Fit Food: Cheating Can Be A Good Thing!

cheat-meal-tipsIn the world of eating clean, eventually you will encounter the “cheat meal”. Basically this is just an opportunity to enjoy some indulgent food that you don’t eat on a regular basis. It’s impossible to be completely perfect with your diet all the time and honestly it’s not necessary either. Occasionally “cheating” on your diet and splurging on some decadent food can be part of a healthy lifestyle.

Some schools of thought disagree and say that allowing yourself to “cheat” just opens the floodgates to an all out binge. While I agree that this can and does happen, I don’t agree that it’s a reason to forgo cheat meals altogether. Just as you learn to cook, prepare meals, and withstand temptation, you have to learn how to manage your cheats. Saying that you can’t have a certain food because it’s a “trigger” food that will lead you to binge is wise when you are beginning this lifestyle, but eventually you need to face it. In the end, food is just food, and it’s really emotional issues you need to deal with in order to heal your relationship with certain foods and regain control. It won’t be easy and you will fail at times, but simply turning your back and saying “I can’t have that food because it makes me overindulge” is not the answer.

What is the answer? A controlled cheat meal. Follow these rules to take the stress out of “cheating” and let it be what it is meant to be – an opportunity to indulge and enjoy food you don’t normally eat.

1. Plan your cheat. Don’t leave it open to negotiation. Eating five cookiesjQuery Cookies in the break room at work and then saying after the fact that you will count it as your cheat works against you. Cheats are not “get out of jail free” cards for lapses in willpower. They should be planned as part of your diet. I like to check out restaurant menus in advance and pick out what I want and then enjoy the anticipation for the entire week! Perhaps you don’t know exactly what you are going to indulge in but you know when. Pick a time. Friday night dinner. Sunday brunch. Lunch with friends. Whatever it is, you will know in advance that it’s your cheat, which is very different from planning to eat healthy at a restaurant and then giving in and ordering what you want and feeling guilty.

2. Don’t overeat. This is very important. It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you have to eat it all because it’s your cheat so you need to make it worth it. Remember that there will always be another cheat. More doesn’t taste better. Eat slowly and savour your food. Stop when you are full.

3. Don’t let it turn into a cheat day! Your food for the rest of the day should be the same as it always is. One cheat meal in a week is not enough to undo all your hard work but a full day of cheating is!

4. Really enjoy it. Don’t feel guilty.

5. Don’t use a cheat meal to reward yourself for a week of good eating. maureen-ashley-cheat-mealIt should be worked in as part of your plan. Eating unhealthy food as a way to reward yourself for not eating unhealthy food is counterproductive and won’t work in the long-term.

6. Keep track of your progress to determine how often you can cheat. Once or twice a week is fine for most people, but depending on your goals you may need more or less. If you are trying to lose weight and are having 2 cheat meals a week and stop seeing progress then cut it back to 1 cheat meal.

If the concept of cheat meals is new to you and you are used to be very restrictive with your food then you may be very anxious about working cheat meals into your plan. This is a sign that you really do need to “cheat”. If the very thought of eating “bad” food can give you an emotional reaction then it is something that needs to be dealt with and perhaps not on your own. A counsellor with experience working with people with eating disorders can be a huge help as you tackle your emotional issues surrounding food and take control of your health and well-being.

Happy Lifting!

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17 comments for “Fit Food: Cheating Can Be A Good Thing!

  1. February 9, 2013 at 4:05 pm

    The whole tone of this piece I find distasteful! You reinforce messages of “good” vs “bad” foods, supporting a very unhealthy black and white approach to eating. Denying yourself with so-called ‘clean eating’, a misnomer that really connotes rigid and restrictive, does nothing to set you up for tasting foods you enjoy, and eating them in control, to be eaten mindfully.
    A better approach would be to suggest that foods that taste good, that you enjoy–even those with little nutritional merit–should be included on a regular basis. Not as a “special treat”, but any time. Not when bored or distracted, but when hungry, when you need the fuel.
    Lori Lieberman, RD, MPH, CDE, LDN

    • February 9, 2013 at 6:04 pm

      “A better approach would be to suggest that foods that taste good, that you enjoy–even those with little nutritional merit–should be included on a regular basis. Not as a “special treat”, but any time.” This is actually exactly what I talk about in this article. “cheats” are exactly the foods you are talking about. Included on a regular basis, usually once or twice a week like I stated. I never used the words “special treat” nor was that implied. Perhaps you should read my first article where I talk about “most of the time” versus “sometimes” food and then read this article again, because I don’t think you fully understood what I was saying. I sense that you have something against clean eating, which may be the whole issue. I appreciate that you also have an educational background in nutrition and am curious if you have experience working with athletes and body builders who use nutrition to fuel their performance and get very lean?

      • February 9, 2013 at 6:39 pm

        The mere labeling of these as “cheats” is problematic; sweets, baked goods–you name it–need not be limited to a number of days per week nor times of day. The whole premise of this piece is disordered! And yes,for 26 years I’ve worked with athletes, and those struggling with disordered eating and eating disorders.I have just published a book which has been well reviewed by experts in the field. Yes, my experience and expertise says to me that describing a style of eating as “clean” and use of language like “cheating” is an issue.

        • February 9, 2013 at 7:39 pm

          I can understand where you are coming from, but there are many many athletes for whom this works very well. And I have to completely disagree with you on saying that they need not be limited to a number of days per week nor times of day. Of course they need to be limited! Would you tell an athlete who needs to maintain a specific weight that they can have unlimited baked goods? That’s ridiculous. While you may not like the language I use in this piece it is not my own, but rather very common terms used by those looking to live this lifestyle.

          • February 9, 2013 at 9:58 pm

            There is no evidence to support that it is acceptable but once a month, or week or day, to eat sweets or your so called ‘cheat foods’. Athletes, most notably, have lots of room for non-nutritive foods in addition to their balanced intake–to meet their caloric requirements. It is unfortunate that you and others have not yet learned that it is not the food but the amount, not the number or days but how we respond to our body’s signals of hunger and satiety. Do be careful about what you put out there for the vulnerable and naive public to read, please. It doesn’t serve them well.
            Lori Lieberman, RD MPH, CDE, LDN

    • September 23, 2013 at 1:27 pm

      Well I’m late to this party, but here we go. First Lori I thought the way you approached this was disrespectful and I don’t like the way you throw out accolades to make it sound like everyone should listen to you because you know all. Nobody knows it all, and nobody should pretend like their opinion is the set in stone way everyone should view things. If you want to debate something that’s all fine and I’m all for it, but be respectful.

      Second you pretty much said that people should eat whatever they want anytime they are hungry. Now it sound like you work specifically with athletes a lot and an IIFYM approach can work very well with them. People who work towards specific goals towards fitness can absolutely “get away” with more and yes people who compete can be the type to end up with an eating disorder because they so fear anything “bad.” What you talk about is great for that type of person. But what about your average person, or the people who are 100+ lbs overweight. Do you really look at them and say “eat whatever you want when you are hungry”? I believe some people need more restrictions and some people need less. Some people handle certain eating patterns better different than others.

      Labeling food as good and bad can be dangerous, yes, but I think for the most part people realize what is generally healthy and what isn’t and that the unhealthy stuff needs to be limited and structured for most people’s success. If someone is trying to lose a lot of weight because they’ve been bing eating their whole life, I don’t think telling them it’s okay to eat ice cream anytime you hungry is going to bring a lot of success. At least that’s my opinion.

      We are all different and much like you don’t like the black and white approach to good and bad foods, I think you should understand there also isn’t a black and white when it comes to the way people eat for success. Each person is unique. I’m sure you are plenty successful at what you do, but lets play nice.

  2. Anonymous
    February 9, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    I have to agree with the comment that says anyone who is restricting or limiting their food intake is on a diet. I mean, if you avoid fast food, and make a point to eat healthy foods, then that’s a diet. Your diet is healthy foods. Everyone likes to enjoy ‘fun food’ sometimes though and this is a good way to do that.

  3. February 9, 2013 at 10:49 am

    I like 4 and 5. If you do decide cheat meals is something you want to do (they aren’t for everyone) you can’t feel guilty about it. You work hard and eat right all the time, you can’t feel bad about one meal. If you are battling yourself it’s not worth it.

    Definitely cheat meals as a reward is a bad thing. It would be one step away from viewing healthy eating as a punishment which as you said would be very bad for the long term. You can’t feel like you are missing out with the bad food.

    • February 9, 2013 at 12:02 pm

      Great points Colin! If a cheat meal is a reward then that does make eating clean the “chore” which is should not be viewed as. It should just be part of your normal routine, with how often and how much being changed according to your goals.

  4. February 9, 2013 at 7:18 am

    I personally don’t use a cheat as an excuse to eat garbage, so much as I use it as a way to eat ‘off menu’. A cheat to me is a pile of homemade 10 grain pancakes with fruit and real maple syrup. That still has loads of nutritional value, metabolic/thyroid value, and it’s something that lets you enjoy eating selfishly for a change of pace. If I did the same with pizza I’d feel bad, so why bother!

    • February 9, 2013 at 12:00 pm

      Very good point, and one that I’m sure many of us who have been doing this for a while can attest to. My cheats of choice are usually wine, a nice dinner out, or a small baked good like a cupcake. The “junkier” my choice, the less of it I eat because I know how I will feel the next day!

    • JC
      February 9, 2013 at 12:06 pm

      Amen! A couple of times I have “cheated” by sitting down to a whole rotisserie chicken lol.

  5. Nathan Hess
    February 9, 2013 at 6:37 am

    Great Article, I know a few people that could benefit from reading this and will share it with them. I totally agree, a cheat meal here or there is a wonderful thing as long as you know your limits. The day after my cheat meal is ussually the best lifting day of week. Especially when your regular diet is very low to no carb on a daily.

    • February 9, 2013 at 11:57 am

      This is a good point. Some athletes will call it a “refeed” and it’s a great way to top up your muscle glycogen and keep your performance high!

  6. February 9, 2013 at 6:14 am

    While the idea of a “cheat” is embracable, I worry that it fosters a DIET mindset. If you have created a lifestyle of healthy, whole foods nutrition then do you really want to cheat? If it is truly a lifestyle, then I think not likely…not for me at least or most of my clients. The fast, refined, processed foods of the past become a turn off as we have become very aware of how our bodies feel and react. And if this is not the case and you have built and tolerated a diet lifestyle, then it becomes a potential set up for binging and even a complete breakdown and set back….eventhough the advice here is excellent and it seems very acceptable and doable, I still say no to the idea of cheats…

    • February 9, 2013 at 11:55 am

      So then you are saying that you should never have another glass of wine or piece of birthday cake? Yes I have created a lifestyle of healthy, whole food nutrition and yes occasionally I want to “cheat” and have a big slice of chocolate cake. Do I crave these things like I use to and feel like I’m “giving in” to cravings when I eat them. Absolutely not! And your point about it being a potential set up for bingeing is exactly what I mention in my article. This is a control issue, not a “cheat” issue. Knowing when to stop is just as necessary a skill as cooking and working out. While I don’t like the negative connotation of a “diet mindset” anyone who works out regularly and controls their food intake in order to see results or get lean is, in fact, on a diet. I would be interested in what your definition of a “diet mindset” is, as we obviously see it differently. Thanks for the feedback!

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