What You Should Know About 'Cheat' Meals

How to Indulge Without Derailing Your Diet

If you have chosen to lose weight or are trying to reach certain health and fitness goals (such as increasing muscle mass or changing your body fat percentage) you might follow a structured eating plan to achieve that goal. Perhaps you are decreasing your overall calorie intake or following certain macronutrient guidelines like increasing your protein intake or reducing saturated fat.

But even with the utmost dedication, it can be hard to maintain a structured diet perfectly every single day. Over time, it can take a serious toll on you, bringing you down both emotionally and physically. So some people enjoy what they call a "cheat meal" or take a "cheat day."

These less-restricted eating occasions are designed to relieve some of the monotony and stress of a restrictive diet. They may help you to feel less deprived when you are trying to achieve certain goals. But there may be downsides as well.

While there may be some benefits to this approach, needing a "cheat day" or a "cheat meal" may also be a red flag that your eating plan is not sustainable.

Potential Benefits

Planned breaks from a diet can provide psychological relief and increase your chances of maintaining a prescribed eating plan. In most aspects of our lives, we follow a prescribed schedule for a certain duration and then take some time to deviate from the plan as an emotional reset. For instance, many of us enjoy weekends away from the office or take vacations from time to time.

It may seem reasonable to do this with an eating plan, as well. Just like vacations give us time to reflect and recenter our lives, an occasional break from your structured meal plan may also provide some perspective. For example, you may find that you don't enjoy certain foods in your cheat meal as much as you thought you did. Or you might find that you miss eating foods in the structured plan that provide good nutrition and energy.

If you've been restricting calories, there may also be some limited hormonal benefits to consuming a more indulgent meal. Limiting your caloric intake decreases levels of the hormone leptin and may increase your appetite. But overfeeding may help increase leptin levels, decreasing appetite. 

Leptin is a hormone that interacts with certain receptors in the brain to reduce hunger. Some research suggests that regulating leptin and other hunger hormones may have benefits when it comes to managing obesity.

Lastly, taking time to deviate from your eating plan may help you reconnect with others who tend to socialize with food. For example, if your family gets together for a big weekly barbecue, it may have been hard for you to participate if the foods typically served don't fit into your meal plan. But separating yourself from others based on your meal plan probably isn't the best approach if you want to reach your health goals and maintain a social network.

Even though there are some potential benefits to a cheat meal, each of these benefits has an alternate drawback. Considering these drawbacks may help you find a more sustainable meal plan.

Cheat Meal Concerns

There are several reasons that needing a cheat meal may be cause for concern. The meal itself may not be problematic, but white-knuckling your way through the week to get to a designated relief meal may be an indication that your meal plan needs to be adjusted. Specifically, the nutritional and emotional toll that a restrictive diet can take may have negative implications.

Nutritional Concerns

The prolonged restriction of calories or macronutrients can lead to nutritional deficiencies and reduced muscle growth if you fail to consume the recommended daily intake of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and nutrients. If you are feeling tired and stressed during a diet plan, it may be that you are not getting the important vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients that you need to feel energized and well.

For example, even if you are eating the right number of calories, you might still feel hungry often because you're not getting enough protein or fiber. Fiber and protein are digested slowly and can help you to feel full longer after eating.

Concerns About Maintenance

If you are eating to reach a particular fitness or weight goal, it's important to think about what will happen when you reach that goal. If the eating plan that you've chosen isn't sustainable—that is, you need to take regular breaks from it—then maintaining your new weight or desired body composition may not be realistic.

Reaching a healthy weight and then rebounding to your starting weight (or above) is a process called weight cycling. There is some evidence that weight cycling can have a detrimental effect on cardiovascular risk factors, such as blood pressure, heart rate, nervous system activity, and circulating levels of glucose, lipids, and insulin. There is also some limited evidence that it can take a toll on your psychological health.

Social and Emotional Concerns

There are different ways that incorporating a cheat day can impact your mental well-being. First, using the word "cheat" implies that you are doing something that you're not supposed to do. Cheating is usually considered bad or shameful.

Using a word with shame-related implications to label a meal that you enjoy can have dire consequences if you are trying to develop a healthy relationship with food. Feeling bad about your meal, may in fact, cause you to eat more.

Research has suggested that a negative mood state can be a trigger for overeating in people who are overweight or have obesity. Furthermore, it can lead to an all-or-nothing thinking style that may be at odds with healthful, moderate eating practices.

On the flip side, you might view your "cheat meal" as a reward for being "good" or compliant with your diet all week. This way of thinking may also be problematic. Nutrition experts generally do not recommend thinking of food or eating behavior as "good" or "bad" as it can also lead to all-or-nothing thinking.

Lastly, people who struggle with emotional eating or with eating disorders may have trouble moderating their intake during a cheat meal. According to the National Institutes of Health, dieting in unhealthy ways—such as skipping meals, not eating enough food, or avoiding certain kinds of food—may contribute to binge eating disorder.

Tips and Alternatives

If you find yourself struggling on your eating plan and sticking to it just to get to your cheat meal, consider these different ways to release some of the restriction of your diet and make it more sustainable.

Readjust Your Meal Plan

Think about which foods or what elements of the cheat meal you enjoy. Consider different ways to incorporate those things into your regular eating plan to make it more sustainable.

For example, if you are on a meal plan that severely restricts carbs, you might overindulge on sweet treats during your cheat meal. In an effort to reduce the need to overindulge, consider adding a small portion of dark chocolate, fruit, or a small whole-grain cookie to your regular eating plan.

If you are restricting calories, perhaps the cheat meal is your only opportunity during the week to eat large quantities of food. If this is the case, think about ways to "volumize" your meals during the week. Add leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, or fruit to boost the fiber content of your daily diet without adding substantial calories.

Reexamine Your Diet

Connect with a registered dietitian to make sure you are getting the calories, micronutrients, and macronutrients that you need to sustain proper energy levels and mental well-being throughout the day. You may need more calories, more carbohydrates, or certain vitamins and minerals. Discuss the idea of a "cheat meal" and come up with possible alternatives to make your program more sustainable, so that you don't feel the need for relief.

Find Creative Rewards

If you've been using your cheat meal as a reward for compliant or "good" diet behavior, think about other ways to acknowledge your healthy behaviors. There are many ways to make your body feel good that don't include food. Get a massage, invest in new workout gear, or have a fun spa day with friends.

Adjust Your Inner Dialogue

You might also want to become more aware of your inner dialogue as it relates to food choices. Foods are not inherently "good" or "bad," and eating certain foods is not "good" or bad." As you make food choices, try to be less judgmental and more curious.

If you find yourself craving certain foods that are not compliant with your meal plan, ask yourself why those foods are so appealing. Are you genuinely hungry? Does your body need certain nutrients that it is lacking? Does the food satisfy an emotional need? Consider the best ways to meet those needs. Seek help from a registered dietitian or a behavioral health specialist for guidance.

Engage Your Social Circle

If you enjoy your cheat meal because it allows you to connect with others over food, take this opportunity to talk with friends or family about redesigning the menu to be more inclusive. Offer to bring an entree that aligns with your eating plan. Or plan the menu yourself to include a wider range of foods to satisfy different nutritional needs and taste preferences.

Celebrate Food Experiences

If your meal plan provides the nutrition you need and you decide to deviate from the program once in a while, try an alternate way of thinking about that experience. After all, you're not really "cheating" if you've decided to make short-term food choices that are not part of your regular plan.

Instead, enjoy the experience. Plan a special meal that includes foods that make you feel nourished and satisfied. Explore new recipes, try new ingredients, and have fun.

You can even make a day of it. If your cheat meal is at a restaurant, explore different restaurants online and peruse menus before deciding on the best spot. If you're cooking at home with loved ones, design a menu, shop together, then spend time cooking as a group. At mealtime, eat slowly and savor each bite. This practice—called mindful eating—can help you to eat less but enjoy your meal more.

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