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Sports Nutrition

The Cheat Sheet

It’s an all-too-common scenario. In your pursuit of a better buff-to-blubber ratio, you jump into a new diet with every aspiration of adhering to it like a tongue to a frozen pole. All of a sudden, many of your favorite noshes (including ice cream, natch) are no longer “allowed” as indicated by the tenets of your new diet. At first, it’s all good because you’re excited to see your body transform for the better and you hardly miss the big plate of pasta for dinner. You have no problem ignoring the slices of pizza your buddies are wolfing down, accompanied by their taunts of “Come on, live a little.” But soon a lethal combination of cravings for burgers, chips, fries, chocolate cake — you name it — and a plateau in your fitness gains takes hold, and before you know it, you’re arm-deep in a tub of fried chicken and ready to send your diet and workout program the way of the dodo. 

Fortunately, you can avoid a complete diet meltdown by incorporating one important element into your eating plan: cheating. Done right, planned cheating can quell cravings and actually help your physique continue to progress into greatness. Read on for tips on breaking the rules.

Why Cheat

Here’s why it’s OK to occasionally give into the French-fry goblin perched on your shoulder.

Boost Your Metabolism: Many diets, be it low-carb, low-fat or low-chocolate, involve some degree of calorie restriction. After a period, your brain thinks you’re in starvation mode and sends out signals telling your body to put the brakes on calorie-burning metabolism and to hold on to reserves (read: that flab called love handles) in case of an emergency.

However, you’re not a starving person lost in the Amazon, just someone trying to get ripped. So this sluggish metabolism is not desirable. “A break from dieting can interrupt this slowdown by tossing your body the metabolic curveball of having to work harder to deal with extra calories or certain macronutrients,” says Jim White, RD, spokesman for the American Dietetic Association and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach, Va. “This shock to the system keeps your metabolism revved for additional fat burning.”

Boost Your Hormones: Moderate amounts of dietary cheating can help restore levels of leptin, a metabolism-revving, fat-burning hormone involved in sensations of hunger and satiety. Leptin has a tendency to fall when calorie intake drops, thereby slowing fat loss. Biologically, this makes sense: If you’re low on calories, your body releases less leptin to conserve what precious energy it has. Nosh on more calories, though, and leptin levels are likely to rise, switching off stomach growling and turning up the metabolic furnace. The hormone insulin-like growth factor-1, which supports muscle growth, also may drop during periods of strict eating.

Boost Your Energy: Extended periods of hardcore dieting involving calorie restriction or cutting down on certain macronutrients can leave you feeling sluggish during workouts as energy stores become taxed. The upshot is that you may not always have the energy to push around serious weight. “Occasional cheating can help replenish energy stores such as muscle glycogen, which will give you more ability to train hard,” White says. “Paradoxically, you may feel incredibly spry the day after a cheat meal.”

Boost Your Nutrition: “Cheating on foods that are not part of your diet can help you take in vital nutrients that you might be missing out on,” White says. For example, carbohydrate-rich foods like whole grains and fruit contain certain vitamins and antioxidants that support muscular recovery and growth and are not present in high-protein fare like tuna and steak.

Boost Your Dieting Success: Allowing room for cheating in your diet program provides a much-needed mental break from what is often an unexciting repetitive meal plan. A 2008 study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that only one subject of the 181 studied was able to stick to any of the three restrictive diet programs with little wiggle room for a one-year period. So, before you say sayonara to your favorite foods for good, ask yourself: “Can I live without cheesecake forever?” We thought not.

“Planned cheat meals can be something to look forward to, which will help you keep your sanity during strict eating so you don’t completely fall off the wagon,” White says. He adds that structuring your diet to include cheating will make you feel less ashamed about doing it. “There is room for cake and a six-pack, too,” he says.

Boost Your Social Life: Being dedicated to a diet program is commendable, but if your commitment means you’re home alone on a Saturday night eating chicken and broccoli or find yourself smuggling protein shakes into nightclubs, you should be concerned with what you’re sacrificing for that six-pack. Allowed dietary cheating can give you much more wiggle room socially.


The Cheat Rules

Follow these guidelines to make sure your cheating hits the mark.

Cheat Rule No. 1: Make a plan.
When putting together your meal plan, schedule in times that allow you to eat what you crave. This provides structure to your cheating and helps you stick to your diet. Hence, you could eat clean from Sunday to Friday with room for guilty pleasures on Saturday evening. While times between cheats might vary, White recommends letting your dietary guard down once every seven to 10 days. “Going too long can lead to a complete cave-in,” he says. He adds that some people do really well by allowing themselves a few cheat snacks sprinkled throughout the week. “It can take some trial and error to learn what works best for you,” White says. 


Cheat Rule No. 2: Don’t overdo it.
White encourages a cheat meal or two instead of an entire cheat day. “If you partake in an all-day, no-holds-barred binge-fest, you might end up taking in such a huge amount of calories that it will take a number of days to recover and perhaps ruin months of hard work,” he says. As for the cheat meals, a good guideline is to eat until you’re satisfied, not sick. A burger is fine, but three Big Macs — WTF? Self-control is key.

Cheat Rule No. 3: Include “forbidden” foods.
The purpose of a cheat meal is to break the rules and kiss those protein-to-carb ratios goodbye. If you’re following a low-carbohydrate diet, a cheat meal should not be a 12-ounce steak. “It’s important for your sanity to give in to cravings during this meal and enjoy the items you are restricting,” White explains. “This means that a cheat meal during low-carb eating should include stuff like pasta, bread or a big bowl of crunchy cereal.” On a low-fat diet? Order yourself a couple of slices of deep-dish pizza. “One of the ways to reduce your desire to cheat more often is to satisfy yourself with the foods you are generally avoiding,” White says.


Cheat Rule No. 4: Play the clock.
If you’re concerned about cheat meals damaging your physique progress, plan them to come after particularly arduous workouts. “At this time, the body is primed to take in a number of different nutrients for recovery,” White says. For example, consuming the sugary carbohydrates you crave after a workout will drive up insulin levels, resulting in a greater surge of recovery nutrients into your muscles. If you’re cutting calories, use a postworkout meal to gorge a bit.

Cheat Rule No. 5: Cheat foods don’t have to be junk foods.
Cheating doesn’t mean you have to eat terribly unhealthy food. Low-carbers can wolf down whole-grain spaghetti instead of white pasta. Fat-phobes can try dipping multi-grain tortilla chips in guacamole instead of French fries in gravy. “There are plenty of options out there that can meet your need for flavor and variety while simultaneously supplying valuable nutrients,” White advises.

Cheat Rule No. 6: Hit the gym.
If you think you went overboard on a cheat meal, you can offset some of the damage by bumping up your calorie burn during your next workout. Do an extra 15 minutes of cardio or add a couple of extra sets to your weight-training routine.

Diet Deviation

Whichever diet you might be following, there are reasons to cheat and ways to do it right.

Low-Carbohydrate, High-Protein Diet
Diet pitfalls: Diet programs that keep carb intake low (often at 0.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight or even less) are typically low in dietary fiber, which helps keep you feeling full and aids in warding off heart disease. The diet also results in depleted muscle-glycogen stores — your main energy source for intense training. Low blood sugar also can cause you to feel lethargic at work and in the gym. 

Why cheat: To reload glycogen stores, boost energy levels and supply a much-needed shot of fiber. Also, leptin levels will rise in response to the rush of sugar in the bloodstream, setting off a boost in metabolism.


How to cheat: Make sure your low-carbohydrate cheat meals contain an abundance of carbs with little worry about getting enough protein — after all, protein will be a big player in all your other meals. Aim for at least 100 to 200 grams of carbohydrates during this meal. Whole-wheat linguini with grainy bread, buckwheat pancakes with berries, an extra-large baked sweet potato with brown sugar, fruit salad with honey and air-popped popcorn are wholesome options, but if you have a hankering for more devious pleasures such as sweetened boxed cereals, muffins or bagels, go for it.

Low-Fat Diet
Diet pitfalls: Fatty acids provide the building blocks for testosterone, the main muscle-building hormone. So extended periods of low-fat living can cause testosterone levels to sag. Plus, emerging research suggests that the right fats in your diet can, surprisingly enough, encourage fat burning. “Low-fat diets are also generally lower in calories and can zap energy levels and muscle growth,” White says. Plus, fat provides a lot of flavor, meaning low-fat eating can be a tad bland, to say the least.

Why cheat: To encourage testosterone production, add some flavor back into your diet, kick-start fat burning and raise energy levels.

How to cheat: You need to nosh on what you’re depriving yourself of: fat. Cheat meals should contain plenty of it — up to 50 percent of calories. Healthy fat choices include nuts, avocado, olive oil, fatty fish such as salmon, seeds and nut butters. But also allow yourself to indulge in fattier meats like prime rib, wings, bacon or ribs as well as decadent desserts including pecan pie and chocolate cake. And don’t shun saturated fat found in items such as coconut, cheese, dark chocolate bars and beef because it’s a major player in testosterone production.


Low-Calorie Diet
Diet pitfalls: A calorie-restricted diet can result in slow muscular growth because there might not be enough energy in the eating plan to sustain muscle-cell expansion. Plus, low calorie intake can cause leptin levels to plummet, resulting in a slowdown of fat loss.

Why cheat: To give your muscles the fuel they need to grow and produce a surge of leptin, helping to restimulate fat burning.

How to cheat: Try doubling the calories you would normally eat at a low-calorie meal. If a normal dinner contains 600 calories, shoot for 1,200 and go wild with what you put in your pie hole. Satisfying, easy-to-consume foods such as pizza, macaroni and cheese, and lasagna will likely hit the spot.