The theory of cheat meals is beautiful. Following a strict diet or eating clean the entire week after which you are allowed to pick one meal of choice. Something that is not healthy. A meal that actually tastes good and that contains the amount of calories you would normally spread over three equal meals. The question is if these cheat meals should be seen as a way of excuse to disguise your moments of weakness or do they serve as a reward of being ‘faithful’ to your meal plan.
Cheat meals have been used for a long time. It is common for bodybuilders, strength athletes, and dieters or for the average Joe who likes to live healthy to use a cheat meal. As a weight consultant, personal trainer and sports nutrition specialist I have based my opinion on this matter by using my knowledge about nutrition and the human body as well as my own experience and that of others. This is by no means based on a scientific foundation whatsoever. All I will do is give you pros and cons for the use of such cheating moment. My first and foremost opinion about eating unhealthy every so often is that it can’t be as bad as smoking, drinking a lot of alcohol during the weekends while eating healthy the rest of the week or having a messed up sleeping pattern.
As for pros there are some obvious reasons why having a cheat meal is great. It simply tastes good. If you are following a strict diet for a week long it can be hard to stay away from the unhealthy stuff. Many of us will crave French fries, chocolate or ice cream. That is rather normal human behavior. These foods are often sweet, salty, contain a lot of fats and simply taste good, which is why we tend to go back to them sooner or later. By allowing yourself to eat something unhealthy every week you take away the cravings for a while, which enables you to get back on track the next week. This may sound familiar. If you tell a little kid to not draw a bunny rabbit on your wall with crayons there is a big chance your dining room is soon decorated with a not so artistically drawn rodent. By allowing the child to go artistic all over your wall you definitely make the act a lot less fun, with the chance that the kid loses interest. And if it still wants to draw something then make the compromise that you decide what it draws, so at least you can choose something that suits the design of the rest of your living room.
I’ve come to realize that by eating the things you really miss, you eventually get bored of the same foods and the cravings stop. Many others have this same experience, although it might not work for you personally. You have to be very disciplined to never have an unhealthy snack. This can actually lead to some social difficulties, because you’re probably one of the few rather than part of the majority that is living a healthy lifestyle. If you go to an average birthday party you will find cake, cookies, crisps, fried food, high calorie drinks and a lot of other ‘bad foods’. You would have to decline all the food, which is often seen as rude by the hosts of the party as well as the other visitors. Allowing yourself to eat something unhealthy can especially make your life easier during social events. When I just started with my healthy eating and working out (and the two years following) I wouldn’t allow myself to eat anything bad. I disliked all unhealthy foods, got anxious when I knew there was a party I had to attend to – and therefore couldn’t eat healthy – and was always strict to myself. My family and friends didn’t really understand this and this lead to me losing a lot of friends and social contact. I was rather alone than with them, because all I saw them doing was trying to get me back to my old lifestyle. I see this happen a lot with those who just start working out. Later on I loosened up a bit and eat some ‘unhealthy’ things weekly. It helped me a lot getting better results, it is much easier with social events as people don’t always take you as a complete lunatic. Plus, the cravings for unhealthy foods are gone. When I feel like eating something I’ve missed, then I allow myself to do so.
For those who are trying to gain weight it can also be a great thing. Many foods that are typically chosen during the cheat meal contain lots of calories. The extra calories that come from the cheat meal can give ‘hardgainers’ that extra push. Besides, theoretically it doesn’t matter whether you get your calories from healthy or unhealthy foods. If there is a surplus of calories combined with a proper workout plan you can gain muscle mass. Just remember that calories are calories and they provide us with energy to do our activities. Of course healthy products should be your priority as they improve your overall health, whereas junk foods endanger your health.
Now as for the cons of eating cheat meals there is one very obvious one. For some people it is all or nothing. Once they start they can’t stop their bad eating habits. ‘Let’s take a handful of crisps, I’ve deserved it after the hard training and dieting I did this week’. The next thing you know you eat a whole bag followed by some beers and a bowl of chocolate ice cream. That’s worth over a thousand calories, which means the dieting and training you did the past week were all for nothing. The big danger of cheat meals is that you start to miss the healthy food way too much. That can lead to binge eating once you get a taste of your old favorite meals again. You need so much control over yourself to never eat the things you like that it’s almost inevitable that you eat everything in sight once you let yourself go.
Cheat meals usually are not harmful in my opinion, if you can manage to keep it under control. Regardless, you have to keep track of your calorie count in some sort of way. The lower your daily average food intake the more important this becomes. With a calorie intake of only 1500 kcal a day you can’t go all nuts on a whole bag of nuts (get it?). Calorie rich foods can easily contain 600+ kcal per serving of 100 grams. Imagine you normally eat 1500 kcal worth of healthy foods spread over 5 equal meals. Each meal would contain 300 kcal. Replacing one of those meals with a cheat meal is possible, but only if you get that amount of calories for your replacement meal. Eating a 1300 kcal pizza instead of that 300 kcal meal is not going to cut it obviously. So keep in mind that calories are very important and that your cheating should fit within your calorie allowance of that particular day.
So even though cheat meals in the strictest sense of the term may not be suitable for every individual, it definitely brings a lot of good for those who feel they can’t live a decent life without some French fries every now and then. These kind of meals, if used in moderation, can’t possibly be as bad as smoking, drinking and other bad things that I can’t think of right now (my mind is obsessed over the donut that is waiting for me). Eventually it is up to you to decide if you see cheat meals as failure on your part or a token of strength and control.