When you think of the work “cheat”. It implies bad or negative, and in this case, refers to foods (not on my diet). So when I tell people they can have a cheat meal and then they respond with, “OK, but how many carbs should it be?”, I shake my head. It’s a CHEAT MEAL, which means, eat freely.
It doesn’t have to be carelessly but it should be freely. I still recommend people respect their bodies and not put anything in that is going to cause more damage than the extra empty calories. For example if you know gluten or dairy makes you inflamed, or gives you headaches or nausea etc. It’s probably not even a good cheat food for you. Especially since there are now gluten/dairy free versions of all your favorite foods. My personal rules are no gluten, and no trans fats ever enter my diet. But will I occasionally dabble in some ice cream or gluten free pizza etc, sure.
Cheat meals are more for people’s sanity than their body composition. Yes you can get some of the same benefits as a carb load meal, but often times their are accompanying fats, preservatives, and junk in the food. Overall these foods tend to be lower in nutritional value. But I will repeat, the goal of a cheat meal is to give a person a mental break from dieting, to enjoy the things in life, a social gathering or whatever it may be.
Cheat meal frequency really depends on your goals as well. For the average person trying to get in shape, occasional cheat meals are ok; for a competitor 8 weeks out from a contest, forget about it. Anyone that has been on a diet knows that at times the diet can be a source of stress, and a break can be quite liberating. If you are stressing over eating clean food, you are still going to have a negative hormonal response because you are driving cortisol up with your mind! So have realistic goals and realistic expectations. Don’t be afraid to take a break for a meal when you need it, but also don’t view it as a reward or as a crutch.
You can earn carbs from good dieting and hard training. You don’t necessarily earn cheat meals, even though the better you are doing with nutrition and training outside the cheat meal, the less damage it is likely to cause to your body composition goals. The problem with viewing food as a reward system is people begin to make up any excuse possible to reward themselves and often become unrealistic about their reward system.
Summary: Cheat meals can be any combination of macronutrients, not just carbs, but you should avoid foods that you know don’t suit your body well. Cheats are not rewards, they are mental breaks from dieting so you can enjoy life.