Cheat Meal Time

Cheat Meals. Two very emotive words that muttered on Facebook always tend to create debate and bring out two very polarised camps of people.

Generally as a PT I would fall into the don’t think on meals or days as ‘cheats’. You can manage your calories and how much you eat across a week to be able to have what society would generally deem a ‘cheat meal’ and still stay within your calorie goals and reach whatever goal you may have.

More than this, classing a meal as a ‘cheat’ can lead to you thinking of foods as good and bad can be damaging to your feelings around food. Guilt about eating a certain type of food does nothing for your mental health, how you view yourself or your eating habits in general.

Equally however it’s actually really hard not to fall in the habit of referring to foods as ‘treats’ or ‘cheats’. Personally, I know a takeaway isn’t an automatic bad thing and that actually some days I could end up eating fewer calories after a fast food meal than I would have had I made a ‘healthy’ meal. Some people do not know this. Some people might know but not be quite willing to accept it, so throw away comments about cheat meals, whilst not a big deal for me could create a bigger barrier in someone else’s mindset.

For me there are two issues relating to the idea of cheat meals. Teaching people that foods do not need to be grouped into good and bad and working on our own language and how we absent mindedly refer to food.

But there’s one more issue to add to this mix. We’ve noted a lot during the Pandemic that obesity is an issue in the UK and that it causes health issues. We’ve largely noted beyond that (unless your Boris who prefers the less educated approach) that education on nutrition and the energy balance is key to this.

Now here, at a very basic level, the good / bad food list can be useful. If you want to educate someone about the benefits of a balanced diet and the benefits of eating fresh foods then there is going to be a little bit of a good / bad rhetoric. Cheat meals are essentially the idea of people who have a relative understanding and interest in health and nutrition and would benefit from understanding the restrictions this mentality can place on you. For someone with a very limited knowledge of the energy balance equation we are essentially going back to the food pyramid which does promote an element of good / bad foods.

We need to acknowledge that yes essentially weight loss can be incredibly simple, that does not mean there are not lots of obstacles we can nee help with at various points. Sometimes the simplest things can be quite tricky.

Cheat Meals are a Myth

Cheat meals don’t work.

Theoretically cheat meals are a great idea- you stick to your diet knowing that on Saturday you will be able to have the mother of all cheat meals right? Every time you feel like giving in and eating that chocolate bar you resist with the thought of that massive pizza, wedges, garlic bread, chicken wings, Ben and Jerrys, milkshake and beer that you will devour on on the weekend. You’ve been good all week and PTs are always saying that one bad meal won’t derail your diet.

Here’s the thing. One bad meal isn’t the end of the world. But. That mother of all cheat meals ends up being, because you deprived yourself all week, more than a normal days calories in one sitting. Because of that fact, the calorie deficit you’ve built up all week suddenly is a calorie deficit no more.

Think of your calories like a bank balance. You have £700 to spend this week (I mean I wish)- £100 for each day of the week. To adequately ‘save’ (lose weight) you want to not spend £140 each week, that’s around £20 a day. Now you might need to spend more some days and less other days, it isn’t necessary to spend exactly £80 each day. You might spend £150 one day and only £70 another. As long as you have that £140 still in your account at the end of the Week you’ve hit your saving goal.

So you can have that takeaway on Saturday night, you have saved during the week and have the calories to spend on your favourite foods. But here’s the deal. You have to track those calories too. If you treat it like a ‘free pass’ you’ll eat way more calories than you expect and end up eating away at your calorie deficit.

Go back to your bank balance. Say you got to the end of the week and you’d saved and you had £500 still – your goal was to save £140 so you’ve got £360 to play with. Now you could go and buy a ridiculously over priced handbag for £360 guilt free. But if you didn’t check your bank balance. Say you just thought, I know I’ve saved money this week and can afford to go shopping, but didn’t actually check what you had left in the bank. You go shopping and spend spend spend. When you check your bank the next day you actually spent £550. Now you’ve not only not saved your £140 but you’re in your overdraft.

If you factor your’ cheat meal’ into your calories it does two things – one it takes away that guilt eating mentality – it stops foods being ‘naughty’. It also ensures that you can have those meals you love whilst still being able to achieve your goals. Above all it stops you self sabotaging your own diet unwittingly.

Are You Cheating Yourself?

How do you feel about Cheat Meals?

Generally the idea of a cheat meal fills people with joy, that meal where, after being good for however long, you can let go and eat whatever dirty foods you desire.

Most of us probably absent mindly refer to meals as cheat meals or cheat days when we don’t track or monitor what we are eating without really considering the problem with this way of thinking.

So what is the problem?

To clarify I don’t see a problem with eating the food.  I love a massive burger, pancakes covered in all the sauces and basically all and any type of cake.

The problem is with the ‘cheat’ mentality.

The issue is two fold.

Firstly – The issue it creates with your relationship with food.  The idea of good and bad foods and that when you eat ‘bad’ food you are being ‘bad’ and that you are only doing well if your sticking to your ‘clean’ diet.  This type of mentality will both make you a bit miserable and will make your food intake feel restrictive, ironically this is more likely to make you want to ‘cheat’ or binge.

Secondly, if you are trying to create a calorie deficit, eating a massive unaccounted for, cheat meal will effectively wipe out any calorie deficit you’ve managed to create that week.

Say you are trying to reduce your calorie intake by 500 calories a day to create a deficit, that’s 3,500 calories a week.  Now say you’ve hit that every day Monday- Friday so you’ve hit a calorie deficit of 2,500 calories.  Then on Saturday you have your cheat meal.  You don’t track this because it’s your ‘cheat’.  Then you again hit your 500 calorie deficit on Sunday.  Yet you don’t see any progress, you don’t get why- you had a 3,000 calorie deficit last week and just one cheat meal.  Something is wrong with your body, there has to be.

Had you tracked your cheat meal you’d have realised you ate 2,500 calories in that meal (maybe even more).

In reality that week you hadn’t created a calorie deficit – your cheat meal meant you’d hit your TDEE instead.  Now the lack of progress makes more sense.  Essentially that cheat meal has sabotaged your progress.

Does that mean not having the food? Of course not, but you need to be aware of what your consuming at every meal.  That way you can have that takeaway on Saturday but know you are still in a calorie deficit – this is how you can start seeing results.

Once you accept that labeling a meal or day a ‘cheat’ doesn’t mean it has not calories or impact on your diet you can start to see results.