March 2016

To Cheat or not to Cheat?

This month I have decided to tackle the age-old dilemma of the cheat meal. Actually, it’s not really age-old because people didn’t really start going on diets until we as a society basically lost touch with most of our internal cues regarding hunger and fullness.

Anywho, every health and wellness specialist seems to have an opinion when it comes to whether or not one who is adhering to a restrictive diet should incorporate a cheat meal/sanity meal/pleasurefest. Truth is, it really depends on the individual. It is odd to think of cheating in general as a good thing: Cheating on a test does not improve one’s academic capabilities, cheating on your spouse is a surefire way to mess up your relationship (if it wasn’t already), and so why would cheating on your meal plan improve your weight loss outcome? Well, there are numerous reasons, some of them psychological and others metabolic. In this article, it is my goal to help you figure out if putting a cheat meal on the radar is for you or not.

Let’s first talk tackle the physiological benefits, as they are far more concrete and apply to almost all humans. As many of you know, eating too low calorie or not varying the foods that you are taking in can slow a person’s metabolism. Similar to our muscles, our digestive system needs a variety a foods and calorie levels in order to achieve maximum caloric burn. A cheat meal can very much break up the monotony of eating a lower calorie diet of foods that are very similar to one another. The increase in metabolic rate after a cheat meal can last up to about 3 days. This can allow the person who has reached a plateau to get their engine revving again. Often, body weight a couple of days after a cheat meal is lower than it was before. And you got to eat some of your favorites!

Now for the more abstract psychological benefits of the controversial cheat meal. First, it eliminates absolutes. “I am NEVER eating fries again.” “I will stay under 1,200 calories every day.” “I can never have happy hour with the girls.” “I never speak in absolutes.” [Ha, ha] Thinking in extremes is very likely to put you in the danger zone, because when it comes to food habits and lifestyle, it is very unlikely that ‘never’ and ‘always’ will pan out the way you think. We tend to make emotional decisions, especially when we are very angry with ourselves for gaining weight in the first place. The cheat meal needs to be absent of emotional decision-making. This means making the decision to have something that you enjoy, while recognizing that it can ultimately be an investment that will help keep you on track. If you are someone who is not yet ready to separate yourself emotionally from some of your favorite foods, this is likely a good indicator that a cheat meal is not for you at this juncture in your program.

If done properly, a well-sanctioned cheat meal can really help to break up the monotony of dieting and keep you on track for much longer. It also helps prepare you for the inevitable grey area, which is a lifelong balancing act that will be well worth the effort once maintenance comes. I have heard many people describe the almost oppressive nature of being on a restrictive diet, as if they are voluntarily being punished for who they are. They feel it is unfair because they have to diet and others do not. A cheat meal can be vital in fostering a sense of ‘normalcy’ and participating in one’s own life. In the words of the wonderful Oscar Wilde, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

Guidelines for a cheat meal done right

Create clear sanctions. Identify what food(s) you will have, where you will go, and what quantity. Be as specific as possible and know that, when it is over, it’s over. Vague planning can lead to more room for error or out of control eating brought about by good intentions gone bad.

Make sure it is a meal, not a day. You generally want to stay under about 1,000 calories for a cheat meal. This is not an all day binge I am talking about. If your favorite food is nachos, get a nacho appetizer as your meal. If it is pizza, have 2 or 3 slices of your favorite pizza. If it is a combination of foods, understand that it is generally a plate or a meal’s worth of these items. And remember to mentally close the door when all is said and done.

Skip your weigh-in the next morning. I know you want to get on that scale the next day. Don’t do it. This is unlikely to come as a surprise, but large meals and immediate weight loss don’t generally go together. Wait until 2 days later to step on again if you are someone who tends to weigh every morning.

Please find a way to enjoy it! If you see yourself becoming anxious to the point where it isn’t fun when it comes to having a cheat meal, you are probably not ready to do so. And this is perfectly okay. The difference between a cheat meal and a binge is that a person has a cheat meal on their own terms. They are the one in control. A binge episode implies the compulsion to eat foods that the person knows they should not have. In this scenario, it is the food that is in control. If you can look forward to it without obsessing, and look back on it without longing, a cheat meal can be a wonderful way to stay on track toward your ultimate goal.


Catherine Brach, LMHC
Senior Counselor

March 2016

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Check out this month’s article from Buzzfeed that features low-carb recipes for Spring!

27 Low-Carb Dinners That Are Great For Spring


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