Why Cheat Meals Are Harmful To Your Relationship with Food

  Mar 31, 2020  |  #Intuitive Eating

I’ve been meaning to write this post about cheat meals and cheat days for a while, since a follower asked a question months ago. Here we go!

What Are Cheat Meals And Cheat Days?

While the idea of “cheat days” are nothing new and may seem like an “innocent” way of sticking to your diet, they can prove harmful in more ways than one.

The execution of cheat days may vary from person to person, including how often they are allowed (ie – is it a cheat day once a week?), whether it’s a cheat meal or full day and what foods are designated “safe” to eat.

However, the basic notion is that they allow one to eat many of the foods that he or she usually deems “off limits” or that don’t fit into their routine eating plan.

Of note, their normal eating plan is usually an iteration of the Wellness Diet. The Wellness Diet is a hyperfocus on foods that “diet culture” deems acceptable. 

Reason #1 Why I’m Against Cheat Meals

The word “cheat” in and of itself carries with it negative connotations, implying that you did something wrong or broke a rule. There is no such thing as a healthy cheat meal. 

Because of this, engaging in cheat days typically leads to feelings of shame or guilt, followed by a strong will to hop back on the diet train with even more restrictions until the next “cheat day” occurs.

Shame or guilt should never be involved when thinking about food…unless you stole it. A top question googlers search is, “how to recover from a cheat day?”

Do you know why they’re searching this term? It’s because they think they have to pay a price for what they ate. Diet culture makes them think that because they ate “indulgent” foods, they must not restrict. Or go back onto a strict diet.

But, guess that. This endless cycle plays a destructive role on psychological health and well-being. Yes, even a cheat day once a week can be very harmful. 

Cheat Days Create Moralization of Foods

One question I always ask clients is, “Why is this food okay on a “cheat” day but not in your regular eating routine?” The answer is usually some sort of iteration of “healthy” or “unhealthy” food, or “good” or “bad” food. 

As a Registered Dietitian, the last thing I want to do is categorize foods as “good” or “bad.” Creating a moral hierarchy of foods is dangerous for so many reasons. 

This is a simplified diagram from Rebecca Scritchfield’s Book, Body Kindness (a great read if you haven’t read it).

binge restrict cycle from body kindness

Feelings of shame or guilt around food, typically associated with “breaking a rule” or “cheating,” propagate an unhealthy relationship with food that usually lead to a binge/restrict repetitive cycle and a fear of certain foods.

This is how disorderd eating habits start, or worse, a full blown eating disorder. 

Cheat Days Can Lead to Overeating and Bingeing

Research published in the journal, Appetite, acknowledges that cheat meals may have properties similar to binge episodes and lead to disordered eating habits.

The all-or-nothing mentality is associated with overeating or bingeing. If you’ve already broken a few diet rules, what’s breaking a few more?

close up of sprinkled cookie over wooden table; why cheat meals are harmful

How Often Should You Have a Cheat Meal?

This is a common question. Let me try to explain why this mentality is harmful. 

Let’s say you’re “eating clean” throughout the week (which usually means very restrictive and following several food rules.) Then, Saturday comes along, which is your designated “cheat day.”

You’ve allowed yourself to indulge, even though you’re starting to feel physically full and don’t really want more food. You eat until you have a stomachache because you won’t allow yourself to eat these foods once Monday comes around.

man holding up question face

You feel guilty and shameful for eating so much, which immediately plays into your mental state of mind, ruining the rest of your weekend while emphasizing the “bad” foods that you ate.  

What To Do After a Cheat Meal

This is another harmful part of the cheat meals mentality. What do you do after?

Well, Monday comes around and you’re back on your “clean eating” kick, but now, it’s stricter than the previous week. This restrict/overeat cycle continues and gets more and more dangerous, physically and mentally, especially as one continues to further restrict or make up for “cheat day” choices.  

Small green salad to compensate after cheat meal | Bucket List Tummy

You’re far away from honoring your own hunger and fullness, because instead, you’re ignoring hunger and eating minimally to “make up for” your weekend choices. 

This black and white thinking takes a person out of the present. Rather than making food choices based on intuition, a person is choosing foods because it’s the one day to do so.

So, how else could or should we approach food?

Put All Foods on a Neutral Playing Field

Starting to see all foods as neutral is a great start. In the book Intuitive Eating, authors Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch acknowledge that there are foods that have more nutritional properties than other foods.

That doesn’t make them morally superior. It just means they have different nutritional properties. Which is just “cool,” not good or bad. 

We talk about this in much more detail in my ebook, Simplifying Intuitive Eating. All food has a purpose – whether it’s for nutrition, for comfort, for social enjoyment, for pleasure, or just to taste something.

The curiosity aspect is huge in intuitive eating!

learn how to honor your hunger Ebook

Try allowing yourself to eat foods you like and enjoy, when you want to eat them. Remember that Intuitive eating is fluid and adapts to your personal situation, rather than having you live within strict rules. 

There’s no right or wrong way to do intuitive eating. 

Allow Hyperpalatable Foods to Become Normal So They’re Less Exciting

When we take the black and white thinking out of food, we take away the “good” and “bad” adjectives, and in turn, normalize our food decisions, rather than sensationalize them.

Therefore, if we allow all foods into our “normal” diets, there is less excitement and build up when we eat those foods.

As we become more habituated to them, our excitement response decreases, and we may eventually decide we don’t want those foods as much as we used to.

Where to get ice cream in Montauk Harbor

Furthermore, this typically limits the amount of time or “brain space” people spend thinking about food. If you’re spending a great amount of brain space worrying about food and its nutritious properties, it may be time to examine your relationship with food.

Think About Your Values Around Food

Are you someone who really enjoys the social aspect of food and getting together with others over a good meal?

Maybe Barbecues and get-togethers and having friends over for dinner or going out to brunch really light you up.

Overhead view of eating brunch with friends

Are you someone who really enjoys certain “indulgent” foods, and making memories and enjoying experiences around food?

If you’ve answered yes to any of the above, it’s likely that cheat days and restrictive eating are not in alignment with your values.

Some questions you can ask yourself to explore further include:

  • What else could you be devoting precious brain space to?
  • How is worrying about food affecting other areas of your life, like your relationships, your hobbies and activities, or your children?
  • What would life be like if you could eat your favorite food whenever you wanted?
  • How important is it to you to be able to have a good relationship with food and experience enjoyment and comfort in food?

I hope this post has been helpful! Please drop a comment if so and any other topics you’d like me to explore. 

Some other posts to explore:

2 responses to “Why Cheat Meals Are Harmful To Your Relationship with Food

  1. Cheat meals/days are so cringey at this point that I hope people realize you can eat a cookie mid week and you’ll be totally okay.

    1. I hope so too – but many people just aren’t there yet due to diet culture. I hope this message helps!

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