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Why I Hate Cheat Meals

I used to binge on food. I’d stick to a diet all week and then have a “cheat meal” at the weekend, which would turn into a cheat day, or even a cheat weekend. Then I’d “start again” on Monday. Sound familiar?

I’ve long since changed my mind-set on nutrition. I no longer have cheat meals. Actually, to be more precise, I no longer use the phrase “cheat meal”. If I want to eat chocolate I will. If I want a beer I’ll have one. I eat bread most days.

The result? My weight stays the same the year round, no big fluctuations and I actually think about eating chocolate a lot less.

I would guess 80-90% of my calories come from what you might say were “healthy foods”. Rice, sweet potato, meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, eggs etc. The other 10-20% are made up of whatever I fancy. No time constraints, such as cheat windows or only at the weekend. Just as and when I want. Last week I ate a chocolate brownie on Tuesday. Crazy eh?!

A lot more balance both in what I eat and the approach I take to food. There’s no name for this approach and there isn’t a book in Waterstones calling it the newest and best way to lose weight, “Nikki’s Common Sense Approach To Eating” wouldn’t sell that many copies!

I realised a while ago that the term “cheat meal” is one of the most damaging terms that gets thrown around the fitness industry (normally by trainers who are extremely out of touch with reality, but that’s for another day). Cheating isn’t a good thing. You shouldn’t cheat in exams and you shouldn’t cheat on your partner. Everyone knows this. By adopting the term cheat meal we automatically think that what we are eating is “bad”. It’s all about context though isn’t it? One chocolate bar isn’t going to make you fat, just the same as one salad isn’t going to make you slim. If we know that one chocolate bar isn’t going to make you fat, then why don’t we just enjoy it and not have the negative connotations of guilt with it? Why not just enjoy it?

The Child’s Mentality

By banning ourselves from having certain foods, we also begin to think about them a lot more, it’s the child’s mentality.

Tell a kid that they can’t play with a certain toy, it will become all they can think about until they get the toy back, whether they really want it or not. Our mind works the same way with food. Ban yourself from having a certain food and you will think about it a lot.

When dieting, it is common practice to eliminate certain foods altogether. Whilst this is going to help put you into a calorie deficit and therefore lose weight in the short term, it will also make you crave the foods you have given up. For instance, you give up chocolate as it’s “bad for you”, then end up thinking about it all week, finally you snap and end up consuming 10 bars of Dairy Milk and a tub of Ben and Jerrys on Saturday.

In order to gain control of your diet, you have to change your thinking and the terminology you use with food. A simple switch is to ditch the term cheat meal altogether and instead of thinking about all the things you “can’t” eat, start thinking about what you can eat. For instance, I choose to eat vegetables, fruits, fish and eggs as I like them and I know they make me feel good (lots of energy, don’t make my thinking sluggish etc). If you can start to be in control of your decisions then you can be in control of your nutrition.

It’s also beneficial to work out why we eat certain foods at certain times. Why is it that we adopt certain habits? Understand this and we can begin to change these habits and form new ones better aligned with our goals.

When I take on new clients, I will evaluate their nutrition and then gradually begin to add in things that I think will make a big difference to the way they look and feel. I take nothing away initially. I might ask them to eat more protein, or to eat more fruit and vegetables, or to drink more water. I never start by banning foods. Ever.

Rewarding Good Behaviour

Another aspect of why I really dislike the term cheat meal, is that you are essentially rewarding yourself for good behaviour (dieting all week) with unhealthy food, then making yourself feel guilty about it!

I’ve seen extreme versions of this when people sign up to dry January, don’t touch a drop of alcohol all month, the proceed to go on a 3-day bender and consume more alcohol than the entire population of Glastonbury Festival as a “reward”.

Banning yourself from having something only makes you want it more. Rewarding yourself for “being good” by eating something off the banned list only serves to screw up your thinking on nutrition and instil long term bad habits and negative relationships with certain foods.

By now you probably get that I’m not a fan of cheat meals, so what should you do instead and how should you approach a long-term nutrition plan?

Problem: You go all out on a diet for 1, 2 or even 4 weeks, lose some weight but then rebound back to your old weight (or even heavier) after you binge on loads of “treats” at the end of the diet.

Solution: Instead of making wholesale changes that you won’t stick to long term, make small manageable changes that you can adopt as part of your new lifestyle. For instance, you may decide to drink 2 litres of water each day or eat 30g of protein with each of your main meals. Once you’ve done it every day for a week, then you can make another change.

Problem: You reward yourself with “bad food”.

Solution: Do not ban foods from your diet and do not limit these foods to weekend blow outs. If you want to eat chocolate then do so, but be mindful of it and do not use it as a reward for “good behaviour”.

Problem: You eat emotionally, when you’re tired, when you’re sad etc.

Solution: Again this is a habit that needs to be broken in order to regain control of the way you think about food. If you’re having a bad day and would normally eat a load of cake to “deal with it” then another approach would be to do something that cheers you up rather than eat something. Chat with a friend that makes you laugh, go for a run to clear your head or listen to a song that you love and makes you happy. Any of these are preferable to sitting at home having a one person pity party devouring a family sized red velvet cake to yourself!

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