If you’re following a diet, you may have been told to incorporate cheat meals or cheat days into your plan. In general, these cheat meals have been marketed as a way to make it seem like dieters are not feeling deprived of tasty, unhealthy, or decadent foods. However, cheat meals and cheat days are not as foolproof as they might seem. In this article, we go through exactly
What Does a Cheat Day or Cheat Meal Look Like?
You worked out every day, you ate “clean” all week, and now it’s Sunday. Now, you’re thinking, it’s time to splurge. All bets are off. You spend the entire day on the couch with the TV on surrounded by your favorite junk. For dinner, you order your favorite take-out meals from the Italian restaurant in town. After dinner, you were completely stuffed, but having a big bowl of chocolate ice cream topped with Oreos still seems like a good idea. And besides, it’s your cheat day, right? After you finish your bowl of ice cream, can you casually munch on some potato chips while watching TV, and drift off to sleep. You feel sluggish, overly stuffed, and uncomfortable.
But there’s no harm done, because tomorrow your strict diet and exercise regimen starts again. So, how much harm can one cheat day actually do? Actually, a lot more than you might think.
The Problem with Cheat Meals
Health and wellness culture may try to tell us that cheat meals are an effective way to enjoy junk foods while still striving for weight loss or other health goals. However, there are many issues with the cheat meal mentality that actually do more harm than good.
1. Moralizing Food
The issue with using the term cheat meal or cheat day falls right in line with other terms that designate food as either good or bad. The term “cheat” has a negative connotation and implies that you are doing something that you shouldn’t be. When we categorize food and certain eating behaviors as either good or bad, this is more likely to breed feelings of guilt and an unhealthy relationship with food.
2. Highly Restrictive
We incorporate cheat days into her diet under the guise of flexibility and sustainability. However, cheat days and cheat meals are actually highly restrictive because they imply that you can only eat certain “bad“ foods during this designated cheat meal or one cheat day of the week. Not only is this generally unrealistic to only eat “bad” foods during the specified time but it’s also not sustainable.
3. Increases the Likelihood of Binge Eating
When you restrict yourself to eating certain foods only on certain days of the week, you’re more likely to overdo it when that day comes around. Individuals following a strict diet who use the cheat meal strategy find that they are prone to overeating or binge eating during their cheat meal or cheat day. After restricting and controlling your diet all week, your cheat meal or cheat day seems like a free-for-all. Afterward, you’re left sluggish and overly full. In a lot of cases, overeating on cheat days can lead to feelings of guilt.
The guilty feelings that you may be battling at the end of a cheat day can result in efforts to compensate for “breaking your diet” over the rest of the week. After a cheat day, dieters may be more likely to undereat and over-exercise. This unhealthy behavior leads to deprivation and restriction, increasing the likelihood that you’ll overdo it again when your next cheat day comes around, starting the cycle all over again.
5. Yo-Yo Dieting
In the worst cases, cheat days can lead to a vicious cycle of binging and starving. Cheat days and dieting days may become more and more polarized, characterized by extreme overeating and extreme undereating. Over time, these unhealthy eating patterns can lead to a detrimental relationship with food, cycles of weight gain and weight loss, and a damaged metabolism. This difficult cycle can even contribute to an eating disorder.
Undoing the “Cheat” Meal Mentality
There is a much better way to look after your health than using the cheap meal method. Here are a few tips and strategies for I’m doing the cheap meal mentality and implementing healthier habits that lead to desirable outcomes and a healthy and balanced relationship with food.
Don’t Restrict Food Groups
Regardless of whether you want to lose weight, gain weight, or maintain healthy eating patterns, it’s important to refrain from eliminating entire food groups. Diet culture has marketed countless fad diets over the decades, attributing obesity to and demonizing foods like carbohydrates, meat, or dairy.
Instead, aim to eat a balance of foods that provide all macronutrients and micronutrients that the body needs to carry out all biological functions optimally. The three macronutrients that the body needs include:
- Protein: Dietary protein offers essential amino acids that the body needs to synthesize muscle tissue, enzymes, and hormones. Getting enough protein and ideal ratios of essential amino acids on a daily basis is crucial for supporting nearly all biological processes. Excellent sources of protein include fish, chicken, cheese, and yogurt. Great sources of plant protein include beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. If you eat a primarily plant-based diet, just make sure to enjoy a variety of veggie proteins throughout the day, to ensure that you’re getting the essential amino acids that you need.
- Carbs: Carbohydrates are broken down more quickly than protein and fat, and serve as the body’s primary energy source. Enjoy complex carbohydrates that are unprocessed or minimally processed, to help prevent blood sugar spikes and energy fluctuations. Great examples of complex carbs include fruit, sweet potatoes, quinoa, oats, brown rice, whole-grain pasta, and whole-grain bread.
- Fat: Fat is a critical micronutrient that the body needs to support cell structures and brain health. Getting enough fat on a daily basis also helps you feel
Vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are important micronutrients that we get from the foods we eat. Micronutrients don’t provide calories or energy. However, they help facilitate all biological mechanisms. It’s difficult to get a balance of all micronutrients you need if you are following a restrictive diet.
Making Your Diet Enjoyable
Eating should never be a punishment and you should never completely cut out your favorite foods. Instead, consuming meals and snacks should be an enjoyable activity that feeds both your body and mind. While eating a majority of nourishing, nutrient-dense foods is important, this does not mean that your diet has to be void of flavors or foods that are generally deemed “unhealthy.” Do you enjoy a pastry with your coffee in the morning? If it brings you joy and makes you feel good, then go for it! Did you order fast food one evening last week just because you felt like it? That’s totally fine, and nothing to feel guilty about!
The key part of a healthy diet is your habits over time. Ice cream, french fries, and pastries thrown in here and there when you feel like it will not sabotage your health goals. Practicing moderation while allowing yourself to enjoy foods you like is an important part of making sure that your eating habits are balanced and sustainable while promoting your health.
Eat Enough Calories
Undereating is an unhealthy dietary pattern that leads to rapid weight loss, muscle wasting, and metabolic damage. It’s important to ensure that each day, you are eating the appropriate number of calories for your height, age, and activity level. An adequate calorie intake that fits your needs helps you stay energized and prevent binge eating that’s often caused by following an unsustainable and restrictive diet.
Things to Keep in Mind
If you have certain health conditions or food sensitivities, it’s important to talk to your doctor and a registered dietitian. Both your physician and a dietitian can help you create an eating plan that supports your individual needs.
Conclusion: Why Cheat Days Are Not the Answer
The bottom line is no foods are cheat foods. Healthy eating habits are those that help you nourish your body and support your physical health, while also supporting your mental health. Severe dietary restrictions punctuated with “cheat” meals is a recipe for disaster, leading to vicious cycles of binging, guilt, and restriction. Instead, aim to eat a balanced, healthy diet that makes you feel good physically and mentally, in order to holistically support your health and well-being.