Are “cheat meals” good or bad?

The mighty cheat meals or cheat days! Are they a godsend from the dreadful process of dieting or another remnant of diet culture? 

As with anything, when it comes to nutrition and weight management, we need context. Like many of you, I enjoyed a healthy serving of food at Easter dinner over the long weekend and I also had some wonderful Chinese food and pizza over the course of the weekend too! 

Why might you ask? Well other than the fact they are both amazing and really should be their own food groups, I was also visiting and spending time with my family, who decided to descend upon my two-bedroom condo; in reality, it’s a one-bedroom condo at present as one room is my office. As is often the case when traveling or out of the regular routines, no one in my family felt like cooking, so we opted to get take-out instead and it was 110% worth it. 

However, if you were to ask a hardcore dieter, they would say not only did I have one cheat meal, but I had THREE! Gasp. How could I?! What is wrong with me?! Ok, I am being a bit overly dramatic, but you get what I am saying.

So cheat meals ARE bad.

By and large, there is nothing inherently wrong with a ‘cheat meal’. Depending on the article or gym bro you are talking to, a cheat meal is defined as the abandonment of a rigid or restrictive dietary pattern to consume a large number of calories via what is usually considered ‘bad’ foods. 

There is some evidence that a ‘cheat meal’ may provide benefits in helping to manage the psychological or physical cravings for food that arise when following a regimented or restrictive dietary plan. The gym bros will also tell you that cheat meals can trick your body into preferentially utilizing your current fat stores for energy and keep your metabolic rate elevated. While the physiological state of our bodies can change based on dietary patterns and activity levels, the notion that one meal or even one day can reverse the process of metabolic adaptation is ridiculous and not supported by the evidence. Sorry, Craig. 

Woohoo! Eat what I want! 

There is nothing wrong with overindulging or consuming an excess amount of calories from Chinese food or pizza or any kind of food for that matter. As with anything, consuming too much of said item is where we run into trouble. I don’t have a problem with the idea of consuming extra calories once a week or having Easter dinner with the family. This is a normal part of a healthy lifestyle. The problem lies with the phrasing of ‘cheat meal’. 

Wait, I’m a cheater?

Well, what do you think of when you read the word ‘cheat’? Or ‘cheater’? 

You are probably thinking of infidelity or that dink of an ex that you have now thankfully separated from. Or perhaps you are thinking of the kid that cheated off your history test in grade school or some variation thereof. Regardless, when we think of cheating we think of someone acting dishonestly in order to get away with something. 

So, are you acting dishonestly or like your dink of an ex when you eat pizza?! Man, I hope not. Pizza is a gift from the gods and deserves to be treated as such. When we think of cheating, we think of something bad. Our society has put a negative context around it for understandable reasons. Dishonest people suck. 

I am not sure why people seem to think that using the word cheat or cheating in relation to food and our diet would be any different? 

So, I’m not a cheater? 

The reality is, that there is no difference. As much as you might tell yourself it is a good thing, and maybe even enjoy the sh*t out of your cheat meal, we all fundamentally have the mammalian hedonic driven brain that is designed to recognize patterns, cues, and associations as quickly as possible in order to stay alive. 

If you haven’t read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, I highly recommend it. It’s a bit of a challenging read, but outstanding nonetheless; it goes into detail about how our brains are association and pattern recognition machines that jump to conclusions that often lead to errors and misjudgements. If we have an association that cheating is a bad thing in other contexts, our brain is going to make that same association when we use it in the context of food. 

Therein lies the problem. Suddenly that pizza or Chinese food is seen as a bad thing. You are cheating on your diet. Cheating on your goals. You are a bad person and must hide away in the shadows and not let anyone see you licking the pizza box. How stupid does that sound? When the hell has pizza ever been a bad thing? What a horrible existence to live in, thinking that pizza is bad and you are a bad person for having it. 

Further to my problem with using the term ‘cheat meal’, there is some evidence to show that having a ‘cheat meal’ or restricting yourself to one day or meal per week can lead to disordered eating patterns and behaviours. It may also lead to anxiety and distress – I mean, I would be anxious and distressed if pizza was suddenly a bad thing. 

So can I eat the bad food or not? 

There is no good or bad food. There is just food. Are some foods more nutritious? Abso-f*cking-lutely! That doesn’t mean less nutritious food shouldn’t be eaten or cut out entirely. Food is a part of life. Food brings us together with friends and family. It is part of every single culture on the planet. 

Life is about balance and moderation. Incorporating foods that you enjoy no matter how processed they are is okay. It is even okay to choose to have it 1x/week if you are striving towards certain goals and those goals aren’t leading to maladaptive behaviours and patterns. 

Don’t call it a ‘cheat’ meal; maybe a ‘treat’ meal or my personal favourite: I am just having some ‘extra food’ today. That extra food might be a cookie, it might be an entire medium pizza. Either way, I am going to eat that extra food and enjoy the sh*t out of it without guilt or remorse. 

Final thoughts from Dr. Dan

Stop demonizing food and find what works for you and your lifestyle. Health is multifaceted. Guess what? You could eat like the perfect vegan, skinny tea, keto, liver puree, bulletproof coffee influencer and still get hit by a bus tomorrow. 

Drop the rules and seek balance in life.

Anyways until next time my friends. Always remember that small tweaks lead to massive peaks. 

– Dr. Dan


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