Cheat Meals Screw Up Your Relationship with Food

Cheat MealsLately, I’ve heard a lot about cheat meals. I don’t run in “diet” circles, so the entire concept was new to me. Apparently, a cheat meal is a discrete time to eat “bad” foods, a kind of release valve for people on a diet. The rationale is that scheduling these meals keeps you committed to healthy eating the rest of the week. Some advocates also display a limited understanding of physiology by suggesting cheat meals will “rev” your metabolism. This dietary approach gestures towards moderation by allowing certain “bad” foods, but ultimately it only playacts at a healthy relationship with food.

Not Just Body Builders

I’m surprised so many smart people subscribe to cheat meals. One of my savviest friends follows the dietary advice of her personal trainer (Let’s take a moment and remember that personal trainers are NOT qualified to give specific dietary advice). She asked her trainer a question about how to keep herself on track when she falls off her diet plan. I thought the answer to this question was obvious, as in screw your rigid diet plan. Alas, that wasn’t his advice, unsurprising since he came up with the diet in the first place.

His advice: Remember those cheat meals, keep your eye on the “prize” (he didn’t specify the prize, presumably he means weight loss, unless someone is winning a pony that I don’t know about), remember your goals, be the strongest you can be.

This is CRAZY advice. He basically said, “cultivate an unhealthy relationship with food in which some foods are good and others are bad, depend on brute willpower to lose weight, and obsess about prohibited foods until you are allowed to eat them at pre-established times.”

At best, following this advice will make you a really annoying person to be around, and, at worst, this advice encourages disordered eating and a screwed up relationship with food.


Cheat meals are a fairly recent phenomenon which started in muscle bound circles and expanded outward. Therefore, evidence on its psychological effects is pretty slim. However, a recent study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders examined language and imagery surrounding the #cheatmeal hashtag on social media. The findings were unsurprising and troubling: Cheat meals code a lot like eating disorders. This isn’t to say that every person who partakes in cheat meals has an eating disorder, but rather that in a Venn diagram, #cheatmeals and eating disorders would have some definite overlap.

The authors wrote:

Of particular interest, within this theme, there was a reoccurring representation of loss of control when consuming cheat meals. For example, in an image displaying 10 jars of nut butters, the poster noted “I can’t control myself around these bad boys on prep, I need to hide them,” while another image displaying remaining slices of a pizza noted “oops I did it again.” Similarly, in a photo displaying an assortment of restaurant dishes, the poster noted “I was going to be good with the main meal, then it was to be good with the main meal and have dessert, then it was go all out.”

The study’s authors were careful not to explicitly equate cheat meals with bulimia or binge eating, but they wrote that “further examination of this dietary phenomenon is integral to a comprehensive clinical understanding of potentially problematic health behavior trends that are driven by physique-ideals.” That is a wordy way of saying “Cheat meals aren’t good.”

Frankly, even if cheat meals do not involve binge eating or a loss of control, the entire notion that one’s physique goals depend on rigid periods of restraint and indulgence promotes an antagonistic relationship with food. In this model, you are either successfully restricting yourself or you are “cheating.” If this isn’t an eating disorder, it certainly looks a lot like a gateway drug to one.

Get Healthy Without Cheating

How do we reconcile wanting to have better eating habits with not wanting to live in a world in which food can be a form of “cheating”? Because we really don’t want to live in that world. Indeed, one of the first things those with eating disorders work on is NOT thinking of foods as good or bad.

Therefore, let’s stop thinking in terms of cheating, and let’s lower our expectations. Don’t expect a pristine diet with no chocolate. Consider the chocolate a part of a normal diet, and not at preplanned “cheating” intervals (remember, chocolate isn’t cheating; it is normal). Don’t expect yourself to be “perfect” in all that you eat, and don’t follow rigid diet plans that demonize food groups without a specific medical or preference reason.

But I Still Want to Lose Weight and/or Get Healthy

If you feel out of control with your food choices, if you feel overwhelmed, I recommend writing down what you eat…for a little while. Some people like to do this forever. But for most people the idea of food journaling ad infinitum is a major buzzkill. And it can also become obsessive if you feel like you NEED to food journal and count calories. Ideally, you can count calories for a few days or weeks and figure out how much you are really eating. Often the proponents of preplanned diet plans advertise their programs as “freeing you from counting calories.” But I have a hard time accepting rigid diet plans sprinkled with cheat meals as freeing.

Other programs say you should focus on habits rather than on food journaling. I agree with 90% of that sentiment. However, I don’t understand how you can truly identify the habits you would like to tweak without first having a baseline of your actual, honest to goodness, food habits (hence food journaling). That’s like trying to come up with a better spending plan without knowing how you spend your money in the first place (hello Amazon). Most people underestimate how much they eat when counting calories; this is especially true as the meals get larger. Therefore, I personally like periodic journaling as a way to establish norms versus journaling every single day. The impetus to fudge the numbers is less pronounced if the journaling is time limited.

It’s Your Relationship

Anything that puts too much focus on food will mess up your relationship with it. Even food journaling can do this if you aren’t neutral about the journal, or if you beat yourself up for eating the “wrong” things.

Often, guilt comes from accepting someone else’s definition of a good diet. We are told to be paleo or vegan or sugar free or dairy free or wheat free, etc. These blanket statements do not allow for individual preferences. They also depend on exclusion, which can be guilt inducing.

Absolve yourself of guilt, but also be honest about your food priorities. For some, financial and time considerations are most important. This might mean depending on simple, inexpensive recipes. For others, environmental or ethical considerations rank supreme. This might mean animal based cuisines just won’t work for you. And for most people, some combination of these factors play a role. Be wary of people who do not recognize the individuality of food priorities and preferences.

Of course, taste and nourishment considerations are also super duper important. For example, my 3 year old may prefer to live off pretzels, but that choice doesn’t align with my value to not give him rickets.

Once you decide on your specific preferences and values, then see if your current food choices align with them. You’ll likely need to admit that some habits should be changed. But don’t judge yourself. The very name “cheat” is a type of judgment, a judgment on food, but also a judgement on the person consuming the food. If food becomes an enemy, it will haunt you and control your days. No thank you.

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