"Cheat" meals are a well-known feature of many new healthy eating regimens. You can’t be perfect all the time, the thinking goes, so why not plan to have one or two indulgent meals a week that fall outside your healthy confines?
Proponents say that the mental break can help keep you motivated the rest of the week. If weight loss is your goal, some experts even claim that varying your caloric intake can help prevent the dreaded “weight loss plateau" by stimulating a metabolism-boosting hormone, leptin.
But critics argue the very concept of a “cheat” meal perpetuates a disordered view of eating that separates food into "good" and “bad” categories. They also point out that cheat meals can lead to bingeing, which makes it more difficult to get back on track. Finally, it transforms the day-to-day practice of healthy eating into a slog you need to be “rewarded” for at the end of a tough week, instead of a pleasure unto itself.
So what should you believe? We asked two experts to weigh in on the controversial practice.
Dionne Detraz, an integrative dietitian at the University of California, San Francisco, says it is true that the occasional high-calorie meal may increase production of leptin, the metabolism booster that also suppresses appetite. But, she added, not all cheat meals are equal: Foods that are high in protein and carbs seem to have the biggest impact on leptin, while high fat foods don't affect the hormone as much. And drinking alcohol actually has the opposite effect -- it decreases leptin secretion.
Detraz has found that the concept of cheating can psychologically help her clients keep motivated through the monotony of a healthy lifestyle.
“It’s unrealistic to think that people will stick to a restricted diet 100 percent of the time,” she said. "This allows for some favorites while sticking to the overall goal.”
For most of her clients, Detraz adopts a 90/10 approach. If we eat three meals a day, we eat 21 meals a week. Ninety percent, or about 19 of those meals should follow healthy guidelines that keep you on track to fulfill your goals. But 10 percent, or two per week, can be less restricted. This plan people achieve their health goals in a “sustainable” way, she said, and once they reach their target, that approach can relax to an 80/20 ratio.
“If you can successfully eat an occasional ‘cheat' meal without problems, then it isn’t really cheating,” Detraz concluded. "It’s enjoying pleasurable foods in balance with a healthy diet.”
Nutritionist Lisa Young, author of The Portion Teller Plan, agrees with Detraz. "Cheat" meals aren’t for stepping outside of your program, Young says, but rather a part of your program, and will help you stick to your newfound healthy eating habits. In other words, "cheat" is a misnomer -- you’re not being unfaithful to your lifestyle, you’re just enjoying it.
That said, if you tend to emotionally eat, have control issues with food or can’t rein it in after a splurge, talk to your nutritionist or doctor before adopting a cheat meal practice.
For the rest of us, here are five tips for effectively deploying and enjoying your special meals, courtesy of Detraz and Young:
1. Like all things, these meals should be enjoyed in moderation.
In other words, don’t let your cheat meal become an epic food weekend. The truth about the metabolism-boosting meal is that it only takes a slight increase in calories -- say, an extra 300 or so -- to be effective, says Detraz.
“It’s not a license to binge,” said Detraz. “You have to be able to have some focus and self-control to allow for one ‘cheat' meal and not have that trickle into a whole weekend."
2. You have to be honest with yourself.
Some foods are more nutritious for you than others. And some foods are more “triggering” -- that is, they’re more likely to make you lose control -- than others. That’s why, if you know you can’t stop once you dig into the cereal and milk, you shouldn't make it a part of your cheat meal.
"If the ‘cheat' meal becomes a trigger or becomes something they obsess over all week, then this would not be a healthy approach for them,” said Detraz.
3. Plan your cheat meal.
Emotional overeating is what makes our relationship with food weird. Don’t let your “cheat” meal be the time you scarf potato chips in the office kitchen after a stressful meeting, or rummage through your pantry in the middle of the night. Make a plan, include other people, and let it be fun, says Young.
4. Let go of that perfectionistic streak.
If you’re going to indulge in cheat meals, you have to really give yourself permission to enjoy it. For some people, eating a cheat meal may trigger feelings of guilt or shame, even if you’ve planned for it and ate it the way you wanted to.
"The people who fail at traditional diet programs tend to be all-or-nothing,” said Young. "It’s impossible to be perfect all the time, so getting rid of that perfectionistic mentality is healthier at the end of the day."
5. Get back on the horse!
So you’ve had your cheat meal. It was wonderful. It was just what you wanted. Now take that satisfaction and jump right back into your normal routine, says Young. Whether that means keeping a temporary food diary to get back on track, or exercising in the morning to keep you motivated, do what works to remind yourself of your plan and your goals.