I cringe when I hear people talking about cheat meals or days.
For some, it might be a great starting point to starting to eat a bit healthier the rest of the time if having that reward system keeps you in check.
However, in my opinion cheat meals are a short term solution to a long term goal. What it really comes down to for most of us is that we want to find a way to eat healthy forever, as Jill Coleman often talks about.
I’m a big fan of moderation and believe that the journey to a healthy, sustainable lifestyle is through consistency. Cheat meals can ultimately remove a sense of consistency for some by creating the potential to continue the cycle of depriving and overindulging.
Not only that, but eating poorly or overeating on the weekends also messes with our digestion. We end up feeling bloated, stuffed, and uncomfortable and for some people overindulging can trigger what I call the sugar monster. We’ve all been there, the Monday morning food-hangover (or real hangover, in some cases) that cause our pants to fit a little too snugly and we feel gross and swear up and down we are never touching another cookie or bag of chips ever again…only to repeat the cycle the following Saturday or Sunday when we have our next cheat day. This is especially common in people who have become used to the all-or-nothing approach to eating.
Many people truly believe that they cannot be around any type of treats without automatically overindulging. This is when choosing to consume foods that make you feel great and give you the results you’re looking for even if they might not be considered 100% “perfect” begins to present itself as the best option. It’s also the scariest option, because it means dismantling the beliefs, assumptions and distrust we have of ourselves and our perceived lack of self control. It means opening ourselves up to new possibilities that will allow us to trust ourselves more, level up and make mistakes that we can learn from.
If you’re striving for perfection, cheat days aren’t going to give you that. Neither is moderation, but it’s a better option that the alternatives that will have you stuffing yourself and paying the consequences both physically and potentially emotionally afterwards with guilt and shame.
Eating moderately may not be as sexy or enticing as a seemingly quick fix such as cheat meals to solve all of your problems, but it can lead to a sustainably healthy lifestyle, which is the ultimate goal for most of us.
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Why I Disagree with Cheat Meals
The word “cheat” implies that some foods are inherently bad and not a healthy way of eating. I disagree with even using that word to describe food, because it has such a negative association and can promote a sense of guilt when it is consumed. Food is simply food. The ideal in my opinion is to eat in a way that:
When it comes to your health, there is no cheating the system. Your body knows what’s up. When you see someone with a toned physique and defined muscles, that didn’t happen by accident. There isn’t a magic pill that can buy you that physique, it’s something that comes with hard work.
It’s the same on the inside of your body, and what’s inside is what affects your physical exterior more than anything else. If you’re pummeling your digestive system every week with a massive meal or foods that don’t agree with your system, it can not only have a negative impact on your results, but on your overall mental and physical health.
Cheat meals make particular foods seem totally off limits except for those occasions that you decide to go all out. This can make us want those foods that much more and promote a scarcity mindset surrounding those foods, often leading to those binges that leave us in digestive and emotional distress.
Instead, I like to encourage allowing yourself to have the foods you love (hello, chocolate!) regularly, even daily in small amounts, to normalize indulgences in very small amounts that keeps you satisfied, and most importantly prevents you from feeling deprived. Feelings of deprivation are one of the biggest factors that drive us to cheat meals or overindulging in foods that don’t make us feel our best, and ultimately can lead to a lot of guilt on top of everything else.
A small treat or nutritional relief built into your daily life such as a sprinkle of cheese, a glass of wine, or a personal fave of mine like a little dark chocolate every day ; ). This will vary for each individual, and should be chosen according to what’s going to make you feel good. Foods that you have sensitivities to or cause digestive issues should not be included.
If that seems like weird advice, be sure to check out my podcast, Room to Grow with Emily Gough. I talk about all of this stuff and more, plus feature incredible guests to bring you the best information in the industry.
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Mentality of Good vs. Bad
Using cheat meals as a reward for eating healthy the rest of the time implies to me that whatever you’re eating the rest of the time isn’t very satisfying, and that’s something worth examining. I believe that a healthy, sustainable lifestyle is through consistency, and it’s tough to achieve that when you’re always looking forward to your next opportunity to stuff yourself with food that likely makes you feel like garbage.
Rewarding ourselves for eating healthy foods by consuming calorie-laden meals like a cheeseburger, fries and milkshake doesn’t make much sense. The comparison that comes to mind is rewarding all the hard work you put into cleaning, waxing and caring for a new car, only to fill the gas tank with sand that will seriously affect performance and cause some pretty major issues.
Moving away from this mentality doesn’t happen overnight. It’s done by redefining our relationship with food to remove the negative stigma we have associated with many foods and the way we eat. A practice of moderate consumption is called a practice for a reason, because it takes time. You may have a backslide, and that’s OK. You’re always going to have to eat, so there’s lots of time to practice the priceless exercise of figuring out what works for you and your unique body along the way.
A cheat meal can easily spiral out of control, and it means we’re always looking to the next time we will allow ourselves to indulge. Choosing instead to eat in a healthy way to support our bodies and feel our best is something to be celebrated rather than tolerated.