Should I Cheat on a Diet?
The pros and cons of ‘cheat meals’
Matthew Kadey of Environmental Nutrition looks at the dieter’s age-old question: is it okay to cheat on a diet? Or should I follow my weight-loss diet strictly and carefully and avoid “cheat meals”?
Many people live for the glorious opportunity of diets. This concept of eating your favorite treats while otherwise following what you consider an optimal diet is often referred to as “cheat meals.”
Many nutrition experts recommend that people don’t try to be a dietary saint all of the time and incorporate some leeway into an otherwise healthy eating plan. “You can eat healthily and be healthy without eating nutritious foods 100% of the time,” says Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition expert with a focus on mental wellness. “When you remember this, it’s easier to stay on track with healthy eating because a less healthy meal isn’t viewed as a setback.”
Reasons to cheat on a diet – i.e., ‘hedonic deviations’
Studies suggest that long-term adherence to restrictive diet programs is poor when there is little allowance for dietary wiggle room. Whether it’s a piece of cake, a scoop (or two!) of ice cream, or a juicy burger, scheduled splurges can provide a much-needed release valve from your normal eating pattern.
It may benefit those with reward-driven personalities the most. If someone thrives on incentives and is in the proper headspace when it comes to eating habits, a cheat meal can be viewed as a reward for sticking to a commitment to healthy eating and something to work toward.
“Some people like to plan for their indulgences and others do better with a more flexible approach, eating them when the urge comes up,” notes Cassetty. “No matter which way you approach it, remember that one role of less healthy food is to bring pleasure and enjoyment, and that’s part of being healthy.” She adds that learning how to enjoy less healthful foods is part of developing a healthy and balanced relationship with your body and food.
A study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that planning “hedonic deviations” can help a person stay motivated and stick to long-term goals. For instance, the researchers showed that those who had been told they could deviate from their somewhat rigid diets one day a week had higher capacities to self-regulate and came up with more strategies to help them overcome temptation. Also, the subjects who were not permitted to cheat on a diet showed decreases in their ability to self-regulate by the end of the diet, while the intermittent diet breakers felt more positive about the diet and motivated to continue at the end of the study than the control volunteers.
Downsides to planning to break a diet
In the end, though, your personality may be the determining factor in how successful or detrimental this “cheat meal” philosophy is. “For some people, the concept of cheat meals can be damaging and triggering, particularly for anyone who has had a poor relationship with food or their body and has participated in any form of disordered eating,” Cassetty says. If you believe that if you are “cheating” you are eating “bad” food this can set up a detrimental mind game. “Beating yourself up over what you eat can be physically and mentally unhealthy for certain people,” adds Cassetty.
Also, by saying “cheat meal,” someone may think that they are restricting themselves at all other times from things that they enjoy, which can make a healthy eating lifestyle harder to sustain.
Instead of thinking that a salad is something to enjoy, a mindset may develop where it’s looked upon as a means to getting towards a reward meal of greasy pizza.
When it comes to cheat meals, everyone must find what works for them and be honest about whether it’s serving their best interests. “Remember that it’s what you do most often that matters most,” says Cassetty.
To date, we don’t have a definitive answer on whether planned cheat meals can improve adherence to overall healthy eating and who it works best for. But if you decide you want to go sideways, here are some best practices:
Cheat meals are likely a better idea than allotting yourself a “free day” to eat whatever you want. You don’t want your healthy eating days to simply be trying to make up for a full day of going overboard.
Pencil in a predetermined meal or two each week for treating yourself. This inserts some control and provides something to work toward.
Be true to your indulgences.
Choose foods you enjoy and have an urge for. A piece of fruit will probably not satisfy you if you want ice cream. Remember, the purpose can be to feel like you are breaking the rules.
Going too long between cheating could lead to a complete cave-in. So try letting your dietary guard down at least once every seven to 10 days. It can take some trial and error to pinpoint what works best for you.
Less is more.
One way to successfully work some cheating into your diet is by adding a small amount of a vice food to an otherwise healthy meal. In a Vanderbilt University study, participants felt just as satisfied with a meal when they ate a mini-portion of something not-so-healthy and filled the rest of their plate with nutritious food as when they indulged solely in a meal of unhealthy fare.
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