Why I’ve stopped including cheat meals in my diet, and why you should, too.
Cheat meals are perpetuating the cycle of good food vs. bad food. They assign morality to what we eat. How can you shift your perspective to find freedom with food again?
First, let’s uncover what a cheat meal or cheat day is. It’s a technique that many dieters use to reward themselves for following the “food rules” of their diet all week. It’s something to look forward to, and a way to eat the foods that the diet plan doesn’t include. Before we move on, let me ask you this thought to ponder: Why doesn’t the plan include that food you “cheat” with?
Here’s why that diet or food plan has “cheat food.” It’s because any diet plan labels food as good or bad. That’s it. Black and white. The food is either on the plan (good) or off the plan (bad). This way of thinking has been so deeply ingrained in our psyche, that we start to believe that food is good or bad, when in actuality, food is neutral, neither good, nor bad. When we include “cheats” into our eating plans, it implies we are doing something bad.
Can we please take the morality out of eating?
Now, before I go onto my soap box of why cheat meals are doing more damage than good, here’s a thought about why they can be good and useful, physiologically speaking. When you follow a strict diet, such as paleo, keto, herbivore, carnivore, vegan, gluten free, mediterranean, cookie diet, cabbage soup diet, or any other you can think of, your body gets used to that way of eating. When you throw in a cheat meal or day, for example, now your body gets confused. This is what helps your body to practice what’s called “metabolic flexibility.” This is the reason why I don’t recommend folks stick to a specific “diet plan” long term unless it’s medically necessary.
For example, if you follow a ketogenic diet, your body becomes very efficient at utilizing fat as fuel. But what human bodies need to know how to do, is quickly shift from fat as fuel, to sugar/glucose as fuel. This is called metabolic flexibility, when the body can efficiently use what it’s given, not getting used to one way or the other, but rather efficient at switching between both.
So, yes, cheat meals/days can help improve metabolic flexibility in some. But please work with a nutritionist if you’re trying to improve your metabolic flexibility so that you can do it safely!
But next, let’s talk about the 80/20 rule in eating. This is a phrase that I’ve often used with my clients, and why I’ve been changing my thoughts lately. In the 80/20 rule, we’ve always been so focused on the 80% of so called “healthy” eating, that the 20% kind of gets left out as a free for all. Should we be focusing on the 20% more? If the 20% is your cheat day or meal, it now is labeled as “bad,” when in actuality, it’s just as important as the 80%! (metabolic flexibility, anyone?) Sure, we want most of the foods we choose to eat to be nutritious and full of the building blocks our bodies need to thrive and grow healthy cells. That’s why I still follow the 80/20 rule myself. But some weeks are more 50/50, and that’s OK! What I want you to stop doing, is stop labeling the 20% as bad. It is not bad. It is not good. It just IS.
Do you have fear about needing discipline to eat? Like if you allowed yourself to “cheat” anytime you wanted, that you’d go completely hog wild? You’re not alone. Let me share a quick story to explain why that fear is just an example of irrational societal programming.
Take a child after halloween, for example. They come home with a bag full of candy. If no guidelines are given, the parents would think that their child would eat all of the candy at once. And yes, that may very well happen. But what happens next is the important part. The child may listen to their hunger cues. They may get a stomach ache. They learn, just as us adults learn how food makes us feel (if we pay attention enough). The kids may do it again the next day with the candy. Overeating until they have a stomach ache. But what eventually happens is that they no longer want the candy. Why? Because it’s no longer the “forbidden fruit.” The candy no longer becomes something “bad.” It just is. In fact, on a basic level, it’s just fuel. It’s just energy in the body, like any other food would break down to be.
This is an example of the habituation theory. This theory states that when you’re exposed enough to a certain thing, in this case, certain foods, they no longer have a strong emotion or “pull” attached to them. When you know you can have a cheat food or meal anytime, you eventually don’t care about it, or label it as bad. It’s no longer a novel “reward” but rather just simply food. The food goes from forbidden to safe. When all foods are seen as safe, available, and accessible, they become morally equal and thus the need for a cheat food, day, or meal goes out the window.
“But I don’t have enough willpower to eliminate cheat meals from my routine” is often something I hear in my practice. Let me ask you this. Why do you need the willpower in the first place? It’s because you’ve been so deeply trained in the good/bad morality of food, and restriction of the “bad” is a good thing. But when you restrict, you tend to overeat the “bad” foods eventually, feeling shame, guilt, disempowerment, thus perpetuating the cycle of even more restriction. Truth is, willpower has nothing to do with it. Lack of willpower often means that the body is just underfed. It means that it’s hungry and will start craving anything to give it a quick boost of energy. Quick boosts don’t typically come from broccoli. They come from carbohydrates like cookies, crackers, chips, and snacks. So, if you’re struggling with your willpower, maybe you’re simply underfed with nutritious foods throughout the day (another reason why working with a nutrition practitioner is so important, so you can know what would help you feel more satisfied).
Our bodies require different fuel on different days. Some days we are more active than others, and may need two breakfasts instead of one. When you label the 2nd breakfast as something bad, you’ve entered the restriction mentality. You now feel morally wrong for eating twice as much at breakfast than on normal days. But the truth is, your body needs those calories, and if you honor that, you understand that there is no shame involved. When you see that 2nd breakfast as something bad, or simply don’t eat it because of that reason, you may end up right in the “underfed” category yet again, fighting the balance of willpower and resulting in the consuming of quick calories to feed the body the fuel it’s craving.
If we can habituate our eating so that all foods are neither good or bad, the need for cheat days goes out the window. I want you to find freedom in your eating. Here’s my challenge to you as a way to test out the theory.
We will be doing this together, in the TBP Membership this month (December 2021)! Come "unpack" this lesson and start habituating foods back into your life the healthy way! It's tough to do alone, so come join us in the TBP membership and we will do it together!
So, I’m not saying that you should throw the 80/20 rule out the window when it comes to eating. We still need to eat more foods that provide the vitamins, minerals and building blocks for our cells to thrive than we do foods that don’t provide the nutrition. What I am saying is that we need to change the phrasing of the “cheat” meal. We need to stop assigning morality to foods and start honoring them all as neutral fuels for the body.
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