“Cheat” meals and why I don’t use that term, there’s no “perfect diet”, & other BS-busting
In case you hadn’t yet noticed, my coach colleague Zoe and I absolutely love to call out what isn’t working, and what could be done differently or more effectively or more inclusively in the fitness industry. In this article, I’m going to discuss one of those areas that really needs a lot of work within the nutrition realm, and how we approach food.
This article is based on a podcast episode. If you'd prefer to listen, check it out here.
A while ago, I got an Instagram message from a podcast listener named Kyla. Here’s what Kyla wrote:
"I absolutely love listening to your podcasts and tend to do so while at the gym for some added motivation. I was wondering how you feel about cheat days/meals? I tend to have an all or nothing attitude with my diet in that most of the time I do great and eat nutritious, healthy food. However, every now and then I get a craving, and once I have one treat it’s like I need to have allll the treats! I restrict it to a day and try not to overeat but I allow myself to eat whatever I please. Do you think this is healthy or beneficial at all? I mean, I know it’s certainly not good food to be consuming, however is there such a thing as a perfect diet 100% of the time? Thanks so much!"
I sent Kyla some voice messages back, but those really only scratched the surface of this topic. Before I call on the writing of some experts in this field, I have three things for you to consider: terminology, why we have cravings for treat foods in the first place, and there’s no such thing as a perfect diet.
1. Terminology is important.
I don’t use the word “cheat” to refer to food, because that instills a sense of guilt. And guilt is not a psychologically healthy emotion to have about food. Guilt is also adjacent to shame, where we take it one step further and believe we’re a bad person, rather than just feeling guilty about an action. Instead of “cheat”, I (and Coach Zoe, and our clients) use the term “treat”, which is much more positive. I feel the term “treat” is associated with enjoyment (which, of course, is the point).
The term “cheat” also implies that you’re on a strict program of some sort, with rules that you can break. Rules don’t work around food. Guidelines or principles do, because they allow for flexibility and spontaneity. Having very strict rules around food can lead to disordered eating patterns, anxiety, and guilt. What we try to work on with our clients is helping them create a life-long “new normal”. It’s not a nutrition plan. It’s not a diet. It’s life!
The term “cheat” also perpetuates the concept that there are “good” foods and “bad” foods. That’s in no way the case, and it can lead to us judging others — or ourselves — for our food choices, when we see ourselves as a bad person for having eaten a “bad” food.
I have a short piece on my blog called “Let’s kill the term “guilty pleasure” when it comes to food!”
Here's an excerpt:
Guilt implies that you’ve done something wrong. Since when is enjoying life (and delicious food) doing something wrong? The term “guilty pleasure” gets used a lot (e.g. in reference to pop culture TV shows or music), and there’s usually nothing wrong with it – except perhaps when it comes to food. We’re already bombarded by enough B.S. messages about how we should eat; the last thing we need is to be told how to feel about food too. When it relates to pop culture, a “guilty pleasure” is something we enjoy that others don’t deem worthy of praise; something sub-par. When it relates to food, a “guilty pleasure” is something that’s normally supposed to be “off-limits”; something we’re supposed to feel shame about enjoying. Why should anyone feel guilty about things that bring them enjoyment – especially food? You’re making the assumption that I feel guilt every time I have a “treat” food item. How f*cked up is that? Setting particular foods as “off-limits” in the first place is a recipe for disaster. It’s not an approach I use with my clients, because it doesn’t work. Things we set as “off-limits” usually become so enticing and all-consuming that not only do we go overboard when we finally allow ourselves to indulge in them, but we also feel guilty about it afterward. There’s no such thing as “bad” or “good” foods, by the way. There’s also no such thing as “cheat” foods (again, a word that instills guilt). Food is just a collection of molecules, not something about which to make arbitrary moral judgments. Guilt is a negative emotional response that can cause stress in the body, which leads many people to seek out stress reduction techniques (effective or otherwise) - which often includes more food! Talk about a negative spiral. The words we use can affect our beliefs about and relationship with food. Let’s strike terms like “guilty pleasure” and “cheat” foods out of our vocabulary!
2. Why are you having cravings for treat foods in the first place?
Is this particular food an emotional crutch? Are you eating due to stress? Boredom? Sadness? Could you look into some non-food ways of addressing these needs?
Restriction can also cause cravings. The human brain is a funny thing: as soon as you’re “not allowed” to eat certain things, you fixate on them.
Sometimes, it’s not about any of these reasons, and it’s just about wanting that incredible vegan glazed doughnut for the sake of enjoying said vegan glazed doughnut. And that, of course, is perfectly fine.
If you do have psychological or emotional reasons underlying food cravings, mindfulness meditation can be a fantastic practice. It has to be practiced, and practiced regularly, but it can allow you to take a step back from your own immediate reactions. It gives you some space between a feeling and your next action. So for instance, you have a little extra mindfulness between “I feel like eating a glazed doughnut” and actually eating it.
3. There is no such thing as a “perfect” diet 100% of the time.
I always tell our clients that the people who end up getting long-term results are not the ones who stayed on the bandwagon 100% of the time. That doesn’t exist. The people who end up getting long-term results are those who kept getting back on. Over and over.
Recently, one of our clients told me, “I have such an all-or-nothing approach to nutrition. I’m either “on” 100%, or completely off. And when I’m “on” at 100%, completely on point, it doesn’t last very long”.
So I said to her, “Let’s try an experiment. Instead of being 100% on point maybe 10% of the time, let’s aim for 80% on-point, 100% of the time.” That is what’s going to get you long-term, sustainable results and keep you sane in the process. So instead of “all-or-nothing”, it’s “always something”. We’re not striving for perfection, we’re aiming for eating in a way that supports our goals 80% of the time. This means treat or fun foods are built into your plan, so you don’t ever feel like you “fell off” a plan.
If you heard Robert Cheeke on the show in episode 94, you might recall he was talking about his new book : The Plant-Based Athlete. He interviewed countless professional athletes (who happen to be vegan), and learned about their day-to-day routines, including their nutrition habits. Robert said he was surprised to learn how many world-class competitive athletes will have treat foods like ice cream on a very regular basis.
What we might see on social media or in mainstream media about being 100% whole foods plant-based and not ever consuming oil or processed sugar or anything fun isn’t necessarily sustainable (or enjoyable) for most of us — including folks whose athletic performance is their livelihood.
Now let’s bring in some other experts to the discussion.
In this article, writer and former fitness coach Neghar Fonooni writes that treat days can teach you to appreciate your treats, and show you the difference in how you feel when you eat optimally, or less-than-optimally.
“Do I eat things that won't propel me towards my physique goals? Of course I do. Do I even eat things that blatantly undermine my goals? Absolutely. But it's not all the time, and it's not scheduled. Instead, I eat pretty much on-point with my goals approximately 80% of the time, although that number could certainly be considered arbitrary. The rest of the time, I relax. It's usually when there is a special event to attend or when I'm traveling. I don’t call this cheating. I call it life. Cheat days made me feel as though I had a window of time to consume all of the things of which I was deprived the rest of the week. They fueled guilt, over-eating, and disordered eating.”
"I don’t believe in cheating. For that reason, I never allow myself “cheat” meals. However, I also do not label any foods “off limits” so I would never have a reason to “cheat”. I listen to my body, I eat according to my personal preferences, and I always do it in moderation."
Molly Galbraith, founder of Girls Gone Strong, stops eating an indulgent food when the payoff is no longer greater than the price. The ‘payoff’ is taste, and the ‘price’ is calories or how the food makes you feel physically.
In this article, she states:
“Bread is not “bad.” Kale is not “good.” I’m not "good" for eating one thing, and "bad" for eating another. I’m not "on" or "off" the wagon. I’m not “cheating” on my diet. I’ve realized that salad and cupcakes can co-exist in the same meal. The universe will not implode.”
Chris Hemsworth of Thor fame has a fitness app and a website called Centr. His team has an excellent article called “5 reasons you should never use the words ‘cheat meal’ again”. In it, they write:
"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."
So, if you currently use terms like “cheat foods” or “cheat meals” or “guilty pleasure foods”, consider switching to something more positive and something that doesn’t involve shame — like “treat foods” or “fun foods”.
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