02/10/2015 02:54 pm ET Updated Apr 12, 2015

Ask JJ: Cheat Meals


Dear JJ: I've heard some experts argue that you should have a cheat meal (or cheat day) every so often to reset your metabolism and not feel so deprived from your favorite foods. What are your thoughts there?

I recently read a story about Hector Garcia, Jr., who at his heaviest weighed 636 pounds. His fate became tragic and heartbreaking. I strongly encourage you to read this devastating, deeply moving pictorial blog.

What particularly caught my attention was this paragraph:

"Confined to his chair and house, Garcia peeked into a bag holding a 20-piece box of Chicken McNuggets brought to him by his mother. Mondays were always 'cheat days' while dieting, but in recent months Garcia admitted that most days had become cheat days as his motivation to lose weight dwindled."

Garcia's situation highlights the slippery slope about "cheat meals" and how they often stymie fast, lasting fat loss.

The name itself creates a crippling mental perspective. "Cheating implies lying or dishonesty," writes Dr. Jonny Bowden in his book Living Low Carb. "It's much more empowering to think about [eating] in terms of being 'strict' or 'not so strict.' You may have some days when you are 'not so strict.'"

Cheating also fosters a "to hell with it" attitude. "Far too often I hear of people going overboard with their cheat meal -- which turn into day-long bingers," writes Angeles Burke.

You know the scenario. You have French toast with mimosas for brunch, realize you ate a little too much, and abandon your dietary dignity with a big plate of spaghetti for dinner. After all, you can restart your diet tomorrow, right?

In his book The End of Overeating, Dr. David Kessler talks about how the sugar/salt/fat combination of most processed foods -- staples of "cheat meals" -- creates an addiction that makes it virtually impossible to eat these foods in moderation.

Besides addiction, cheating sets you up for a domino effect of cravings, indigestion, overeating, and food intolerances.

"Some calories are addictive, others healing, some fattening, some metabolism-boosting," says Dr. Mark Hyman. "That's because food doesn't just contain calories, it contains information."

Let's say you give yourself a pizza and ice cream cheat meal. No doubt that meal raises your blood sugar on a roller coaster, signaling insulin to pull it back down. Unfortunately, this fat-storing hormone often over-compensates and pulls your blood sugar down too low.

Ever wonder why you eat a plate of spaghetti and two hours later, you're hungry and craving that same food that made you miserably stuffed before? That's your blood sugar crashing.

To get off that spike-and-crash roller coaster, choose foods like lean protein, healthy fats, lots of leafy and cruciferous veggies, and slow-release high-fiber starches that stabilize blood sugar.

When you eat these foods, you stay full and focused. You maintain steady, sustained energy. You don't get cravings or the urge to overeat.

To really take "cheat" out of your food equation, forego the idea that eating healthy must be bland or boring. Learn to appreciate healthy, flavorful foods like broccoli sautéed in coconut oil, slow roasted almonds, and wild-caught salmon.

Decadent foods like almond butter and dark chocolate remove the either/or deprivation mentality and make you wonder why you ever chose high-sugar impact foods that take a hit on your health and your waistline.

My favorite strategy involves lateral shifts, or healthier alternatives for your favorite foods. Swap that high-sugar impact dessert for 85 percent cacao dark chocolate. Trade those mashed potatoes and gravy with faux-tatoes (mashed cauliflower) with ghee. A little creativity will transform go-to "cheats" into guilt-free, low-sugar impact favorites.

That doesn't mean dessert permanently becomes off the menu. My three-bite rule allows people to indulge without overindulging. The deal is, enjoy a healthy meal and if you must sample the dessert, stick with three polite bites -- what you would eat on national TV, not in your own home -- and step away from the crème brulee.

A few caveats: For some people, even three bites can become a slippery slope, so proceed accordingly. Likewise, if you have gluten, dairy, or other food intolerances, even a few bites could set off a reaction.

I realize arguing against cheat meals goes against what some experts believe. Do you believe an occasional indulgence creates a slippery slope or supports long-term fat loss? Share your thoughts below, and please keep those questions coming at

Additional References
Bowden, J. 2010. Living Low Carb. New York: Sterling.

Kessler, DA. 2009. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. New York: Rodale.