Who Are Cheat Meals Really Cheating?

Updated: Jan 31, 2020

Back when I began exercising, when I was just starting out on my fitness journey, I used to eat like the fit pros and my fitness idols. At the time they were the only dietary resource to learn from that seemed to make sense back in the early 2000s. The reasoning I followed their approach was simply because they looked how I wished to someday look myself: ripped, muscular and strong AF - that was my goal. I was blinded by the physique goals and would listen to any advice they shared to do with eating and training. I would literally be copycat, simply because there wasn’t someone else questioning if this was correct. (I will point out social media was only just on the scene, and the likes of Instagram wasn’t a massive thing as it is nowadays) The method to reach your dream body meant you’d need to eat clean foods, no room to deviate, and you’d eat single ingredient foods only. If it was viewed to be ‘dirty’ this would be seen as ‘cheating’ and you’d be a failure if you couldn’t stick to it. Now, I hold my hands high, at the time I saw great results. My clients followed the same strategy and got success too. However, my 9 years in the game has given me so much more knowledge, and these days I would never dream of recommending the same approach to every one of my clients just because it’s easy. We’ve got different preferences, goals, personality types and activity levels – all of these things will determine which nutritional method I advise for each person. In another 10 years I might preaching something new again! What contradicts ‘clean eating’ is the use of cheat meals. You’re banned from touching processed foods during the week (or however long you follow the diet for), but when cheat meals come knocking this is forgotten and it’s a free-for-all. You can eat whatever you want and as much as you want. Totally ridiculous. And if you haven’t read my article detailing the basic science of “calories-in vs calories-out” in relation to fat loss, you can find it here. My real problems started when I used to eat like this. I would be strict for 6 days, and on the 7th I would completely gorge on food until I was so full I felt physically sick. This causes two big issues:

1. Eating Disorders

Yes, I know this sounds extreme, and to be honest, it can be. In the worst cases we are talking about anorexia and bulimia, but in the more common scenarios this can simply manifest into a seriously unhealthy relationship with food. Following a diet based solely on nutritious whole-foods and being permanently in a calorie deficit will allow you to lower your body fat levels- there’s no denying that. And while this can appear to be the healthiest way of living from the outside looking in, what we are really seeing is a lifestyle which is based purely around restriction and negativity. Think about the vocabulary! You’re taught that the foods you enjoy are ‘dirty’ and if you eat them you are ‘cheating’. Foods are no longer being viewed as tasty or satisfying or nutritious, they are seen just seen as ‘good’ or ‘bad’- I’ve even heard some foods being labelled as ‘syns’ in certain diet cultures. This affects everyone in different ways. For me I remember the constant feeling of anxiety when leaving the house knowing I’d have to eat a meal away from home, or going to social events. There’d be a huge panic inside me working out what I could eat from the menu, I actually felt stuck. The worst part is, in a weird way, I’d tell myself that these awful emotions were actually good. I’d learned that pain and suffering equals reward. That feeling of emptiness and distress caused by food meant I hadn’t cheated. You can’t tell me that isn’t an eating disorder. Please don’t get me wrong here, you have to leave your comfort zone to get some results, and you have to display some willpower to alter your habits and see positive changes, but these extremes are not normal. Having some discipline is not the same as feeling genuine upset. Cheat meals are encouraging that negative relationship, not to mention being horribly testing on the gut and wreaking havoc with your hormone levels.

2. You are holding yourself back form results.

In order to progress with fat loss you need to be in a calorie deficit consistently. It’s science. In fact if you’re interested in the more specific science, it is estimated that in order to lose 1lb of fat you need to burn 3500 calories, just as it takes the same amount of extra calories to gain 1lb of fat. Those quick mathematicians out there will have already worked out that to lose 1lb a week you need a deficit of 500 cals a day. So let’s say Sunday through Monday you’ve managed to stay consistent and have kept to that -500, and are well on your way to losing the 1lb this week. You’re currently at a weekly deficit of 3000 calories coming into Saturday. Cheat day. You gorge on all those foods you had craved but denied yourself in the week until you’re ready to explode, and all of a sudden you’ve written off the hard work of the week in just one sitting. Don’t believe it’s that easy?

Imagine your cheat meal is a medium pizza from a fast food place: that’s around 1700 cals, not including that garlic dip or upgrading to stuffed crust. Add a few wings on the side, some wedges, cheesy garlic bread and you’re easily racking up a few hundred extra, plus if you’re like me you’ll be upgrading to the XXL size and that is going to be significantly more. Now you finish off with that tub of your fave ice cream you been saving in the freezer and there’s 1000 calories to top it off. Washing it down with that full-fat fizzy pop, a beer or a glass of wine, and you’ve eaten back your deficit and then some: you’ve actually put yourself in a surplus for the week and therefore gained some body fat, even after a week of totally guilt-free clean eating. Was it really worth it? The whole idea seems silly. If everyone was better informed we wouldn’t be talking about cheat meals like they’re okay. That principle is based on the negative mindset of labelling foods as ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’, when the simple science is that some foods are more calorie dense than others so you can’t eat as much of them and remain in a deficit. I’ll say it once more for the folks at the back. IT’S THE AMOUNT OF FOOD, NOT THE SOURCE. If you’re still struggling with this concept or don’t believe me, here’s that link again. The key to fat loss is finding a measurement approach that works for you. It could be anything from counting calories with an app to using the hand-sizing principle, but there is not a single food that you can eat a limitless amount of because it is viewed as clean. It’s not me, it’s science. This is a non-negotiable principle. It’s the sole mechanism of fat loss: eat less calories than you burn. The only way for a diet to work will be if it puts you in a deficit, no matter how fancy or complex it masks itself. So, you can probably tell, I’m not a fan of cheat days. I will always preach to my clients the same habits I adhere to myself. Whilst it might not be the exact approach I take, it will be something based on sustainability, flexibility and mostly, enjoyability. Anything that involves the word ‘cheat’ (or any negative words for that matter) is influencing your food choices with guilt, and living a healthy lifestyle is as much about the mental mindset too. When it comes to the consumption of those ‘dirty’ foods, you have two choices: fit it in to your daily calories, or enjoy a sensible amount of it and move on. Either is okay: no regrets. If you’ve found yourself relating to a lot of this content, get in touch with me. I’ve been there. I had a method that worked for me once but was altogether detrimental, and I know how married to an approach you can get. Together, we can work out a nutritional method that is suited to your goals and get you living a happier, healthier lifestyle.

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