There are a lot of bad nutrition ideas in the fitness world: Eat a miniscule amount of food every day that leaves you starving. Bleh. Cut out entire food groups in the name of balance. Yuck. Pack a thousand mini tupperwares per day so that all you think about is food. Just… no.
If you’re a regular reader of Youtrition, you have probably already seen why these ideas are terrible, horrible, no good, and very bad. If you’re new, I’ll catch you up: it doesn’t work. Starving your body, cutting out entire food groups, and eating bird food constantly does not create sustainable, lasting weight loss or fitness. It does however make you go a leetle crazy, and then want to eat everything in sight the minute you’re off the plan.
Which brings me to another awful piece of fad nutrition advice that does not get half of the scrutiny and bashing it deserves: the cheat meal.
The cheat meal is a standard in (almost) all diet fads. It’s the idea that one day a week, or even one meal a week, you eat whatever the heck you want, as much as you can in that time.
The fad experts state some incredible claims for why the cheat meal is a good thing:
They say it boosts metabolism
They say it gives a psychological break from dieting
They say it keeps you on track with “the plan”
That’s total crap. And with the help of the Youtrition community, I’m going to tell you why.
Claim #1: Cheat meals boost metabolism:
If you need a “metabolism boost” your way of eating is too restrictive and not sustainable in the long term, and likely to result in a cheat binge instead of a cheat meal. And the truth is, even one cheat binge can undo all the results of an entire week’s worth of dieting. You could potentially be miserable all week, eat miniscule portions, feel completely controlled by your food, have a huge cheat meal on the weekend and see absolutely zero results in the long run.
Claim #2 – Cheat meals provide a psychological break:
Planning for and eating a cheat meal is definitely not a psychological break. It’s more like psychological torture. Here’s what Rebecca from the Youtrition community says about her experience with a plan that included “cheat” meals:
Remember those sugar-addicted rats that keep infesting the popular media? You know, the ones that “prove” that oreos are as addicting as drugs ? Here’s the deal: those rats were first starved of all food, then allowed to drink sugar water, eat oreos, etc.
And here’s what the researchers had to say about that: “Two of the reports, as well as our own work, suggest that even highly palatable food is not addictive in and of itself. Rather, it is the manner in which the food is presented (i.e., intermittently) and consumed (i.e., repeated, intermittent ‘‘gorging’’) that appears to entrain the addiction-like process.”
Do you see what that is saying? Cutting foods out (ie dieting) and then gorging on them on a cheat day is what causes addiction like behavior with foods. It is NOT the foods itself.
Claim #3: Cheat meals make it easier to stay on track
Cheat meals make it harder to stay on track the longer you go. With time you will find yourself struggling to recover from cheat meals altogether. It’s what I call the law of diminishing motivation, and it applies to cheat meals and even diets in general. The first week it may be easy to bounce back, but with each week (and each new diet) it gets exponentially harder and harder to jump right back into it.
Here’s Brynna’s experience:
Long term effects on weight loss:
Cheat days create the perfect storm for yo yo dieting and weight regain. First, the restrictive diet that makes cheat days “necessary” lead to rabid hunger, food obsession, and desire to eat massive quantities of food. Add on top of that the “addiction” like behavior that is caused by restraint followed by overeating, and weight regain after the diet ends (or breaks) is inevitable.
How to enjoy treats without cheat days:
So what’s the alternative to cheat days? Eat everything in sight all the time? Nope. Eat only healthy or “good” food and never eat a treat again? Nuh-uh.
The answer: Daily consistent moderation.
Daily consistent moderation is finding a balance between the foods you love and a way of eating that help you reach your goals.
Instead of cutting out sweets and treats, or waiting until the weekend, plan to enjoy a reasonable amount of treats daily, and keep that level consistent day in and day out, with only slight variations. Bear with me here as I explain this concept with a couple graphs:
The graph on the left depicts a typical dieter on their weekly routine. They plan not to eat any treats throughout the week (but of course they slipped up on Wednsday, because someone brought in donuts and it was a stressful day). By the weekend, they’ve spent most of the week thinking about not eating treats, so on the weekend, they go a leetle overboard.
Now you may think 8 treats is a lot in one day but think about a typical weekend: pizza, soda, chips, slurpee, 3 servings of ice cream in a single bowl, small handful of chocolate chips from the freezer… it all adds up really quickly. And when you’re on a diet it’s easy to go WAY overboard because the food is all of the sudden “allowed.”
The graph on the right is the weekly treats of a moderator. This is someone who has chosen to enjoy an average of two treats a day (note: your mileage may vary, you may do great with 1, 3, 4,… whatever the number). Because treats are a part of her daily life, she doesn’t spend all day miserably wishing she could eat something that’s not on her “meal plan.” She eats the same number of treats on weekends as during the week, and is not likely to stress eat treats.
Here’s what I want you to consider:
Q: Who is likely to be white knuckling it through the week waiting for the weekend?
A: the yo yo treater.
Q: Who is more likely to go overboard when they let loose?
A: The yo yo treater
Q: Who is eating fewer treats throughout the week:
A: The moderator (even though the yo yo treater feels more restricted)
Q: Who is likely to be consistent and create lasting change?
A: The moderator.
If you want to create a healthy relationship with food and reach your health, weight loss, and fitness goals in the long run, consider eliminating the word “cheat” from your vocabulary. Instead, learn to embrace moderation. Lasting change doesn’t come from all or nothing bursts. It comes from steady, daily moderation.
What is your experience with “cheat meals” in a diet?