These days almost every diet or meal plan incorporates a weekly ‘cheat meal.’ It’s designed to satisfy your cravings and make sure you don’t feel completely deprived of your favorite foods. The assumption is that if you know you can indulge in your favorite foods once a week, you’ll have the discipline to stay on track the rest of the time. It may seem logical, but clinical psychologist Cassandra Dunn believes there are a few good reasons why you should consider ditching your cheat meals and focusing on treating yourself instead.
1. Cheating is bad.
Regardless of the context, the word ‘cheat’ is universally recognized as being bad and wrong. We all know we shouldn’t cheat on a math test, our taxes or our spouse because cheating is dishonest. The problem with using this kind of language around food is that it perpetuates the false idea that there are ‘bad’ foods and ‘good’ foods. This kind of moralizing quickly transfers from the food to the person eating it. If you eat bad food, you’re a bad person. When you tell yourself you’re allowed to ‘cheat’ once a week, then should you (heaven forbid) eat those foods at some other time during the week, you’re likely to experience guilt and self-recrimination. Having a healthy relationship with food means not having shame around food choices.
2. Food shouldn’t have rules.
By definition, cheating means you’re breaking the rules. Having rigid rules around food is treading another dangerous path. You’re far better off establishing healthy but flexible principles around food that allow for some spontaneity, rather than attempting to achieve a level of perfection that simply does not exist. Guidelines offer flexibility. Rules do not. For many people, adhering to very strict food rules can lead to disordered eating. In fact, there’s a name for it: orthorexia nervosa is a diagnosis given when clean eating is taken so far that it creates anxiety and mental health issues.
3. Who are you cheating?
If cheating means breaking the rules, who is setting those rules? And therefore, who exactly are you cheating? Most people who have a long history of dieting have experienced failure many times over and this leads to a deep lack of self-trust. That lack of faith in yourself can create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which you constantly let yourself down. Creating a sustainable, healthy and balanced lifestyle means learning that you can be trusted to listen to your body, to have a treat occasionally and to get back on track. It’s when you don’t trust yourself that you’re more likely to put your faith into a strict rules-based eating plan with limited flexibility. Not only does it set you up for failure but the more you rely on your ‘plan’ instead of your body and your intuition, the more disconnected you become from your body’s own signals about what it wants and needs.
4. The bounce-back effect
It’s been proven that deprivation leads to excess. Obviously, the point of incorporating a ‘cheat meal’ into your diet is so that this doesn’t happen, but when it’s a one-off event, you’re more likely to eat much more than you normally would because you know it’s your only opportunity. This potentially sets up the same kind of deprivation/bingeing cycle of yo-yo dieting, and we all know that’s not a healthy pattern to fall into.
5. Where’s the joy?
Food should provide nourishment and enjoyment. Some foods are indulgent and should be considered a ‘sometimes’ food in the context of a healthy lifestyle. Treating them as a luxury or a treat increases your enjoyment of them, whereas treating them as a bad choice sucks all the joy out of those special occasions. Of course, you may choose to stick to a healthy eating plan the majority of the time. Even if you do only treat yourself once a week, consider changing the language you’re using. Replace the word ‘cheat’ with ‘treat,’ and remember that a little flexibility and spontaneity is what life’s all about. Nothing wrong with that.
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