Are cheat meals a good idea?
You’ve committed to eating healthy, and you’ve been good all week, so it’s time for a well-deserved treat, right? Be it pizza, ice cream, cupcakes or a combination of all of the above, over-indulgent meals have become increasingly popular diet tactic for health-conscious individuals, but are cheat meals a good idea?
What is a “cheat meal”?
If you are involved in the fitness community, or have ever implemented any type of strict diet, you will certainly have heard of the concept of cheat meals. The concept of a cheat meal, or cheat day, is a meal that is not part of your specified diet plan, and for this particular meal (or day) you can eat whatever you wish. Typically cheat meals are meals that are scheduled ahead of time and involve eating rich foods like pizza, burgers, fries, candy, desserts or whatever indulgent treat you have been missing on your specified diet.
In theory, cheat meals might make sense; if you can follow your outlined diet plan for the week you should treat yourself for being “good” by having a meal of anything you like to celebrate your hard work. However, to me, cheat meals are not all they are cracked up to be, and not the ideal way to approach a healthy diet.
It’s All in the Name
If you’ve read any of my blog posts before, or ever heard me speak, you know what I hate the word diet. The reason being is that the word diet is too often used out of context. The word diet is simply defined as “what a personal habitually eats”, so you can’t go on a diet, or start a new diet on Monday, you are on a diet every single day. A diet is simply what you are eating, and it just might not be the best things for you.
The phrase “cheat meals” suggest that there are “good” and “bad” foods and that by eating a cheat meal you are doing something naughty. It suggests that by “eating clean” all week you can allow yourself to “eat dirty” because you deserve it. The truth is, there are no “good” or “bad” foods, and there is no “clean eating” or “dirty eating”. There is only real food, and a bunch of other processed stuff we call food.
You’re Feeding the Addiction (Literally)
The philosophy behind cheat meals is that eating real food requires willpower, strength and effort. So once you have used up all of your willpower, by keeping yourself from “bad” foods, you need to rewards yourself by scheduling a day and time to eat all of the food you have been avoiding.
But here is the kicker, there is a very fine line between a cheat day and a free-for-all of food binging. If you schedule, talk about, and look forward to cheat meals, you are probably not yet comfortable with the idea of creating a healthy well-balanced lifestyle. Certain foods and situations are triggers for people, and one cheat or treat can easily lead to a meal, day or days of “cheats”. It also suggests that eating real whole foods is difficult and unenjoyable, and the only reason to continue doing so is knowing that there is a reward of junk food waiting for you at the end of it. One might argue that they also encourage people to ignore hunger cues, to only listen to our taste buds and body’s reward centre, and eat until we are stuffed, uncomfortable and exhausted. Where is the pleasure in that?
If you schedule, talk about, and look forward to cheat meals, you are probably not yet comfortable with the idea of creating a healthy well-balanced lifestyle.
It’s Not Cheating, It’s life.
If you are reading this thinking I am writing this on my pedestal because I never eat junk food and I don’t think you should either, you are wrong. I want to be clear here, I eat cookies, I eat ice cream, I eat French fries, I eat chocolate and I drink wine, but I never think of them as cheat meals, I think of them as living my life.
The primary function of food is survival, but it can also be enjoyed. If you focus on creating a healthy well-balanced lifestyle, one that you can truly maintain, that is not dictated by a calendar or scale, there is plenty of time for indulgence. If you focus on eating whole foods with a balance of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, starches and proteins, you can absolutely indulge from time to time. You can eat cake at the party, drink wine with your friends and go out for ice cream on a sunny day, even if it is not part of your scheduled “cheat meal”. You are merely making a conscious and informed decision about the food you chose to eat, understanding the consequences (if any) of your actions.
The Calendar Shouldn’t Dictate Your Eating Patterns
I schedule a lot of things in my life; I schedule meetings, I schedule doctor’s appointments, and I schedule vacations. These things are important and they require some advanced planning, but when I chose to eat ice cream does not.
I don’t want a day on the calendar to dictate what I can and cannot eat. I don’t want to limit treats to a specified window of time. I don’t want a schedule to dictate, my mood, behaviours and habits for a day. I don’t want to decline events and activities on days just because they aren’t scheduled into my meal plan. And I don’t want to feel discomfort and guilt just because it was scheduled “cheat day”.
What I want to do is go to a party and make a personal and conscious decision about what I want to eat, no matter what day of the week it is. I want to eat joyfully, eat mindfully, fuel my body and feel good in my skin.
It’s Not a One-Size-Fits All Solution
Look, I don’t think there is one right way or a wrong way of doing anything, cheat meals included. The advantages and disadvantages of cheat meals will vary from person to person, and even along one’s healthy journey. I’m not here to tell you you’re doing it wrong, but I am here to make you think.
Stop Restricting, Start Enjoying
There are many different ways to create a balanced healthy diet and lifestyle, so you truly need to find the solution that works best for you. Perhaps it involves some “cheat days”, perhaps it does not, but regardless of the method you choose, here are some important things I think you should consider:
Listen to your hunger cues. Your body is smart and will tell you what it wants and needs, you don’t need a calendar to do that for you. The more in tune you are with your body the more easily you will be able to identify your hunger cues (are you actually hungry or are you having a craving?) and help you to be more mindful of the food you chose to eat.
Enjoy indulgences. No matter where you are on your health and wellness journey, you do not need to eat perfectly, it will not work. Indulge and eat your treats, focus on quality over quantity, and ensure you are eating more whole foods than anything else.
Savour all of the food you eat. Whether you are eating vegetables from your backyard or frozen pizza, enjoy the food that you eat and savour every bite. Let go of any guilt that you might be doing it wrong or “cheating”, remember you are just living your life, so try and live the healthiest one you can.