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Do Cheat Meals Help With Weight Loss?

Do Cheat Meals Slow Down or Speed Up Weight Loss? A Dietitian Answers

You eat healthy all week long, so once the weekend rolls around, you treat yourself a little. Everything in moderation, right? The weird thing is that you can go a little nuts with the french fries, pizza, cupcakes, and wine, and when Monday morning rolls around, you look leaner and maybe even weigh less. Is this a dream?!

POPSUGAR caught up with Stephanie Ferrari, a registered dietitian with Fresh Communications, to ask her about this puzzling question: do you need to have cheat meals or cheat days to lose weight? Meaning, if you don't, and you never stray from your healthy eating ways, is it one reason your weight loss might be stalling?

You'll be happy to know that Stephanie says that cheat meals do help with weight loss, in two ways: "metabolic pathways and motivation." As for metabolic pathways, leptin is the hormone that makes you feel full. "When you diet for prolonged periods of time, leptin levels decrease and you become more sensitive to it. That increased sensitivity means you'll feel more hungry when leptin is absent and you'll feel more full when leptin is present."


Stephanie goes on to explain that when you eat a large helping of carbohydrates (we're looking at you, pizza!), insulin is released in your blood. Insulin (along with a few helpful neurotransmitters) increases leptin activity in your brain, making you feel satisfied. When you feel full faster, you may actually end up eating fewer calories than you think on cheat days!

In one (small) study, researchers discovered that both metabolism and leptin levels increased in female participants who were on diets and then ate a large quantity of carbohydrates. Stephanie says, "When your leptin levels increase, you eat less. When your metabolism is increased, you lose weight. This may explain how, metabolically, cheat days can help with weight loss."

As for motivation, since we're all about eating healthy and treating yourself every once in a while, this can explain why having cheat days or cheat meals can help you lose weight. It has to do with the 80/20 rule, where you eat a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein, healthy fats, and whole grains 80 percent of the time, and then allow yourself the occasional chocolate cupcake or bowl of ice cream 20 percent of the time.

If a person's diet is too strict, they'll end up feeling deprived. They're more likely to have extreme cravings that lead them to binge. Stephanie says, "They might feel like they've screwed the whole thing up and will end up sabotaging their plan by eating way more calories than they would have initially. That's where the phrase 'yo-yo dieting' comes from. It results in weight fluctuations and increased fat in your body composition."

This is the exact reason Stephanie recommends "cheat days" for her clients who are trying to lose weight and keep it off. It builds in an acceptable time frame to indulge so if you know you have a party coming up, you feel empowered to eat a little treat and enjoy it. Giving yourself permission to satisfy your cravings once in a while will actually help motivate you to continue eating healthy the rest of your week.

Stephanie advises, "If you don't give yourself permission to indulge sometimes, you're setting yourself up for failure. On the flip side, by allowing yourself cheat days here and there, you're setting yourself up for success." Revenge Body star and celeb trainer Latreal Mitchell agrees that it's all about balance.

So yes, go ahead and indulge! Maybe you like having a little treat each day, like a square of dark chocolate after dinner. And maybe you like to go all out on Saturday, loving up chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast, mac and cheese for lunch, and lasagna with wine and cheesecake for dinner. Find a way to indulge that works for you and your goals.

Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Bonnie Burke
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