We’ve all heard this term. It’s that meal or snack you “get to” eat at some designated time, normally after being really restrictive or “good” about your diet. The internal dialogue often goes something like this:
“If I eat healthy for X amount of days, then on Friday I can have my cheat meal of pizza/Chinese food/ice cream/etc. because I’ll have earned it.”
This kind of cycle has become very common in our society. There are thousands of social media accounts that glorify being incredibly strict with food and then being “rewarded” with seemingly bad foods.
So what’s the danger with being “good” and rewarding yourself with “cheat meals?” Isn’t it technically a “balanced” way of eating?
For most people, the short answer is no, it is not a balanced way of eating and it often leads to an unhealthy eating mindset. Below I’ve listed the top 3 Reasons this Registered Dietitian Nutritionist hates the idea of “cheat meals”.
Cheat meals place food in “good” and “bad” categories
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The idea behind a cheat meal is to eat a bunch of foods placed on a “good” pedestal and then splurge with those in the “bad, shameful” class. The problem with this way of thinking is that we end up making certain foods illegal and unsafe in our minds. This can lead to us associating these foods with feelings of blame and guilt when we eat them. And if they’re eaten outside of the “designated time” (i.e. not on cheat day), then we’ve done something utterly wrong and shameful. The whole mindset leaves a dangerous trail of giant guilt-bombs waiting to be stepped on and set off.
Cheat meals promote disordered eating habits
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The very pattern of a cheat meal mimics that of a binge meal. There’s some sort of build-up (i.e. restricting) that ends in an overindulgence of food that causes shame. You often end up eating way more than you would normally eat because it’s a special occasion and that food is about to become off limits again. That pattern follows a restrict-binge pattern way too closely for this dietitian’s comfort. Patterns like this may contribute to the relationship between dieting and eating disorders (e.g. 1 in 3 dieters develop pathological eating behaviors). Habitual practicing of external restrictions can easily spiral out of control into a serious problem.
Cheat meals are just another way to diet
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At the end of the day, the cycle of “clean eating” and “cheat meals” is just another restrictive diet cycle. It masks itself as a balanced lifestyle, but it really is still the same old pattern of ignoring your internal hunger cues. As attractive as this dieting pattern is to people, research is clear that putting foods in these forbidden “cheat” categories just makes us obsess even more about them.
Have you been using “cheat meals” in an attempt to balance your diet? If so, your “forbidden food” or “cheat meal” category may be overwhelmingly large. If you’re now wondering what to do, check out this blog post on a way you can start repairing your relationship with food:
You don't need a diet
Learn how food-positive, body-positive nutrition counseling can give you the support you need to make your goals a reality. Book a free consultation with a registered dietitian today!
About the Author
Deborah Torrey Fisher, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Choose Food
I am a Licensed and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist from Austin, TX. I completed my education at Texas State University, where I obtained a Master of Science in Human Nutrition, a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition Science, and completed my 1,240 hour supervised dietetic internship program throughout the Austin/San Antonio area.
I enjoy working with a variety of different clients! Some of my favorites are:
- Athletes: Especially distance/endurance athletes such as marathoners or triathletes. Whether it’s for an upcoming training cycle or help meeting specific goals, I love helping fuel athletes to their best!
- Moms: Pregnant, postpartum, nursing, or just super busy moms with real lives and a house full of kids! Nutrition can get lost in the chaos of motherhood, and I enjoy helping moms find practical, sustainable ways to keep it a main focus for themselves and their families.
- Chronic Dieters: The “always on a diet” and obsession with food trends is a rough path! I thoroughly enjoy helping people break the maddening diet-cycle and develop a loving relationship with food.
- Chronic Conditions: Medical nutrition therapy can be life changing for those with lifelong conditions, such as diabetes or PCOS. I am incredibly passionate about using nutrition as an integral part of the care process for all types of chronic conditions, and using food as an enjoyable means to help manage them as well!
I’m currently accepting new clients. I can meet with clients in-person at our Central Austin location or virtually via video chat.