Splurges come in all forms: Pizza, double-scoop sundaes, happy-hour specials that turn into really-happy-all-night-long specials. A blowout meal or two doesn’t have to derail your fitness or weight-loss goals, even though it may feel like you blew all you’ve worked for in one moment of revelry.
To start to get past the guilt, remember that everyone (or almost everyone) does it. A recent study in the journal Appetite found that of the nearly 250 adults surveyed, 89 percent had a cheat meal. Planning the splurge serves a purpose, the survey respondents said, including diminishing pesky cravings. It may also lift some of the psychological pressure off of dieting so you’re better suited to stay on the healthy eating wagon.
Previous research in 2016 found the same: setting yourself up to splurge can help you stick to your diet long-term. You may eat for fuel, but if that’s all you do, you’ll burn out.
You’ve got to eat for pleasure, too. That’s just a way of saying that there’s no shame in a taco Tuesday. The key to preventing a splurge from roller-coasting into a screw-it-all setback is to understand what to do afterward.
Step 1: Analyze Your Why
Research looking at the content of social media posts containing #cheatmeal (another more acceptable term for a splurge) found that many of these meals included such high quantities of highly caloric food that they could qualify as binges, per the International Journal of Eating Disorders.
The study in Appetite mentioned above also pointed out that men were particularly prone to cheat meals, they were similar to binges, and these guys were more likely to have eating disorder symptoms.
That’s why it doesn’t hurt to stop and check-in with yourself post-splurge. Why did it happen (was it planned? spontaneous?) and how much did you eat (are you happily full or changing into sweats because jeans can’t happen right now?)? “If you want to treat yourself and have something more indulgent that you normally wouldn’t, that’s fine,” says Monique Ryan, MS, RDN, owner of Personal Nutrition Designs in the Chicago area.
Problems arise, though, when you’re too restrictive and a splurge or cheat meal triggers you to spend the whole day overeating. “That’s completely different than a meal where you might eat a little too much pizza,” she says.
If you notice a pattern—you’re too limited with your diet on other days—you may want to loosen the reins a bit so that future splurges don’t feel out of control.
“Our behaviors are information about our needs. If you find yourself splurging without it being a mindful or intentional decision, this may be a sign that you’re undereating throughout the day or are feeling emotionally depleted,” says Tamar Samuels, MS, RDN, founder of All Great Nutrition in New York City. If it was intentional, brush it off.
“Food can play many roles in our lives, including joy and excitement. It’s completely normal and healthy to eat foods that are more indulgent once in a while, and feeling guilty afterward only takes away from the positive experience of enjoying food that you felt like you needed at the moment,” she adds.
Step 2: Recalibrate Your Diet
The best thing to do is get back into your regular healthy eating routine, says Ryan. Eating lighter for the next couple of meals is totally fine, but jumping back into a pattern of restriction—say promising yourself that you’ll eat a kale salad topped with steamed chicken for the next two meals when you’re not even into kale—can reinforce an unhelpful binge-restrict cycle.
The same goes for skipping meals. It’s one thing if you’re not very hungry and delays the next meal, but it’s another if it’s more like a punishment to make up for calories you ate earlier.
“Skipping meals can cause your blood sugar to drop dramatically, which triggers the release of several stress-related hormones, including cortisol. Cortisol causes your blood sugar to rise rapidly by stimulating your liver to make and release glucose into the blood,” says Samuels.
Your body then releases insulin as a response to that blood sugar rise, something that drives up hunger and encourages your body to store fat. Done too often, skipping meals can easily mess with your internal appetite control.
For that reason, Samuels advises sticking to eating a meal or snack every three to four hours. If your splurge was dinner, then go ahead and have breakfast within one to two hours of getting up. Incorporating protein in each meal and snack helps prevent the extreme blood sugar spikes that skew your appetite.
Step 3: Don’t Try to Burn It All Off at Once
As for exercise, you also might be tempted to “make up for” a splurge by sweating out some of the calories. (Some people also “bank” extra calories in preparation for a splurge or “earn it” via exercise).
Experts caution against doing this. Not only is it unlikely to work (just think about how easy it is to eat 400 calories—that’s about a medium order of fries—and then consider the time it’d take you to, say, run four miles), but it’s also damaging to your psyche.
“Exercise should never be used as a punishment for eating, rather it should be used as a tool to support your physical and mental health,” says Samuels. The best advice is to continue on with your workouts as planned or stick to your training schedule.
The bonus is that exercise boosts blood flow, which stimulates digestion, says Samuels. But, you can also get this very easily with something as simple as a nice walk after dinner.