Overnutrition
ETHAN A. H. SIMS, Metabolic Unit, Department of Medicine, University of
Vermont, Burlington, Vermont 05405


  1. Matty
    August 30, 2010 at 4:26 am

    Excellent! You always over deliver on a topic. Great early morning read Leigh.

    By the way, when are you going to annouce the winners and show the survey results. I am very excited about it! Off to bootcamp!

    • Leigh Peele
      August 31, 2010 at 1:44 am


      RE: Winners – I will be doing the complete follow up article and post next Monday and announce the winners then.

  2. MamaJanis
    August 30, 2010 at 4:46 am

    Great analogy on the cheating. I never really thought of it that way. When I diet I am not satisfying myself at all. This is probably the reason I am always failing at my diet.

    • Leigh Peele
      August 31, 2010 at 1:45 am

      Well hopefully that turns around for you in the future. Something I always say is – as long as you don’t consistently overeat, you will get there eventually.

  3. Nancy Cooley
    August 30, 2010 at 6:51 am

    Thank you for this post. It’s something I’ve been thinking about because I’ve always had a hard time delineating between dieting and not dieting. The first meaning restriction and the second meaning eat whatever the heck I want. I love to see you expand on this topic and perhaps write a book on how to take a break and how to eat in maintenance.

    • Leigh Peele
      August 31, 2010 at 1:46 am

      I will defiantly be expanding on this topic. Basically a lot of these recent blog posts are things you can expect to see covered when the new FLTS is released.

  4. Lori
    August 30, 2010 at 6:54 am

    I’m going to the store now … and you know what I’m buying…

  5. gotoL
    August 30, 2010 at 9:15 am

    BARTLETT’s QUOTATIONS, 140th Edition, 2350 A.D.

    “All food should have a purpose–even if enjoyment is the purpose.”

    — Leigh Peele, 2010.

    • Leigh Peele
      August 31, 2010 at 1:49 am

      Ha, excellent. I would completely lying if I said I didn’t love that. Quotations are one of my favorite things in the world. To be one, is one of the highest forms of flattery you could get. IMHO.

  6. bathory
    August 30, 2010 at 9:21 am

    I thought this article was going to go in a totally different direction, and I’m pleased with the point you made in the end. I am very much enlightened by how you treat food so positively, as a fat loss expert. It’s refreshing to read that even in a deficit food isn’t evil, something I think many dieters and trainers, inadvertently end up believing, because it’s food that made us fat in the first place. Looking forward to more surprises like this one.

    • Leigh Peele
      August 31, 2010 at 1:51 am

      I see a lot of trainers and nutritionists treat food like drugs or alcohol addiction. It simply isn’t the same thing. It’s like telling people who have a clothes shopping addiction not to wear clothes anymore. I don’t think that would go over well. We can’t never eat again – we have to learn to embrace it and not afraid of it.

  7. Clement
    August 30, 2010 at 9:25 am

    Hey Leigh,

    I’m a big fan of your blog and the Fitcast. And I’ve been missing it this past week! If you don’t mind, I have a few questions pertaining to this article. I should let it be known that I am at about 13% body fat and follow Martin Berkhan’s IF method and it’s thanks to you for exposing me to it!

    1) Regarding fat loss and regulation of body composition, I plan my diet very simply. I just eat at maintenance-20% on rest days and maintenance+20% on training days (3x per week). My question: can I lose enough fat to reveal my abs by caloric restriction alone? I do have MacD’s quite frequently (as much as 2x per week sometimes) but monitor my caloric intake stringently, never missing out on anything.

    2) Do you recommend foam rolling and when? Mike Robertson recommends them a few hours after training sessions, while John Romaniello prefers them on rest days.

    Thanks, and I really hope you answer my questions! I would have sent them to your Ask Leigh section, but I don’t know how to.

    • Leigh Peele
      August 31, 2010 at 2:00 am

      1) Regarding fat loss and regulation of body composition, I plan my diet very simply. I just eat at maintenance-20% on rest days and maintenance+20% on training days (3x per week). My question: can I lose enough fat to reveal my abs by caloric restriction alone? I do have MacD’s quite frequently (as much as 2x per week sometimes) but monitor my caloric intake stringently, never missing out on anything.

      Well the clean factor I don’t think is an issue. Another term I am not a fan of. Your issue is going to be 2 questions.

      1. How much lean mass do you have on your abs to begin with? Depending on the frame and muscle mass, it could be 6% before you see abs or 11%. So base plays an extremely important role.
      2. Is your low, low enough, to lose enough fat mass? Right now you figures lead you pretty close to 0% change if there is to much give in the upper direction. If you hit a month mark and aren’t seeing much change I would leave you 20+ the same but perhaps restrict more in other areas.

      Do you recommend foam rolling and when? Mike Robertson recommends them a few hours after training sessions, while John Romaniello prefers them on rest days.

      I have no idea why anyone would suggest foam rolling on rest days only, that doesn’t make much sense. If you have a link that would be great because I would HOPE it is taken out of context. I 100% support and recommend foam rolling. You can utilize pre and post training and as a day to day routine. You should also be decrease the challenge or more so density to your foam rolling experience. Check out Mike Roberstons extremely excellent and free manual on Self Myofascial Release. Just google “Mike Robertson Self Myofasical Release and it should pop up a PDF link.

  8. NileBennu
    August 30, 2010 at 9:49 am

    This is something I wish more health professionals would address, and you’ve put it so well here.

    Losing weight and getting healthy should include the occasional indulgence. It’s possible to stay within the bounds of a deficit and have a piece of chocolate. Or you can have a slice of cake one day, or an evening out to dinner with a loved one, follow a deficit and exercise as normal, and still lose weight that week. It’s the all-or-nothing, black and white, right and wrong mentality that forces people with those tendencies (like me) into binge mode!

    Thanks for the insight, Leigh!

    • Leigh Peele
      August 31, 2010 at 2:01 am

      Agreed. Because I believe fat loss should be a short term part of our live I believe the rest is about finding the balance and enjoying life as much as possible. There is no guilt in enjoyment. The two can’t coexist.

  9. Mark Young
    August 30, 2010 at 10:56 am


    Some people call it semantics, but I think you are bang on about using the term “cheat” to define meals that are not “clean”. As far as I’m concerned, the battle for weight loss is affected by psychology equally (if not more) than it is by physiology.

    I grew up reading bodybuilding magazines and even though I have changed the term “cheat” when speaking to my clients, the mentality that had become ingrained is still tough to shake.

    Great post!

  10. tames
    August 30, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    I love this article Leigh! And I agree with the commenter above that it’s about psychology and specifically what we tell ourselves. I think when we are able to eat food without any sort of guilt or judgement (i.e. I just ate “clean” or I just “cheated”) then we are able to also eat for fuel and enjoyment and ultimately reach our goals.

    Yesterday morning I decided to eat a carrot cake cupcake for breakfast. (I had made them the day before and despite the presence of carrots, they were pretty decadent). After a few bites of the cupcake – about half of it – I was done. So, gave the rest to my friend. That wasn’t cheating, that was enjoying!

    • Leigh Peele
      August 31, 2010 at 2:03 am

      See, that is such an excellent testimonial to a balanced eating approach. When you can get rid of the “indulgence” because you know you can have it when you want – you are in control.

  11. Carol
    August 30, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    I often found myself irritated when people said they were having or had a cheat meal. I could never place my feelings, but this has helped very much. I know since working with you and following much higher carbohydrate intake levels than before my compliance level also increased. I am eating more of the things I used to consider “cheats” and having better results because of it. My butt looks better too 😉

  12. Jackson
    August 30, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    I 100% think they are the wrong way to go. I used to see the world divded into two categories – clean and cheats. All it did was lead me to feeling – superior and guilty.

    “All food should have a purpose – even if enjoyment is the purpose.” Excellent new quote indeed gotoL.

  13. Lynda
    August 30, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    Love the marriage analogy on this one, what a great way to explain your thought process!

  14. Kira
    August 30, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    A lot of the concepts/language associated with fitness drives me nuts.

    This is one of those concepts 🙁

    Enjoyed this post. Thank you 🙂

  15. Markku
    August 31, 2010 at 4:47 am

    I’m just wondering about the need for a “cheat” meal if the diet you are currently using is lacking in foods like saturated fats, etc. If that is the case, isn’t the diet a bad diet?
    I think you should NEVER skimp on fats, and I also think saturated fat is needed in your diet.

    I think the point of cheat meals or days is to be relaxed about your diet, not to stuff yourself but just take a bit of a break just like a rest day is. Too bad people are so obsessed with food that they cannot do that often..My goal is freedom.. freedom from food addiction..

  16. Clement
    August 31, 2010 at 8:17 am

    Thanks a lot for your reply! I must apologise for the inadequate information. I should have mentioned that I’m 19 years old, 5’6 and 130Ibs, trying to do a lean bulk.

    As for my activity, I’m doing stronglifts 5×5 (3 times per week) and can almost bench and press and can already squat and deadlift my bodyweight. I do 10-20min of running (I don’t jog) after my lifting sessions. I play soccer (I like running all over the field and never stopping – I’m like that) for 2-3 hours on Saturdays. I used to be quite active and wander about the malls all the time, but now that my exams are approaching, I’m confined to the desk for about 12h a day. I’m dissatisfied with my look, though. The abs have always eluded me! When I tense my midsection, they’re visible. When I relax them, I have a belly and can’t see them at all. I don’t know why and it’s really weird.

    As to foam rolling, I exclusively use a tennis ball. I hope it’s fine.

  17. Girlmary
    August 31, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    Great Post Leigh! ( I know …redundant!) 🙂
    I felt as though you were talking directly to me. I’m finding I have a lot of mental blocks, aka old school training, in my head that hold me back from my fitness goals. (I have a few other mind sets that add to that too, but that’s another topic for another time).

    Your analogies really make sense. Who’d have analized the meaning of one word in the concerns of diet/exercise and the effect it has in ones head ? I mean if self talk IS so important, like they say it is why wouldn’t we be more careful with it? I suppose that’s the thing you’ve been trying ot get us to think about…it’s finally clicking with me.

    I’m a little slow, but if you speak slowly and a little louder, I’ll get it…..! LOL!

  18. Heather
    September 1, 2010 at 6:43 am

    So well stated, enjoyed the marriage analogy. Ultimately we need to find balance and a lifestyle we can live with for the long term if we want to be successful in our body transformations. Everything in moderation!

  19. Rob - @formerfatguy
    September 9, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    Food is a tool. Using that tool for it’s many advantages is the purpose of the tool.

  20. […] is to know, and that within every interaction is the opportunity to learn more. Leigh Peele wrote a fantastic article on subject of cheat meals and how the way we’re approaching them is fundamentally wrong and I […]

  21. […] out this article by Leigh Peele for her view on “cheat meals” as well here (shift + click, fun isn’t it?)  She gives a great insight into what happens in your mind and […]

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