The Truth About Cheat meals/days

If you've ever scrolled through Facebook, there's a good chance you've seen someone post about "cheat meals". Most importantly, you've probably heard people say that it's "the only thing that keeps them on track".

In this blog post, we'll discuss whether or not this concept is actually helping you achieve a healthier "lifestyle" or if it's actually potentially dangerous.

What's a cheat day/meal?

If it's not famous enough among regularly fit people, it gets a boost of attention from ridiculously superfit celebrities, like The Rock, who's regularly sharing his giant bacon cheeseburgers, plates of cookies, brownies and milkshakes to finish off.

On a very basis level, it's pretty much giving yourself free reigns to eat all the foods you've been depriving yourself of and craving on whatever restrictive diet you're on.

The diet marketers experts will call it a "scheduled break" in a diet. The concept emerged around the same time as 'clean eating', and is based on the idea that a dieter can 'cheat' for one day a week as long as they eat to their diet plan for the remaining 6 days.

A study published by the International Journal of Eating Disorder analysed a sample of 600 Instagram images for 1.6 million tagged with #cheatmeal. More than half of these contained "very large quantities of calorie-dense food". Layman's terms... cheat meals are pretty much planned binges.

Two main motivations for #cheatmeals are identified.

First is the theory that cheat days boost your metabolism, causing you to burn more calories. When you restrict your calorie intake, your body eventually adapts and resets your metabolism to your new lower intake, but the argument goes that cheat days reduce or prevent this.

Second is the theory that cheat days help you stick to your diet. Your levels of leptin (the hormone responsible for suppressing feelings of hunger) fall when you diet, and this can make it harder to resist eating. The theory goes that cheat days help keep your leptin levels up. Both these ideas suggest that cheat meals should be planned into a diet rather than being a spur-of-the-moment thing.

The idea claims that 'cheating' can actually be good for you, both mentally and physically.

What 'cheating' does to you physically

Unsurprisingly, there is NO evidence that cheat meals/days can be beneficial for your body in the long-term. Yet, as with other health fad out there, the trend lives on, convincing vulnerable people that it’s a good idea, with no evidence to back it up.

Ever wonder what happens inside your body when it’s overloaded with more food than it can handle. If you have a balanced lifestyle, having less nutritious food every now and then is part of sustainability! Nothing scary happens when you allow yourself to have some less nutrient-dense in moderation (yes, EVEN sweets and carbs. No, they are not toxic).

A healthy body knows how to regulate itself.

But let’s look at what ACTUALLY happens to your body when you intentionally restrict, leading to a planned binge.

1) A cheat day won’t improve your metabolism.

Unfortunately, eating more in order to burn more calories isn’t quite how your body works .Your metabolism does increase after you eat, but if you binge on 1,000 calories' worth of pizza or brownies, your metabolism doesn’t ramp up to burn 1,500 calories to handle what you just consumed. People will often indulge so much that it ‘ruins’ their whole week’s hard work.

2) You may feel bloated or have a stomach ache.

To process high-sugar meals, your pancreas will create more insulin, and this could lead to these bloated feelings. In addition, food will take longer to digest if you're consuming larger portions, which means those cheat meals will sit in your stomach longer (and they're more likely to create gas and bloating).

3) Overeating can lead to lower levels of activity.

In a study published in the journal Obesity, researchers found that “obesity prone” individuals—based on personal and family weight history—who ate 1.4 times their estimated calorie needs were less likely to move throughout the day after overeating compared to those who were less prone to obesity. This lack of movement could put you at risk for weight gain, and even harm your overall health.

What 'cheating' does to you mentally/emotionally

I can talk all-day-long about the negative physical affects of planned binges. But, nothing compares to the damaging affect it has on your mental health, your relationship with food and your hopes for a sustainable, healthy lifestyle.

1) The more you restrict certain foods, the more you'll think about them.

Wanting a cheat day can also be a reflection of a very restrictive and unenjoyable diet. It seems obvious, but needs to be repeated : if your 'lifestyle' or diet makes you want to take a break from it... there's some inner work that needs to be done on if that approach is conducive to long-term success.

We know that the more we restrict foods, the stronger our brain response of reward, attention, and motivation is to images of foods, which can make us more susceptible to unintentional bingeing behaviours when compared to those who are eating enough to meet their needs.

Will-power is like a phone battery ; it tends to run out by the end of the day. Whatever you resists, persists. This leads to constant thoughts about food/weight, thoughts that should be spent on things that actually matter.

2) It reinforces the "good" and "bad" food mentality

The cheating mentality reinforces the dangerous idea that food belongs in categories , as either being "good" or "bad", an idea many of us have internalized early, given that up to 30 million people in the US alone suffer from some form of eating disorder- often reinforced by diet culture. Food, being an inanimate object, has no moral value. Viewing certain foods as "bad" leads us to base our own worth in our food choices, further harming our self-esteem and self-worth, which tends to even poorer food choices.

3) It creates (or reinforces) an all-or-nothing mentality

The cheat day seems like it should fit neatly under the umbrella of moderation. In reality, it focuses more on extremes—both in terms of deprivation and overindulgence—and it turns food into a currency. You can’t have a cheat day unless you’ve avoided the designated cheat foods for a certain period of time. In essence, you’re hoarding all your calorie cash so that you eventually feel like you’ve “earned” a splurge and can enjoy it without guilt.

The all-or-nothing mentality rarely gets you "all". You'll likely be left with "nothing" , with an extra layer of shame from failing to stick to yet another diet.

4) Cue the guilt and shame

The concept of a cheat day sustains a culture of guilt and shame around food. It keeps companies like Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, and NutriSystem in business, not to mention all the authors who write diet books. Our bodies are hard-wired to have cravings as a mode of survival. In other words, it’s natural and even preferable to crave a wide variety of foods.

Cheat days are a naughty loophole in the health and wellness law of dietary restraint: just this once. Unfortunately, using food as a reward only serves to perpetuate unhealthy relationships with the things we eat. What happens if you “cheat” at the wrong time? Are you inherently weak, a failure? Do you go down a spiral of shame and regret because you had a brownie on a Tuesday when your cheat day is actually Saturday? For many people, sadly, the answer is yes—it certainly was for me for way too long.

5) A cheat day is rarely just ONE day

The problem is that cheat days are rarely quite that. Either they become cheat weeks, which become cheat months and sometimes cheat years, or they fill you with so much dread of going off-track that you find you couldn’t truly enjoy them. The cheat day mentality only furthers a dysfunctional relationship with food and sabotages your attempts at finding balance in your approach to health and nutrition

What to do instead?

As an ex- cheat-dayer (I know that's not a word...) myself, I can tell you what I've learned. Discovering intuitive and mindful eating as a way of relating to food and my body saved my life. Rooted in authentic self-care and health, it restored my autonomy and a sense of control around food, healed my binge eating and made it so that I'll never have to diet again.

The answer is to take a more relaxed approach to health and nutrition. Eating mindfully, honour hunger and fullness cues (not demonizing being hungry as a sign of weakness), and intuitively eating what we desire while being mindful of our health results in a healthy relationship with food.

If we never eat the foods we desire and stick to ones we think are "good", it can lead to more unintentional bingeing and other disordered patterns of eating. It doesn't and shouldn't have to come to that.

For me, doing away with cheat days for good saved my sanity and improved my relationship with food. I stopped chiding myself for “messing up” when I grabbed a croissant for breakfast instead of fat-free mayo. I no longer felt sick from ingesting several days’ worth of calories on my “cheat day” since I just had to shovel it in before the day was done. I lived in France and didn’t think twice about the baguette and cheese I'd enjoy at get-togethers, or the honeyed duck I savored at Les Beaux Arts. I simply ate and thought nothing more of it—and it felt great.

In essence, it's about embracing true moderation. It means making small choices to make more nutritious additions like veggies, proteins, healthy fat and slow carbs when you can. It also means letting yourself enjoy life and realize that eating less nutritious food now and then isn't the end of the world In fact, it's necessary if you plan on living a long, joy-filled life.

I am proud to say I've watched my hand of 'cheat days' and a relentless thought-loop on food, food, food.

If you want to learn how to get started, you can start my 7-Day Mindful Eating challenge and begin your journey towards finding true moderation and joy in food again.