There are no two ways about it, dieting is hard! Changing the way you eat, or how you look, will come with a range of repercussions. Your body will not give up its precious fat stores and maintain your current weight without a fight, in the name of homeostasis it is willing to fight dirty . Dieting will cause cravings, increase hunger, slow your metabolism, leptin will be lowered, ghrelin will raise and if you have lost any weight, fat will become all the easier to be stored. Cheat meals are sometimes used or recommended as a way to combat all this. But are they worth it?
First we have a conflicting argument, on one hand we are told a cheat meal (or day) can help restore your body back to a fat burning furnace. On the other, people say that a single bad day wont make or break your diet so don’t sweat if you fall off the wagon. So does it make a difference or not?
Well yes and no, but not in the order we’d hope. No, a single day is just too short to make any meaningful difference to any of the hormonal or metabolic changes your diet has caused . At least no positive changes anyway. Even looking at the simple calories in vs calories out it doesn’t make sense.
We can only restrict calories so far (we have got to eat something) the deficit can only be taken so far and a weekly cheat meal or day can easily negate this and put you back into an excess.
So, whilst cheat meals fail to help address the metabolic changes can it benefit the mental or emotional wellbeing of the dieter?
I would say there are psychological benefits to a cheat meal. Eating a plate full of fat and sugar makes you feel good. Even more so when you are on a diet! The problem is a cheat meal does not go beyond this. If it is used as motivation for dieting, then this extrinsic reward undermines any intrinsic changes you want to be nurturing.
Food should be enjoyed but never given as a reward. Especially if you want this to be more than just a temporary diet.
There is also some irony in saying by occasionally eating whatever you want it prevents you from slipping up and eating whatever you want. ‘Nulla poena sine lege’ (no penalty without law) should not be misconstrued to think that changing the rules changes the outcome as if just saying something is acceptable suddenly makes it so and magically alters the effects.
If a meal or day of unrestrained eating is seen as payment for the self-imposed hard work, then how long before you realise you can get the reward without the work? Where is the real incentive to continue dieting when any day can be cheat day?
If cheat days generally mean you look forward to bad eating habits and celebrate poor food choices then by default, good food choices are something to endure and become a punishment.
Over time you fixate on healthy choices. You begin training yourself to no longer like this food but you begin to want that kind of food .
“It is only the dose which makes a thing poison.”
Any one meal or food in isolation and in the grand scheme of things is rarely good or bad, it depends on the rest of the diet and the amounts consumed (or not eaten). By making a food ‘bad’ or a ‘cheat’ suggests some kind of deception is taking place. Restricting your diet so much to make the purge of a cheat meal acceptable means you are justifying the guilt you think you should be feeling from eating it.
If you celebrate abstinence with an excess of the very thing you renounced, then no lesson has been learnt and no longterm change in mindset or body should ever be expected. This is why I dislike the goal or phrase ‘body transformation’ it gives the impression that a permanent change is being pursued, sort of caterpillar to butterfly. What we end up with is a fleeting change in behaviour and body, in other words the butterfly soon turns back to a caterpillar.
This yo-yoing doesn’t sound like a healthy relationship with food to me, and indeed it isn’t-this is just binge eating . An eating disorder masquerading as an acceptable diet practice when done by someone who works out or is in good shape.
It hides in plain sight and is frequently shared on social media-it even gets actively endorsed and encouraged by so called fitness fanatics. I think this is just cheap virtue signalling and has become not just a way to pardon yourself for work done but a way to parade it. A shameless, hypocritical display, publicly saying you deserve it because you work so hard.
What is the answer? We need to acknowledge that a balanced diet must fit into a balanced lifestyle. So you want to have a dessert here, or a take away there. That’s fine, it just should not be done as a reward for your dieting. Not every day is a birthday, Christmas or in need of celebrating, those things come and go and shouldn’t make a huge difference. We do far better avoiding harm than chasing the odd benefit but when we do indulge, then some other part of your day or diet may need to compensate for it but that needn’t be seen as a punishment.
Enjoy food, enjoy your health and enjoy reaching the goals you set, everything in moderation, even the odd excess, just remember-it’s not cheating.