The problem with cheat meals

By Claudia Zapata | 2014-12-09 05:00:55 | 0 Comments

FullSizeRender-7Is it because I’m a dietitian or are you also hearing about “cheat meals” like it’s your job?

Your friends apologize while reaching for the bread basket, with the “this is my cheat meal” disclaimer. Others go all out with a 16-hour “cheat day.” And, cheating during the holidays becomes a “cheat month” with a promise to get back on track on the 1st of the year.

Negative, guilt-inducing and buzz-killing, using words like “cheating” represents everything that’s wrong with our approach to eating.  Seriously, unless you’re training for a sport that requires a weigh-in, competing in a bathing suit, or walking the red carpet in a vintage Audrey Hepburn, please stop cheating on your diet.

Never mind what you’re eating. Saying you’re cheating assumes every other meal you eat that week basically sucks – the joy out of eating. And if it does, you need a new approach and a few recipes. Sure, the majority of what I eat is nutritious, but I never feel like I’m shorting myself or my family. I never walk away hungry. And, I’m definitely not dieting. Once you come to enjoy and appreciate “good for you” food, a plate of roasted veggies isn’t a diet; it’s delicious (Not convinced? Try one of these).

People always want to know if dietitians cheat on their diets. I won’t hit up a drive-thru or a row of Oreo cookies (at some point you can’t go back). But, if you’re going to call it that, I’ll “cheat” by eating too much dark chocolate or an extra serving of my favorite coconut milk ice cream. Ingredients still matter.

That being said, I will have the chips and guac at Guajillos (you kinda have to). I will steal French fries from Sean’s plate. And I’ll order the Nutella cake when I’m at a Jason Dady restaurant. Eating those foods used to take me back on a Catholic school guilt trip, but being on the diet/cheating/guilt cycle was exhausting, and I tossed that thinking out with the low-fat Snackwells.

My older-and-wiser strategy is much kinder: I eat real food, mostly plant-based. Cook more often than not. Don’t keep junk food in the house. And, I know how to order healthfully at a restaurant.

I eat what I like, and yeah, I like healthy. But I’m not going to freak out over eating something fried or made of chocolate, because I like that, too. I don’t see how calling it cheating is helpful or healthful. Eat it. Enjoy it. Move on. 

Cheating categorizes food into good or bad, and if you’re on a trendy diet, the list of good/bad can be pretty misguided (my sister recently cheated on her Whole 30 diet with lentils. Puh-lease). I prefer real vs. processed/junk/just no/why.

The well-intentioned strategy can also set you up to overeat a lot of crap, especially if you fly off the handle on your cheat day like it’s the Last Supper.

Whatever you eat, the best answer to eating healthfully is to eat mindfully. Eat real food, and taste it. Really taste it. Enjoy what you eat – sans the guilt of cheating or sinning. So what if you’re having birthday cake? Or gasp! pasta? Admire your food, smell it, and savor every bite. And, get into the habit of listening to your body so you eat when hungry and stop when full.

Saying you’re “good” or “bad” based on what you eat isn’t healthy (and isn’t healthy what you’re after?).



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