It’s like a weekend pass from nutritional prison--where you’re free to eat whatever (and as much as) you like before heading back to the confines of egg whites and salads.
It's the cheat meal. And the logic behind it is sound.
The case for cheating
One of the idea behind cheating is that it can break up the monotony of dieting.
It's a chance to loosen up the reigns and provide a little relief. It allows you to still enjoy some of life's treats while keeping the majority of your diet in check. After all, it's consistency that wins out in the long run, so a hard-earned bowl of ice cream shouldn't derail things too much.
It's also believed that cheat meals are useful for keeping motivation high. Knowing there's a moment of nutritional freedom on the horizon can be a powerful incentive to stay the course during the times where just the thought of another chicken salad is enough to make you want to quit the whole endeavor.
Stay strong, baby. That Saturday night pizza is coming!
So what's wrong with having a well-deserved break from dieting?
On a practical level, nothing. I think perfect adherence to a diet plan isn't necessary unless you're preparing for a bodybuilding show and need to walk the razor’s edge of calorie control. Over the years, I’ve had many successful fat loss efforts despite quite a few nutritional slip-ups along the way. I also feel that trying to attain perfection just isn’t productive, and can lead to an unhealthy, obsessive attitude towards food.
There's even some research to show that periodic "refeeds" can be beneficial for weight loss. Excessive long-term calorie restriction can slow metabolism and thyroid function, and consuming a high-calorie meal can boost metabolism and re-accelerate fat loss.
But there’s a big difference between having a strategic high-calorie nutritious meal every few weeks, and completely going off the rails with a junk food bonanza. Let’s just be honest, if you were interested in cheating for physiological reasons, you wouldn't call it cheating. The name itself implies you know what's really going on here.
The problem with cheating
The truth is if you're trying to lose weight, a pizza and ice cream blowout is a step in the wrong direction. Plain and simple. Even if you manage to hit your goals, it will be in spite of any cheating, not because of it.
You can tell yourself anything you want about deserving it or not being that bad, but your physiology doesn't care, it's not helping. I understand the idea of wanting to loosen the reigns and take a break every once in a while. But the idea of having a date picked out on your calendar where you're intentionally going to take a step away from your goals is the definition of self-sabotage.
On top of that, I find the idea of rewarding yourself with the very thing that got you into trouble just a little…well...idiotic. It's like celebrating ten years of sobriety with a couple of hard-earned beers. I'm sorry, but I just can't accept that type of thinking.
So if perfection isn’t necessary and cheating isn’t helpful, where does this leave us?
Again, perfection is not something I preach. Sometimes life happens. You're celebrating a friend's birthday and you decide to have some cake. The game is on and you cook up a few wings. It's Friday evening and you enjoy a few glasses of wine with your sweetheart. Again, unless you're preparing for your UFC debut, I think these indulgences are okay once in a while.
So here's why I hate the idea of cheat meals:
They reinforce the idea that a healthy diet shouldn’t be enjoyable.
When you mark Saturday night down on your calendar as your time to cheat, you send yourself a very subtle message that for the rest of the week, your diet is something you'll have to suffer through. Despite your habits and behaviors, this attitude keeps healthy eating at a psychological distance and prevents you from truly embracing it as a long-term solution.
The way I see it, cheat meals simply maintain your toxic relationship with a poor diet. Despite the fact that you might abstain from certain foods most of the time, they still occupy a space in your mind when you include them into your weekly plan. If anything, the cheat meal increases the value and allure of low quality foods.
Just like Prohibition lead to an increase in alcohol consumption in the 1920s, denying yourself your favorite tasty treats ironically leads to greater temptation for them. Cheat meals maintain the tie between you, and the foods that don’t support your health or your goals.
By having cheat meals as part of your plan, you foster a denial-based mindset and keep the focus on the things you shouldn’t have. I think a more sensible approach is to shift the focus on what you should be doing.
It’s been my experience, as well as many of the people that I coach, that adopting a new diet is difficult simply because they’re not very good at it. They’re so stuck in their old habits that they lack the skills to prepare food any other way. Instead they default to making a limited variety of bland, tasteless meals that reinforce their belief that eating healthy isn’t enjoyable. They never really give themselves a chance to succeed and enjoy a new way to consume food.
Just as an example, I’m currently trying to decrease my meat and dairy consumption, but am struggling because I’m so used to making meals centered around animal products.
When I first started this shift in my diet, I literally didn't know how to go about making a plant-based meal. So I resorted to salads, beans straight from the can, mixed nuts from the bulk bins, and whatever piece of fruit was laying around in the fridge. I was often hungry and unsatisfied.
But then I learned to make my own nut butters. I discovered chia-seed pudding and how many different flavors could be incorporated into it. My girlfriend discovered an awesome recipe for chickpea and sweet potato curry one night, and I found a simple and delicious Thai rice bowl on Pinterest the next. The focus wasn’t on eating less meat, it was on getting better at eating plants.
Does this mean that I’ll never eat meat again? Probably not. But I certainly don’t have the date picked out on my calendar. Keeping my thoughts fixed on a nice juicy steak just isn’t productive. It’s not about what I’m giving up, it’s about what I have to gain.
While results come from behaviours, behaviours are often a result of your beliefs about yourself. True change is about more than changing what you do, it’s about changing who you are. Do you want to eat healthy? Or do you want to be a healthy person? There's a subtle but key difference between those two ideas that makes the decision-making process much easier. Because healthy people don’t make plans to go all Hunter S. Thompson on a bucket of chicken.