Is That Weekly “Cheat” Meal Ruining Your Weight Loss Progress?

When did we start classifying eating certain foods as “cheating”? Cheating on what? Your diet should never have that much power over you that you feel like you’re cheating.

Food is fuel for our body. Food is social. Food should be enjoyable. If your “diet” has you lacking in all three of these areas, I can understand why you might feel like you need to “cheat.”

But do you realize that the quantity and frequency of these indulgences might be stalling or even setting back your progress?

Forever Dieting

I see it time and time again in so many different scenarios. Sometimes an eating plan is too restrictive, resulting in cravings too intense to hold back from a cheat meal. Sometimes cheat meals are planned with alarming frequency. And sometimes the plan is just missing the mark for your needs.

Outside of the impact on your weight loss progress, cheat meals can leave you in a “forever dieting” mindset.

The cycle looks like this: We decide to embark on a weight loss journey. We diet all week but then overeat on the weekend. Then we restart the following week. Diet hard all week, crushed it, #nopainnogain, then overeat again on the weekend.

We end up suffering from all the suck that can come along with dieting and psychologically we feel like we are dieting. But, at the end of the day, we might not even be in a caloric deficit.

Don’t let this be you.

Can One “Cheat” Meal Ruin My Whole Week’s Worth of Deficit?

Yes, it can. Here is an example to demonstrate how easily this can happen.

Let’s take our imaginary friend Joanne who’s estimated maintenance calories are about 2,300 calories per day. She has decided to embark upon a weight loss journey.

Her estimated maintenance calories are ~2,300 kcal per day. And her recommended intake to facilitate fat loss is ~1,800 kcal per day.

Here is her week:

  • Monday: 1,835 kcal
  • Tuesday: 1,870 kcal
  • Wednesday: 1,790 kcal
  • Thursday: 1,805 kcal
  • Friday: 1,785 kcal
  • Saturday: 4,500 kcal
  • Sunday: 1,810 kcal

Weekly average: 2,200 kcal per day. Woah… What happened on Saturday? This:

  • 1 Bacon Cheeseburger (Five Guys): 920 kcal
  • 1 Large Fries (Five Guys): 1,314 kcal
  • 4 Beers: 600 kcal

Full meal: 2,834 kcal + the rest of her day’s food = 4,500 kcal

We’ve ALL been there. Some plans even include weekly cheat meals. And, by the numbers, free reign for a meal can easily be taken to an extreme that impacts your weight loss progress. Sucks, right? No one said dieting is easy.

Making Adult Decisions

But don’t worry – this doesn’t mean you can never eat another burger or have tasty food again. It simply means you need to recognize the consequences of the choices you are making and compare them realistically against your goals. I like to call this making an “adult decision.”

Sometimes these choices are completely valid. For example, when it’s my wife’s birthday we are going to a nice fancy dinner and having some yummy drinks. I will likely over-consume calories. Is this OK or not?

For me and my current goals, I think it’s perfectly fine. I’m totally at peace with breaking even or maybe even go up in weight for the week if it means I get to share this celebration with my wife. Happy wife = happy life.

Do you remember a time when you didn’t actually care or even think about these things? We might be physically healthier now but we were mentally healthier then.

Let’s work to maintain or improve our current level of health but bring ourselves back to a mental state like before, when we ate food and didn’t stress over things like diets and calories and carbs and fats.

Here are some action steps you can take the next time you’re faced with the option of whether or not to indulge in a cheat meal:

Step 1: Set Your Goals

If you don’t have a clearly defined goal, it can be difficult to have a reason not to indulge in that cheat meal. We’ll use “SMARTER” goal setting to define a goal:

  • Specific: Get all your arrows pointed in the same direction.
  • Measurable: Track your progress as you go so you know if you’re successful.
  • Actionable: What behaviors do you need to adopt to achieve this goal?
  • Risky: Your goal should make you slightly uncomfortable but not be delusional.
  • Time-Keyed: Achievement-based goals have a clear finish line. Habit-based goals are tracked via how often you do them and your time streak.
  • Excitement: Your goal should be personally important and inspiring.
  • Relevant: Your goal must align with your given circumstances and lifestyle.

Once your goal is set, dig deep into why this goal is meaningful to you. Ask yourself the five whys. Why is this goal important to you… because… repeat 5x.

Once you have discovered why this goal is truly meaningful, you will be armed with deepened reasoning behind your choices. When you’re faced with a difficult decision or temptation, revisit your “Why.”

The A and two Rs are very important. While your big goal (or big kahuna as I like to call it) should make you feel a little uncomfortable, you want your daily actions and habits to be right in your wheelhouse. These daily practices you execute to achieve your big kahuna should be within your comfort zone.

Lastly, your goals must fit your circumstances and your lifestyle. Not the other way around. Consistency and adherence will always win. If you try and bite off more than you can chew (pun intended) failure may be imminent.

If you are a single working mom, it may not be realistic to try and go to the gym 5x per week. But going once or twice and getting in a workout at home may be something you feel confident with. Start there. No step is too small. Build a solid foundation and then expand.

Always ask yourself, “How confident am I on a scale of 1 to 10 that I can accomplish this?” If you’re not an 8-10, you need to break this goal or habit down even smaller, before creating your plan.

Step 2: Make A Plan

Next up, create an eating plan that serves your goals. We want to make sure that it is not too restrictive or too low calorie that it is causing you to binge. If this is the case, the plan needs to change. NOW. Maybe it is a matter of simply not restricting foods and allowing yourself the flexibility to eat things you enjoy more frequently so you can adhere to your plan.

Don’t think of certain foods as on or off plan. If you would like to consume something higher in calories but stay on track, you always have the option to plan ahead and make your restaurant meal fit within the context of your plan.

Oftentimes, people are not aware of the calories that different foods or meals contain. Do some research before the next time you go out. Check the calories, read the labels, and arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can. Knowledge is power but ignorance is not bliss.

I recently wrote an article discussing how one simple restaurant swap saved one of my clients over 1,200 calories at his weekly date night with his wife. Small changes can make a large impact.

Step 3: Look At The Big Picture

The frequency of events like cheat meals amplifies the impact they have on your weight loss journey.

If your goal is to lose 15 pounds this year and you’re taking a single summer vacation where you plan to indulge some, you likely don’t need to stress about these things. A singular week in the context of a year will have little impact on your overall weight loss and health progress.

On the other hand, if you travel once a month for business and know that you always relax in your eating when you’re on the road, this greater frequency will likely impact your weight loss journey.

Where a single yearly vacation won’t impact the big picture, a monthly trip might if you don’t consider implementing some strategies for when you’re away.

If you know travel can trigger some of your more unhealthy eating choices, looking at your big picture might play out like this:

  • I Travel Often: Look at each trip within the context of your other trips. Do you have some plans coming up that are bigger and more important to you in terms of wanting dietary freedom? It’s time to make some strategic decisions about where to indulge.
  • I Rarely Travel: It’s a good idea to give yourself a little freedom to enjoy some nice meals and treats while you’re away. Eat mindfully until you’re 80% full and aim to maintain your weight while you’re gone.
  • I’m Somewhere In-Between: Use your best judgment to determine how important your weight loss goals are relative to enjoying yourself on each trip. You don’t need me to tell you what to do and what not to do. Time to pull up your knickers again and make an adult decision.

If you don’t travel frequently but you frequently eat out, you can simply run through the above scenario and swap out “trips” for “meals” or “dinners out.” The same concept applies to eating out multiple times per week vs. on rare occasion.

You need to zoom out, determine your priorities and make a choice. The choice is always yours, but there is always an outcome associated with it.

(You may also want to check out my article “How to Maintain or Lose Weight While Traveling” for more tips on handling frequent trips or vacations.)

Step 4: Accentuate the Positive

Finally, we underestimate how important it is to frame a decision like eating a celebratory meal in a positive light. You hold the power rather than your diet holding the power over you. When you make the choice, aim to remove all guilt associated with it.

The way we frame things is extremely important from a psychological perspective. Stop using negative terms like cheat meal and bad foods. Put on your grown up pants. If you’re going to eat a higher calorie meal, make the choice to do so and own it. No fuss, no muss. You’re in control.

I actually don’t like using the term “cheat meal” because it has a negative connotation associated with it. It implies you are doing something bad and that you are eating something bad. I don’t want anyone to feel like there is good or bad food. There is simply food.

If it needed a label, I would prefer something like “free meal.” This might be an instance where you go and eat free of tracking or measuring with the goal of removing any of the stressors that are associated with those but not bringing in any negativity surrounding the choice.

And recognize that we always have a choice. Even when we don’t have a choice of the type of food we have a choice of the quantity. Make the choice. Understand what that choice means. Then own that choice.

If you want to have something higher calorie, that’s your prerogative! Enjoy it, then move on. Don’t dwell on it, don’t feel guilty, don’t punish yourself with cardio. Just simply move on.


If you can take one thing away from this it is that yes, one meal can definitely impact a week’s worth of weight loss. However, every decision comes down to your individual goals within the context of your life.

Sometimes that decision is: “I am going to go out and have a really good meal and I know that it won’t be a step in the direction of my weight loss goals.” And sometimes that decision is: “I am going to order X because of Y.”

If we frame our decision-making process in a realistic and positive light, we begin to shed some of the guilt that can come along with the results of the decisions we make. Regain that power and make “adult decisions.” Own those choices and realize that we all deserve to be happy!

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Landon Poburan is the owner of L2 Fitness in Edmonton, AB Canada. His days consist of plotting world domination, training clients (read: Ninjas) and assisting in weight loss transformations. When not working, which isn’t very often, he’s most likely baking and then eating a pie. If you have a desire to eat pie and still lose weight, you’ll be best friends. You can find Landon at the L2 Fitness Blog or sharing how to eat pie and lose weight on Instagram.


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