brown pug with yellow and red scarf
Look at your underlying diet. It may be so depriving you want to nosedive into fries. Photo by Karsten Winegeart

Cheat meals suck, here’s a better way

I have been getting some requests for a post about cheat meals, so by popular demand, here it is. 

I will start out by saying that I do not believe in them. In fact, they suck. And whoever invented them also sucks. 

Feeling a need to cheat implies a lack of satisfaction. For me, part of a holistic approach to wellness and health is feeling satisfied, satiated and eating to hit the spot. I do this by practicing intuitive eating and by NOT following any strict diets. Under this rubric, it’s not cheating, it’s treating. And treating in a balanced way, like I advocate in my 80/20 approach, can help advance, not hinder, your fitness  goals. Eating is can be and is one of the greatest literal joys of life.

Why cheat meals suck (and what you can do to stay fit AND sane)

Cheat meals have the opposite effect of making you stay on track with your goals

It can quickly spiral – a cheat meal Friday night can become a cheat fest Saturday and then just a cheat weekend . Then you wake up Monday hating yourself. Then the famine feast cycle starts all over again. 

What is wrong is the restrictive diet culture that perpetuates unsustainable moratoriums on sugar, carbohydrates, dairy, or grains. It makes it inevitable that you will eventually consume one of those “forbidden foods.” In fact, the very labeling of them as forbidden probably makes them even more hard to get out of your head.

Cheat meals keep you on the never ending hamster wheel of dieting and shame

I mentioned in an earlier post how I really love the show, Physical, with Rose Byrne as the star. It’s mostly for the ridiculously lavish 80s songs and getups, but a lot of the substance hits home because of the magnification of her binge eating disorder. She maintains a strict diet, where we hardly even see her eat and certainly not in public. Throughout the day, she makes rules for herself (if you eat clean today, you can have a small dessert tonight). She is a classic example of self-will run riot – and that drives her eventually to get to a breaking point. The show then cuts to her going through a drive through and getting burgers, shakes and fries, and then going to a  hotel room to have her binge away from her husband and young daughter. Every time is “just this one time.”

Doesn’t this sound like having an extramarital affair? That’s what this mentality of cheat meal perpetuates. And like affairs, or even the fantasy of them, there is a certain allure that’s not about the co-conspirator but about the thrill of doing something forbidden. By removing the shroud of resisting against the forbidden, you are freeing my body up to make those intuitive decisions

Cheat meals are a surefire sign that your diet sucks, too

Have you seen Tyler Perry’s film, Why did I get married? In that movie, Perry who plays one of the characters (the good guy who doesn’t cheat) has a conversation with his philandering comrades about why people cheat on their partners. Here’s a clip so you get it:

The 80/20 rule

YouTube player

A 100 percent “clean” diet without room for joy eats will cause you to fixate on what you can’t have.

Your cravings mean something

Besides the psychology, don’t you notice that cheat foods often are typically really fatty or sugary?

Or if you are on a low carb diet, you can’t stop thinking about chocolate?

Your cravings are your body’s smoke signals for a particular nutrient – whether it be a macronutrient, like fat, or a micronutritent, like iron. For example, I am mildly anemic. While I take iron supplements, my body sometimes tells me I absolutely have to have a hamburger or a steak. I can feel it in my bones and foods that normally sound good are not at all appealing. So I will have that and make sure to have some fibrous vegetables with it given how hard meat can be to digest .

If you are craving a burger, your body may no be getting enough iron or B12. If you are craving pizza or other cheesy food, you probably need to eat more fat in your diet.

The next time you have a craving, try this:

Identify the type of craving, rather than the actual food, to ensure more satisfaction – is it sweet, sour, salty, fatty, carby, crunchy?

The above references can help you gravitate towards your “go-to” snacks in my Little Black dress meal plan. For example, a craving for sweet can be satisfied by fruit or dark chocolate. A cravying for salty could be satisfied by some smoked almonds. A craving for crunchy and fatty could be satisfied by some bran cereal with coconut flakes.

95 percent of the time, I am satisfied when I feed my cravings, rather than “cheat.” For the times I am not, I know that a treat every so often will not “wreck” anything or isn’t “wrong”, so I have what I want and that is ok. Here’s an excerpt from my snack chart for my Little Black dress meal planning template:

Type of snackOptions
SaltyOlives, salted almonds, popchips, crackers with roasted red pepper hummus
SweetYogurt with honey, cherries, strawberries, dates, figs, papaya, dried apricot and goji berries
SourSour gummy worms, granny smith apples, Japanese sour plums
Sour-sweetLemon curd yogurt,goat cheese with crackers and honey, pineapple and berries
TravelHoney schiracha turkey jerky, madi K’s almonds, DIY trail mix (walnuts, dark chocolate, goji berries, pumpkin seeds)
A snack for all my cravings, foods that I make sure to keep around

Be a picky mofo

That being said, when you do decide to go for the treat, make it good. Don’t just eat a hard, stale cookie. Get a warm, freshly baked cookie from a proper bakery. Make your burger a juicy, grass-fed masterpiece with a high-class cheese like Gouda. Don’t settle for frozen yogurt – another fake health food – have a soft-serve, slow churned high quality ice cream on a cone.

When you are ordering out, have exactly what you want

At meals out, since they are mostly for pleasure. my practice is to order what I want and eat half of it, instead of ordering a big salad and eating all of it because I feel drprived. You would be surprised how many calories are in half of a pasta or burger dish versus a full salad entrėe – usually, the latter has WAY more calories.

pancake with sliced strawberries and black berries on white ceramic plate

Time carbs around your workout

It is a pretty common practice for me to have some pancakes or some really decadent pastry or cake right after I work out. That’s because your body is in prime position to absorb these fast-digesting carbs and expeidte the glucose to your muscles. Consuming sugary carbs after workouts is actually a smart way to stonewall your hunger and give you extra energy without crashing later on. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s science.

In fact, sports scientists recommend something you might be suprised by- chocolate milk (it has the perfect carb to protein ratio and readily available glucose.).

clear glass jar with white liquid on white ceramic plate
Say yay for chocolate milk and cocoa, and watch your muscles grow! Photo by Moses Rukshan

The takeaway

​​The concept of a ‘cheat meal’ is another subversive way to keep you dieting, to keep you craving more, demonizing food, and on that virtual shame hamster wheel. Instead of tuning in to what our bodies need, nutrient wise, craving/texture wise, energy expenditure wise, the cheat meal/diet culture forces you to completely tune out simply, constantly looking forward to that one meal.

Instead, try an approach that gives you a steady stream of joy eats sprinkled into your nutritious diet, rather than a feast or famine method.

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