Why I Don’t Do Cheat Meals Anymore

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Why I Don’t Do Cheat Meals Anymore

July 10, 2014

I have a problem with the whole notion of “cheating” on your diet.

By “diet” I don’t necessarily mean “eating for fat loss”; I refer simply to the way that you eat on a day-to-day basis.

Some time ago, I made the decision to do away with cheat meals altogether. Since then, I’ve been able to maintain my level of leanness without the drastic fluctuations, and my relationship with food has improved dramatically.

In the same vein, I’ve witnessed friends and acquaintances over the years struggle with cheat meals, and I’ve come to develop an aversion to them over the years. Here’s why:

Cheat meals imply that there’s something missing from your diet.

If your diet is so great, then there shouldn’t be a need to deviate from it, would there?

If you really need a mental break from the diet, that implies that what you’re doing isn’t sustainable for one reason or another. Maybe you’re restricted to a 10-item food list. Maybe you’re forced to eat asparagus on the daily, which happens to make you gag. Maybe you’re so deprived of the small pleasures that you love (eg. half&half in your coffee) that your cravings are now kicking in full force.

Whatever the case, your diet must not be fulfilling enough as a standalone that you have to pair it with something “naughty.

A cheat meal can be a slippery slope for more and larger off-plan eating.

If you had one meal a week to eat exactly what you wanted without having to worry about fat or calories, would you be content with two slices of pizza and perhaps a scoop of ice cream afterward? Maybe in the beginning, but eventually you’ll likely reach a point where you find your meals turning into six-course ordeals.

Perhaps what started out as a simple, hour-and-a-half event has now quietly snowballed into an all-evening affair.

After all, when it comes to cheat meals, anything goes, right? If that’s the case, then I am obligated to chow down on anything and everything that looks even remotely appetizing.

Cheat meals tend to bring out the balls-out mentality.

On a similar note, how many times have you sat down to take a planned cheat meal and thought to yourself, “Go hard or go home”?

This is the Last Chance Syndrome in full effect. In other words, you know that you only have a set period of time in which you can eat certain foods that are otherwise off-limits, so you try to take full advantage of the situation by eating everything but the kitchen sink.

Why? Simply because you can. Because you know that come tomorrow morning, you’ll be back to your regular diet with no fun foods allowed.

From @iifymacros Instagram. Ain't that the truth?

From @iifymacros Instagram. Ain’t that the truth?

All or nothing, baby.

The connotation of a “cheat” meal is misleading.

“Cheat” implies taboo behavior, which implies sin, which then begets guilt.

There should be no guilt associated with food consumption. Ever.

If the only time you allow yourself to eat a cheeseburger is when you’re “cheating” on your diet, how does that make you feel when you’re consuming said food? Probably pretty crappy.

This creates a dichotomy between what you may see as “good” foods (things that you’re allowed to eat) versus “bad” foods (things that you’re not supposed to eat). From here, the thought process evolves into believing that you’re a bad person for eating “bad” foods, and similarly, redeemed when you eat enough of the “good” food.

Yes, there are foods that are better for you, and others that you should probably enjoy in moderation.

But food is not naughty; food is not nice.

Breakfast burritos are an anytime-food in my book. I don't ever feel the need to wait for a specific day and time to enjoy this kind of treat.

Breakfast burritos are an anytime-food in my book. I don’t ever feel the need to wait for a specific day and time to enjoy this kind of treat.

 

“Oh, but it’s just semantics,” some may argue.

No, it’s not just semantics. Words are incredibly powerful. The implications are far-reaching, whether you realize it on a conscious level or not.

I can’t remember the last time I had a cheat meal. And I like it that way.

This isn’t to say that it’s been years since I’ve enjoyed some Stromboli or allowed myself any sugar.

In fact, I eat sugar almost everyday; I have “junk food” all the time.

The difference, though, is that no foods are off-limits in my book. If I truly want something, I’ll allow myself to have it. And I never feel obligated to finish off the bag just because it’s there.

The key here is moderation. The secret is portion control.

Nobody got fat off of one bite of lasagna – I promise.
A little bit of cream in my coffee never stopped me from reaching my fat loss goals.

I don’t have a set day and time for when I’m allowed to eat greasy food. I just do it when the desire arises.

Because the truth is, the more I place a food off-limits, the more my craving for it increases. Even if I didn’t even really want it in the first place.

Very rarely have I seen someone be able to truly enjoy a cheat meal without fighting the urge to go overboard.

I pay attention to my hunger signals. I’m mindful of what my body wants. I carefully weigh my options to decide if something is worth the indulgence.

I probably have a burger about once a month when the craving hits. The difference, though, is that I never end up polishing off the whole thing. #portioncontrol

I probably have a burger about once a month when the craving hits. The difference, though, is that I never end up polishing off the whole thing. #portioncontrol

Independence Day? Thanksgiving? Christmas? Birthday?

Doesn’t matter. There should never be a good reason to throw caution to the wind and toss mindfulness out the window.

I’m not saying that cheat meals never work for anybody. Rather, I believe that a number of factors have contributed to my negative experiences: a coach who, many years ago, never properly taught me how to approach a cheat meal and also never cared to correct me when I’d veer down the wrong path; my type A perfectionist personality, which I’m still working on taming; and my propensity as a female to have a much more emotional response to said event.

With that said, I’ve seen cheat meals end poorly for enough people that I’m starting to think that something about its very nature is askew.

This doesn’t mean you have to count macros – there is a time and a place for that. This doesn’t mean you can never enjoy a greasy meal for the rest of your life.

At the very least – at the absolute minimum – I think we should be calling them something different. “Cheat meal” is simply too prickly of a name.

If your diet is truly successful (whatever it may be), then you would have no problem maintaining it for years to come. In other words, can you see yourself eating the same way a year from now? Or does your heart drop as you realize that you can barely keep it up for seven straight days?

If a diet is not sustainable, in most cases, it’s not worth following. After all, what’s the point of shedding 10lbs of fat in one month, only to pile back on 30lbs of fat over the next year?

 

So with that, cheat meals be gone.

 

Tweetables:

[Tweet “If your diet is so great, then there shouldn’t be a need to deviate from it, would there?”]

[Tweet “There should be no guilt associated with food consumption. Ever.”]

[Tweet “Cheat meals imply that there’s something missing from your diet.”]

[Tweet “A cheat meal is a slippery slope for more and larger off-plan eating.”]

[Tweet “The connotation of a “cheat” meal is misleading.”]

5 Comments
  1. Simpson 5 years ago

    I used to be able to eat whatever I wanted and not gain an ounce…until around age 35. Every year after that I gained about 5 pounds a year. I tried portion control. The cravings were intense. Then I adopted a low carb lifestyle and haven’t looked back. I’m 47 now and weigh what I weighed in my 20’s. I will eat carbs, but in very small amounts. I never binge. For example, I’ll have a small hot fudge sundae from Dairy Queen once a week or so. I work out 4 or 5 days a week. I feel great and this works for me. I don’t consider it a diet really. It’s just what I do.

  2. Ross Arkin 5 years ago

    I really just can’t relate to this article. I think it’s evident that you’re speaking from a person whose never been seriously overweight. I can understand if you feel like not worrying about those last 5 lbs. but I’m coming from the perspective of someone who used to be 300 lbs. at 5’7″. I lost 130 lbs. restricting my calories to levels that – admittedly – were not fully sustainable and doing moderate exercise. I was hungry most of the time but it worked. I would have one cheat day a week where I would just relax and try something new. I would often overeat and can definitely verify your claim that cheat days can lead to gorging. But your whole blog post seems to be saying that it’s okay to give into a craving at any time and to eat what I want to eat but just in small portions. If it were possible to do that I never would have been 300 lbs. You advocate for portion control which is essentially what I follow but I call it counting calories. And I agree moderation is key. However the problem with giving in to a craving and having a burger is very unlikely to end up with me only eating half a burger or having one bite of lasagna. What situation are you ever in to have one bite of lasagna? And that craving to have lasagna wouldn’t be satisfied by only one bite. The self control required to have only 1 bite of lasagna is the same self control required to have none at all. I wish losing the weight/keeping the weight off is as simple as you make it seem. And perhaps it’s simple for you, but I just don’t believe that is the reality for most people who struggle with their weight. It certainly isn’t for me.

    • Sohee Lee 5 years ago

      I understand where you’re coming from, though your thinking is flawed.

      It’s not about self-control.

      I never advocate giving into a craving at any time. It’s all about being mindful at all times. Does it mean that I have to eat that candy bar *right now* if it looks yummy? Of course not. You weigh your options. Sometimes you decide that you’re better off eating it later in the evening or tomorrow or the next day.

      With all due respect, I find it difficult to believe that you *mindfully* “portion-controlled” your way to 300lbs. That is virtually impossible.

      Congratulations on your weight loss, by the way.

      • Ross Arkin 5 years ago

        I’m not seeing the difference – other than semantics – between self-control and mindful eating. If I tell myself not to eat a candy bar *right now* is that not exercising self-control?

        You’re correct that I didn’t “portion control” my way to 300 lbs. I never said that. I was a heavy child, a heavy teen, and a heavy young adult. Be it genetics or social environment, just listening to what my body and mind told me, naturally lead me to be 300 lbs. I would eat until I was full at every meal. I thought that was normal. I didn’t become depressed suddenly and start eating cakes in the middle of the night. I didn’t binge eat or snack excessively. I would eat when I was hungry and admittedly eat more than my body needed. The way I managed to lose the weight was largely due to realizing that I did not have to eat until I was full and that my body required a lot less fuel than I thought it did. I had to break the mindset that was instilled in me from the time I was young by my parents that not eating enough would lead to vulnerability for illness and the like. Eating a lot meant I was healthy. If I said I was not hungry when my grandmother offered to make me food, her follow up questions would always be “Are you okay? Are you not feeling well?” Getting out of that mindset, realizing that I didn’t need more than ~2000 calories AND that I could count those calories by being careful was a huge turning point in my life. Now I count my calories almost every day. If I didn’t count my calories I really would have no idea how much to eat. If I ever have a day where I let myself go and eat based on what I’m feeling or just what I want, I definitely eat more calories than I need. I have a thin person’s mindset but still have an overweight person’s hunger signals.

        In response to you saying that you “never advocate giving into a craving at any time.” it sounds quite the contrary when you say,

        “In fact, I eat sugar almost everyday; I have ‘junk food’ all the time.
        The difference, though, is that no foods are off-limits in my book. If I truly want something, I’ll allow myself to have it.”

        and also when you say,

        “I don’t have a set day and time for when I’m allowed to eat greasy food. I just do it when the desire arises.”

        I understand you’re advocating for portion control, but my point that I will re-state here for clarity is this: The ability to portion control (or be mindful or have self-control or whatever phrase you want to use) based on one’s willpower is easier said than done. If I’m dying for lasagna and I go to an Italian restaurant, sit down, order some lasagna, and stare at a big plate of lasagna in front of me, how many people (especially people who struggle with their weight) are really only going to have one bite? If they could eat such small portions so easily, they already would. Giving in to the craving “mindfully” – as you suggest – isn’t often met with the great success that you believe it would have in theory.

        Do you think all overweight people just throw caution to the wind at every meal? I think you’d be surprised to be inside the mind of someone trying to diet who’s having a craving. I can tell you that, personally, there have been many times where I thought to myself, “Ok, I know that this food I really want is too fattening, but I want it really bad…so I’ll just have a little.” And then struggle with myself after nearly every bite. “Okay you had half, just stop there….I’ll have them wrap it up…well just one more bite…okay well there’s a quarter left, maybe this will be enough for a lunch tomorrow…well it probably won’t be good as leftovers so I’ll just have one more bite and leave it here…well now there’s only a little left…don’t want to waste food…might as well finish it off… what will two or three more bites hurt?” and then the whole plate is gone.

        • Simpson 5 years ago

          Very well said. I would like to point out that there are many people who don’t feel they have a bad relationship with food and don’t perceive they are overeating. They eat what they consider to be normal portions and enjoy their lives for a long time. It’s only when it sinks in that their weight has crept up over the years, and it’s beginning to impact their quality of life do they want to change. The road is rocky because it seems so ridiculous to eat such small portions and deal with such intense cravings that they’ve never had before in their life. Most struggle with portion control or yo-yo diet their whole lives, or give up trying. But there are a precious few who manage to transform themselves. It’s a rocky road, but they figure out what works for them and make it stick as a lifestyle.

          I feel like sometimes Sohee you are coming across as smug and preachy. It seems like you’re targeting a younger audience of primarily females who have been told by society that they aren’t skinny enough and are plagued with eating disorders. While certainly a very real problem that needs to be addressed, not everyone with a weight problem has arrived at that point due to unrealistic expectations about their body and fitness level. Some got there because they did what came naturally and felt right to them. Suggesting to that kind of person that they should be more mindful and stop having “cheat meals” just sounds off. I think the message would be better received if it was less about how people are screwing up their diets and more about hey, here’s a lifestyle you can follow that worked for me and I’m confident it can work for you.

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