You eat a healthy diet most of the time, but even the healthiest eaters occasionally overindulge. You might enjoy a planned cheat meal every week or so or your food splurges could be more spontaneous. You get carried away at a buffet or an all-you-can-eat pizza party and throw caution to the wind. You might feel a little guilty afterward and vow to get back on track with your healthy eating goals. Hopefully, you do! You might also have wondered how your body responds to one-off overindulgences?
Researchers at the Centre for Nutrition, Exercise and Metabolism at the University of Bath were also curious about how the human body responds to a giant cheat meal, so they asked a group of healthy, young men in their 20s and 30s to take part in a study. For the study, they asked the guys to devour as much pizza as they could, beyond the point they felt full. The men ate so much that they doubled their typical calorie intake to around 3,000 kilocalories. Before and after their pizza feast, the researchers measured the subjects’ blood glucose, inulin level, triglycerides, and hormones that regulate appetite and compared the results to when the men ate only until they were full.
The results? Blood glucose levels in the overindulgent group were about the same as when the subjects ate only enough to feel full. However, their insulin level rose 50% more relative to when they ate only to satiety. Also, surprising was how their blood triglycerides changed. Triglycerides rise the most in response to a meal high in fat, and if a pizza is topped with cheese, it contains a substantial quantity of fat. Despite this, their triglyceride level rose only modestly. What about appetite hormones? As you might expect, the men felt full for hours afterward and had no desire to eat, and their appetite hormone levels reflected that.
What the Study Shows about Overindulgence and Cheat Meals
What can we conclude from this study? Eating a large cheat meal, at least in this study, didn’t have a major impact on metabolic health short-term. The glucose response was not much different when the men ate a supercharged indulgent meal as opposed to a normal one to satiety. However, their insulin level rose more in response to the bigger meal. If you eat a big meal like this often, the repeated spike in insulin would increase the risk of insulin resistance. Plus, the extra calories and insulin spike make it easier for your body to store fat. But short term, your metabolic health doesn’t take a big hit. The conclusion based on the study? If you keep those cheat meals spaced out, you can overindulge once in a while without harming your health or your waistline.
As the researchers in the study point out, the human body copes well with occasional cheat meals, even large ones where you eat double the calories you would typically eat. In the study, the guys cheated by eating 1.5 to 2.5 large pizzas and it didn’t affect their metabolism short term. On the downside, they felt sleepy and unproductive afterward. So your metabolic health might not suffer after an indulgent meal, but you might not feel very productive.
Before reading too much into this study, there are limitations. The research only looked at the impact of a one-off indulgence on young, healthy men. It’s not clear whether the effect would be different in women, older people, and those who aren’t healthy. However, it offers hope that when you go “all out” and eat a gigantic meal, you probably won’t do lasting damage to your metabolic health or your health in general. An occasional cheat meal may offer the mental and physical release you need after weeks of healthy eating and exercising.
Everyone reacts differently to cheat meals though. For some, occasional indulgences offer a break and a release from watching what you eat, but for others, it makes it harder to get back on track. Some people get so discouraged after an unplanned indulgence that they give up and go back to eating an unhealthy diet. If that’s the case for you, a cheat meal isn’t such a good thing and you’d be better served consistently sticking with the plan.
Can a Cheat Meal Boost Your Metabolism?
You may have heard that eating a cheat meal will jumpstart your metabolism and make it easier to lose weight. There is a scientific basis for that, but the effects are modest. If you restrict calories or carbs too much, it can drop your leptin level. Leptin is a hormone that boosts fat burning and reduces appetite. So, a low leptin level will make you feel hungry and slow the rate at which your body burns fat. When you overindulge by eating a cheat meal and insulin rises, your leptin level shoots up too. The bump in leptin makes you feel less hungry and more satisfied and jumpstarts your metabolism too. Just make sure those cheat meals don’t become too frequent!
The Bottom Line
An occasional cheat meal, no matter how large, doesn’t have a tremendous impact on your metabolic health in the shorter-term, based on this study, but if you make those indulgences too frequent, all bets are off. If you double your calorie intake by eating cheat meals too often, you’ll gain weight unless you compensate by eating less during other meals or burning off the excess calories. The quality of what you eat matters too. Most cheat meals aren’t nutrient-dense and are high in calories, fat, and sugar. When you eat too many cheat meals high in fat, sugar, or salt, it sensitizes your taste buds and you appreciate the texture, taste, and sweetness of unhealthy food more than food in its natural state. So, don’t let the cheating get out of hand!
- Aaron Hengist, Robert M. Edinburgh, Russell G. Davies, Jean-Philippe Walhin, Jariya Buniam, Lewis J. James, Peter J. Rogers, Javier T. Gonzalez, James A. Betts. Physiological responses to maximal eating in men. British Journal of Nutrition, 2020; 124 (4): 407 DOI: 10.1017/S0007114520001270.
- com. “How Cheat Meals Can Actually Benefit Your Diet”
- com. “Should You Have Cheat Meals or Cheat Days?”