To Cheat, Or Not to Cheat?

If you spend any time looking into fitness and health recommendations, you are bound to come across a steamy topic: the cheat.

No, this isn’t cheating on your workout partner with another bro – because that is against the bro code, and you only lift with your main bro on bro arm day, bro…

Sorry got off topic there.

Cheating – in reference to cheat days or meals – is a highly discussed topic amongst fitness crowds, gym rats, weekend warriors, and general fitness peeps.

Essentially a cheat meal is a meal where you just eat whatever you want, sometimes to the point of sickness, and disgust. It is supposed to offer some sort of relief or excuse to crush down a whole pizza and a tub of ice cream.

While many pros swear by cheat meals, and embrace them to the point of shoving them in our face on facebook, twitter, and Instagram, do we need them, or should we have them?

So what do I think?

Honestly, I don’t like them. The term itself “cheat meal” adds a very negative association to eating in general, which can lead to an even more unhealthy habit – the binge/purge cycle.

The concept of eating super healthy all week until you can no longer take it, and capping the week off with a cheat is an unhealthy mental practice for most people. This extreme deprivation throughout the week can lead to some serious mental and emotional over eating once your “willpower” runs out.

Scientists have actually studied “willpower” and have found that it is finite, and can eventually run out. When subjects have been forced to forgo eating cookies, and instead must continue to choose vegetables over and over again, they can usually do okay. But when introduced to another task that takes determination and focus (a puzzle for example), the subjects who were forced to will themselves to not eat cookies gave up on the puzzle much faster than the group that had free choice.

We all know how kids act when you FORBID them from doing something, or eating certain foods. As soon as they go to a friend’s house where said food is allowed, they go crazy with it and eat it to the max.

For people who already struggle with weight loss, emotional eating, etc, cheat meals or days can add even more confusion and mental stress to their lives.

What I recommend instead

I have often discussed the 90/10 principles when it comes to eating, and this strategy has helped many clients get results they want, without feeling deprived of a little “fun”.

If you can eat 90% of your calories in a day (or week) from high quality, nutritious foods, then eating 10% of them from junk will not make a huge loss in your results, and still allow you to remain sane.

While there is still some limit of self-control to cap your junk calories at 10%, it is a much better practice for the long-term.

Here is an example:

A 50-year-old, 5′ 8″ female weighing 200 pounds is trying to lose weight at a health rate of 1 pound per week. She works out 3 hours per week, and gets in at least 10,000 steps everyday through daily activities and a few walks with her dog.

After calculating her calorie goals HERE, I would recommend she shoots for an intake 1,600 calories per day. 10% of 1600 is 160 calories. This means, she could allow herself to eat 160 calories per day from her favorite junk food. Yes, the food is still not the most healthy option, and if you are looking for the best and fastest results, then maybe you should reconsider…

While this is not a lot, it still allows for a few small cookies after dinner, or at work, or about 2 fun size Snickers bars.

If this is something that this woman can do, and keep in control, she can still meet her caloric intake goals AND enjoy a little treat everyday.

Now, if she would rather enjoy a little more of a junky snack, she could bank up some of the 10% junk calories from a few days and use them on a Friday night. Now, yes, this does sound more like the cheat meal that I am against – but – it is more of a controlled cheat, because you are still keeping in your calorie goals.

If her goal is 1600 calories per day, that is 11,200 calories per week. 10% of that is 1,120 calories. Say that she went all week, eating healthy and following her plan and all of a sudden the weekend is here and she has 2 events for the weekend.

She could spilt her 1,120 junk calories up and enjoy a 560 calorie treat on Friday and Saturday night (glass of wine, dessert, whatever). The key is: she is still staying within her calorie goals, and not going completely crazy and eating whole cake.

I honestly prefer a mix, especially if I know I have a night out over the weekend, or a party or function to go to, I will plan on enjoying the night, guilt free, and make healthy choices throughout the week leading up.

Bottom line is: you need to be honest with yourself and think about which situation you can handle better, and what works best for YOU.

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Stay healthy my friends,