"Can I include cheat meals and still lose weight?"
I want to first start by discussing the term "cheat" in regards to food. I'm a firm believer in healthy nutritious eating. But I also believe that there is nothing inherently BAD about less nutritious foods when they are a small part of your overall diet. I like to think of nutrition more as a sliding scale not a black and white "healthy and nutritious vs unhealthy and bad for you". So, yes, there are foods that are MORE nutrient dense than others, but less nutritious foods (like donuts and french fries) aren't going to hurt your health and body composition goals when they are a small part of a diet thats filled with mostly nutrient dense choices (like fruits, veggies, lean proteins, whole grains, and some fats). Food is fun- not just fuel. Food is part of our social and geographic cultures. So, viewing food as simply fuel is not a complete or realistic view. And celebrating holidays and truly special events (or even just date nights with friends or loved ones) with unique and "fun" foods can most definitely still be a part of our life- even when working on fat loss.
Having this realization kick in will help you to successfully incorporate some more "fun" foods on occasion without it feeling like you've done something wrong and need to fix it or feel guilty about it. This also helps to prevent the binge and restrict pattern that becomes common when people drastically undereat and/or glorify certain foods as "clean". They then may feel starving and/or trapped in self imposed food rules, and fall victim to binging on those foods they deemed as "bad". Then they restrict or over exercise again, feeling guilty about what they have done and repeat the cycle- often not making any notable progress towards their fat loss goals because they can't stay consistent. While this cycle may not be the case for everyone, it's a common one to consider before starting up a diet filled with rules and restrictions.
So, assuming you have a balanced and reasonable mindset with your nutrition approach, then less nutrient dense meals or food choices here and there can be successfully included as part of a fat loss diet (without the unnecessary guilt).
There are numerous ways you can incorporate these foods:
First- Including a larger "treat" meal on occasion (remember it's not a "cheat"- it's just PART of your overall nutritious diet). Some people like to have planned treat meals on a weekly or every other week basis. Other's would benefit by approaching "treat meals" based on lifestyle circumstances. So, instead of every Friday being a treat meal night no matter what- you could just wait till you feel like you could really use one or it fits into your monthly social events.
Second- Including some small "treats" throughout the week. When I say "treat" it doesn't have to be a dessert- it could be any food that you typically don't eat on a regular basis either because it's calorically dense or less nutritious but something you enjoy eating and would still like to have be part of your life on occasion.
Maybe you'll like to do a blend of both of the above approaches. As long as you focus on nutrient dense foods as 80% or more of your overall diet, then feel free to play with the remaining 20%. This doesn't need to be scientific. For many people that are trying to make healthy lifestyle changes (hello January 1st! haha!), they are going from a lopsided diet of 20 percent more nutritious foods and 80 percent mostly empty calories and then try to change too much all at once and struggle to stick with it. Work with where you are. Instead of sweeping changes with your foods, gradually start swapping your food choices over a longer period of time. Start with just adding more veggies to your dinner plate. You'll find that just by making that simple change, you will likely eat LESS calories in your day even though you didn't take anything away. Instead you ADDED a food to your day. But by filling up more on veggies at dinner, you'll likely eat less of everything else on your plate that's more calorically dense (or prevent a second helping)- resulting in less overeating.
The next part of successfully including some treat foods in your diet while still managing to lose weight/burn fat is to ensure that your overall calorie intake still places you in a deficit for fat loss. Even if you ONLY eat "healthy" foods, you can still overeat those foods and prevent fat loss. Same with when we include some more fun foods sometimes- as long as overall calories and our daily movement places us in a net energy deficit, then you will continue to burn fat.
Although calorie tracking is not a perfect science, it's incredibly eye opening for people that struggle with portion sizes (whether they are healthy eaters or not). If you are tracking your calorie intake and know your calorie maintenance needs, then to lose fat you need to be eating less than your maintenance. It doesn't need to be drastically less (10-25% off of your maintenance is a great range to aim for- I find a lot of people try to place their calories way too far below maintenance at 30-40% decreases- this isn't necessary or healthy for sustainable FAT loss- by being more moderate, you'll maintain more muscle and your diet will be more reasonable to stick to). Once you know your fat loss calorie intake, that can be set as your goal intake each day of the week (yes- weekends included). With clients I like to provide them some calorie cycling options (in addition to their overall macros and protein goals) to allow for either some higher intake on weekends or some higher intake on strength training days. Their overall weekly intake is the same, but it allows for some flexibility to ensure more adherence and/or to improve athletic performance on training days.
Now how do you incorporate some larger fun meals here and there once you know the calorie intake you are aiming for? If you will be eating at a restaurant, plan ahead (at the start of the day). Look up the menu ahead of time and choose a meal that you are excited to eat (something fun if that's what you are truly wanting- but you don't need to go overboard with some 5 patty burger- if your calorie deficit is reasonable you shouldn't be SO hungry that you can't control your intake at a restaurant). Once you've chosen what you plan to order, check to see if the restaurant offers nutrition info on their website. More and more chain restaurants have this information easy to access online. If they don't have the info provided, then look up nutrition info from another restaurant that offers a similar meal. Once you have a ballpark of calories (or overall macros if you are tracking macros), you can then plan the rest of your day around that. So, if your treat meal will be about 1000 calories and your daily calorie goal for fat loss is 1700, then you'll have 700 calories for the rest of your day. You may need to remove snacks from your day and simply have a nutritious protein packed breakfast and lunch (you could have a 300 calorie breakfast and a 400 calorie lunch). Including plenty of protein during the remainder of your day will ensure more fullness, and that you still hit your protein goals for the day- since many "treat and/or restaurant meals" are high in carbs and fat and lacking in protein- unless you love a great burger!
One of the common issues that people have when trying to incorporate larger treat meals like this, is they then have a hard time going back to their normal eating the next day or right after. It can flip the switch for people from being on track to slipping into old habits. I find this is most common when their food during the week is "too perfect". They are setting up too many restrictive food rules (even if calorie/macro tracking), and then when they allow themselves some food that isn't as nutritious, they feel guilty or it sparks up cravings that they had been pushing aside. I had this same issue at first as well. Part of it just required more practice (and other part required a shift in mindset as discussed at the start of this post). The first few months of my fat loss journey had a lot more ups and downs than I have now. I allowed for fun foods on occasion, but it was hard to eat ONE cookie and then stop there. Sometimes I would end up eating ALL the cookies (haha!). The thing that kept me going is I just got back to my normal routine THE VERY NEXT MEAL- or in some cases, just the next day. Don't wait till the next Monday to start over again if you get derailed. As you practice your healthy lifestyle and keep pushing past those walls, you'll get better and better at balancing the fun with the nutritious at set yourself up for a lifetime of healthy weight management and overall health.
It's important to note that if you eat a larger meal toward the end of the day, you will likely weigh more on the scale the next day. You are still digesting and your water weight from extra carbs and sodium will increase your weight temporarily. This weight spike is not fat gain! If you are tracking progress through scale weight remember to look at weekly averages and not day to day fluctuations (but be sure you are tracking progress through other means as well such as measurements and photos as scale weight isn't always an indicator of fat loss- be sure to read my past blog post on Understanding Scale Weight for more details on this topic).
After 3 years of practicing my balanced eating approach, I still incorporate larger treat meals on occasion, but even those are more moderate. I find I prefer to swap out the heavy sides for fruit or a steamed veggie to accompany my less than nutritious entree. Because I overall feel better walking out of the restaurant after enjoying fun foods but not going overboard. Having that feeling of being overly full is not my ideal and I find that my eyes are bigger than my stomach and I remind myself of that when I order. I've had to train my mind with practice to realize that I don't need to OVERindulge to feel satisfied and content with my choices.