Why Cheat Meals Are Ruining Your Fat Loss Progress

Why Cheat Meals Are Ruining Your Fat Loss Progress January 16, 2024Leave a comment

You can’t wait.

You’ve worked so hard during the week, toiling away, avoiding all the foods you enjoy, hammering yourself at the gym, and doing everything in your power to force down that number on the scales. 

That one gargantuan, tasty meal you’ve saved up for awaits, as you know you’ll soon be able to devour everything you can in sight.

One pizza, a bucket of chicken wings, one tub of ice cream, a pack of biscuits, and a big family-sized bar of chocolate later – because, well, you know, why not? – and you feel a little sick.

Guilty even.

It quickly dawns on you that you’re now not only back at square one but have further exacerbated your damaged relationship with food, your body, and your mindset.

Ah.

It turns out that that ‘cheat meal’ wasn’t so beneficial after all. And, if anything, it’s only made matters worse.

‘Cheating’ on your fat loss goals is the biggest fallacy around health and fitness, and here’s why this troublesome concept is seriously damaging your long-term progress:

What Are Cheat Meals?

Cheat meals have been defined as meals that are characterised ‘by the consumption of an objectively large amount of food in a short amount of time, the loss or “letting go” of control, and subsequent attempts to compensate via restrictive dietary practices’ [1].

It’s that ‘off-plan’ meal people wait all week for, where they can cram as much tasty, calorific food as they can into their mouths before returning to their normal, restrictive dietary practices as swiftly as possible. 

There’s also evidence to suggest that people coin some meals ‘cheat meals’ if they eat something they haven’t planned but feel guilty for doing so, and require a justification for their non-adherence.

One study looking at cheat meal content on social media found that 54% of photos tagged ‘#cheatmeal’ displayed volumes of food that were consistent with a ‘binge episode,’ and caloric estimations of food pictures ranged from 214 calories to 9120 calories.

That’s a lot of food. 

71.3% of these images showed calorie-dense, hedonically-pleasing foods, such as ‘hamburgers, fries, pizza, and ice cream’ [2]. 

The concept of ‘cheating’ comes from adhering to restrictive dietary rules – often forbidding certain foods – and feeling the need to deviate from these guidelines at certain points throughout the week to sustain psychological sanity – often with perceived physiological benefits, too. 

Cheat meals have existed for decades. Unfortunately, their problems are only fully starting to be realised just now. 

What’s Wrong With Cheat Meals?

They’re Similar To Binge Eating Episodes

One of the most common traits of those diagnosed with a binge eating disorder is ‘dietary disinhibition’. 

That is, a behavioural indicator that signals a complete loss of control when eating, whereby that individual consumes significant quantities of food, independent of their level of restraint [3]. 

Those who engage in cheat meals often experience that loss of control, where they try to inhale as much food as possible with little regard for what or how much they consume. 

The chocolate, sweets, and crisps just keep on coming with no sign of stopping.

Aside from cheat meals containing a similar number of calories as those who regularly binge, the concept of ‘cheating’ is aligned with either ‘earning’ or ‘compensating’ for food intake. 

People either severely restrict before or after a cheat meal to make up for the calories they’ve ingested, leading to greater feelings of being out of control and the need to restrict harder. 

The vicious cycle continues. 

Not only do cheat meals, in this sense, create an unhealthy view of food but they predispose one to cyclical binge-and-restrict patterns, leading to a greater risk of physical and psychological health problems. 

They Encourage Rigid Dietary Restraint

It’s no secret that when people strive to lose body fat, they impose some form of dietary restraint upon themselves. 

Whether that be cutting out certain foods, striving to hit specific targets, or maintaining a regimented and specific meal schedule, this strict, rigid restraint sets inflexible and dichotomous boundaries that are seldom beneficial for long-term success [4].

Such uncompromising adherence rarely leads to sustainable weight loss. 

Individuals assume they’re either ‘on’ or ‘off’ their particular way of eating.

And, unfortunately, this ‘all or nothing’ approach to eating may increase the likelihood that a small lapse from being ‘on plan’ will lead to a full-blown ‘relapse’, which encourages further overeating. 

A cheat meal becomes a cheat day, which becomes a cheat weekend, which becomes a cheat week.

Those items – previously forbidden – signify a transition from being ‘on-diet’ or ‘off-diet’, which further reinforces a deviation from what they were supposed to be doing. 

Cheat meals encourage an either/or scenario, which corners people into a success/failure mindset and does little to foster a long-lasting, healthy relationship with food. 

People repeatedly find themselves having to start all over again, making each dieting attempt harder and harder and with fewer steps in the right direction.

They Possess Little Physiological Benefit

It has been argued that cheat meals may possess some physiological benefits to dieting, reducing the effects of continually losing body weight and body fat [5].

Small increases in energy intake (cheat meals, refeeds, diet breaks, etc.) may provide some advantages to decreases in energy expenditure and metabolic adaptations, but the argument that cheat meals can completely mitigate these changes is weak at best. 

Not only do cheat meals possess minimal upside to reducing the physiological costs of dieting, but cheat meals, in particular, have been found to be the worst of all non-linear dieting strategies when it comes to increasing calorie intake and providing a psychological reprieve from attempting to lose weight [6]. 

Because cheat meals are often categorised by the significant (read: crap-tonne) consumption of food, any theoretical benefits are hamstrung by the huge influx of calories. 

Simply put, these aggressive overfeeding strategies have the largest potential for a caloric surplus and fat storage potential, and possess little evidence for actually improving an individual’s metabolism. 

They Utilise Reward In The Wrong Way

It’s clear that cheat meals are used as a ‘reward’ for strict, rigid adherence to a meal plan or particular method of eating. 

Of course, it’s no secret that rewards are successful in eliciting sustainable behaviour change. 

Using a cheat meal as a reward – a behaviour that directly opposes the goal at hand – however, is flawed. How could a 5, 6, or 7,000-calorie meal possibly be rewarding in the long-term in terms of body composition or fitness improvements? 

As Eric Trexler says, ‘The reinforcer (cheat meal) directly opposes the goal of the fitness program, allows the dieter to become fully satiated (which may detract from the perceived value of the reward), and disrupts the ongoing behaviors it intends to reinforce’.

Framing a cheat meal as a ‘reward’ creates a constant ‘on/off’ cycle, leading to longer and harder mental and physical deprivation before the seeking of that detrimental calorific reprieve.

Rewards can be utilised when it comes to fat loss and body composition change, but using food to do so is an invalid way of doing so. 

They Affect Self-Efficacy & Self-Blame

Believing in yourself and your ability to succeed is a clear prerequisite for goal attainment. 

Unfortunately, when people indulge in a cheat meal or the perceived ‘breaking’ of their diet, their self-efficacy is significantly impacted. 

Not only do they engage in learned helplessness – the idea that a repeated failure leads to an individual believing they cannot control a situation and won’t try again – but it also affects their sense of self and identity. 

No longer is the individual the ‘healthy, strong person’ they perceive themselves to be, but instead a ‘failure who possesses little control over their decision-making’. 

This large discrepancy between how people view their current and future selves threatens the belief they can ever achieve their long-term goals. 

Further, this discrepancy leads to self-blame – the idea that they’re at fault for any calorific blowouts – and further heightens negative mood states. 

And, of course, it’s been shown that dieters may use overeating as a means of distracting or shifting responsibility from those negative emotions [7]. 

Rather than learning to deal with these emotions and use healthy coping strategies, individuals use food – and ‘cheat meals’ – as a way to suppress those feelings. 

A further vicious cycle surfaces: negative emotions prompt overeating, which threatens their self-efficacy and identity, which heightens those negative emotions further, and leads to more overeating. 

What Can We Do Instead?

Stop Defining Foods As ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’ 

People will corner certain foods into being ‘good’ or ‘bad’, providing them with a moral backstory and assigning consequences to the consumption of each item. They’re then led to believe that devouring the cakes, chocolates, and crisps means you’re a ‘bad’ person – leading to guilt and shame – and will instantly lead to that number on the scales hitting the roof.

These types of food are, therefore, shoehorned into the definition of a ‘cheat meal’, which only exacerbates the temptation to ‘make the most of’ eating them at any one point. 

If you’re not allowed the foods you enjoy, it will only increase your chances of overeating when the time arises. 

In creating arbitrary rules around food (e.g., ‘I can’t have this because it’s bad for me’), we are moralising about food choices. The moment we do, we risk shame, alienation and damage surrounding choices, which can lead to an unhealthy relationship with certain foods.

When we realise that no food is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – just simply food – we remove that instant desire for something and provide ourselves with permission to consume it. 

It no longer becomes sought after because you realise you are allowed to consume it.

Stop Being ‘On-Plan’ Or ‘Off-Plan’

It’s clear that adhering to rigid, dichotomous, ‘on/off’ rules doesn’t work for most. 

Instead of viewing certain days or meals as a chance to be ‘on plan’ compared to ‘off plan’, it’s time to always view yourself as ‘on’. 

You are allowed certain foods throughout the week; it’s just about managing why you want that food, how much you want of that certain food, and tuning into the emotions and hunger/fullness cues behind those foods. 

Start practicing eating skills. 

These are behaviours and skills that promote a ‘continuum-based thinking’ approach, allow for harmful thoughts and feelings, and encourage a ‘yes and no’ attitude towards food. They can always be carried around with you, whateverthe situation and however you’re feeling. 

Whether it be eating slowly, recognising true hunger, or eating without distraction, eating skills don’t require you to be ‘on plan’, need you to always be ‘motivated’, or want you to ‘ban’ items from your diet. They always exist.

Stop Viewing A Minor Slip-Up As A Complete Catastrophe

It’s no secret that changing behaviours and shifting your mindset is a long, arduous task. There will be moments when you slip up or deviate from the initial plan you outlined. 

When those moments do arise, it’s important not to view these as catastrophes; that you must then devour everything in sight because you’ve ruined your chances of success and may as well ‘make the most of it’. 

Of course, if you’re no longer viewing foods as ‘on plan’ or ‘off plan’, this shouldn’t be an issue, but when you do slip up, it’s time to swiftly return to action. 

Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, said, in Meditations, his collection of personal writings, “When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it.” 

This notion has been labelled The Equanimity Game.

When you naturally get knocked down, making a game of how quickly you can recover will predict your success.

Practicing the art of recovery elevates excellence. Your ability to return to the norm as quickly as possible will forecast sustainability. 

If you miss a day of tracking your food, how quickly can you return to monitoring your next meal? If you have one too many bites of the dessert on offer, how quickly can you make your next mouthful something healthy? 

If you have no reason to throw the towel in when something doesn’t go according to plan – because you’re so engrossed in the game of equanimity – you’ll be able to follow your weight loss journey for longer than you’re accustomed to.

Eat Mindfully

Mindful eating is a valuable skill when utilised correctly.

Of course, tuning into senses, the tastes and textures of foods, and taking your time over what you eat are all crucial for healthy consumption, but these only really come to the fore when they’re paired with appropriate emotional regulation. 

In technical terms, cognitive recognition (awareness) needs to be combined with affective appraisal (skills like acceptance, compassion, defusion, and ‘balanced thinking’) in order for it to be effective.

So, when you’re eating – and tempted to keep eating – start being aware. 

Aware of how you’re feeling and how that influences your behaviours. Aware that your mind will produce a thought that isn’t always accurate or helpful. Aware that there is space for you choose. 

The purpose of mindfulness isn’t to control your thoughts, but to not let your thoughts control you. 

It’s about recognising your thoughts, accepting them, and realising they’re normal. 

The next stage is not acting on them because you’ve been able to detach those inward experiences from your behaviours. 

Increasing awareness of how you’re feeling, thinking, and behaving, in the moment, will help identify the ‘why’ behind any eating and body-related behaviours, unfurling different avenues for change.

This Article Was Too Long And I Didn’t Read It; Can You Summarise It Please

-> Cheat meals have been defined as meals that are characterised ‘by the consumption of an objectively large amount of food in a short amount of time, the loss or “letting go” of control, and subsequent attempts to compensate via restrictive dietary practices’

-> Cheat meals create an unhealthy view of food, and predisposes one to cyclical binge-and-restrict patterns, leading to a greater risk of physical and psychological health problems. 

-> Cheat meals encourage an either/or scenario which corners people into a success/failure mindset and does little to foster a long-lasting, healthy relationship with food. 

-> Not only do cheat meals possess very little upside to reducing the physiological costs of dieting, but cheat meals, in particular, have been found to be the worst of all non-linear dieting strategies when it comes to increase calorie intake and providing a psychological reprieve from attempting to lose weight.

-> Framing a cheat meal as a ‘reward’ creates a constant ‘on/off’ cycle, leading to longer and harder mental and physical deprivation before the seeking of that detrimental calorific reprieve. 

-> Negative emotions prompt overeating, which threatens people’s self-efficacy and identity, which heightens those negative emotions further, and leads to more overeating. 

-> To prevent yourself falling for that ‘cheat meal trap’, stop labelling foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, stop trying to be ‘on plan’ or ‘off plan’, stop viewing minor slip-ups as a catastrophe, and start practicing eating mindfully

References

1. Murray, S.B., Griffiths, S., Hazery, L., Shen, T., Wooldridge, T., & Mond, J.M., (2016). Go big or go home: A thematic content analysis of pro-muscularity websites. Body Image, (16), 17–20

2. Pila, E., Mond, J.M., Griffiths, S., Mitchison, D., Murray, S.B., (2017). A thematic content analysis of #cheatmeal images on social media: Characterizing an emerging dietary trend. Internal Journal of Eating Disorder, 50(6), 698-706.

3. Byrant, E.J., Rehman, J., Pepper, L.B., & Walters, E.R. (2019). Obesity and Eating Disturbance: the role of TFEQ Restraint and Disinhibition. Current Obesity Reports, 8(1), 363-372.

4. Westenhoefer, J., Stunkard, A.J., & Pudel, V. (1999). Validation of the flexible and rigid control dimensions of dietary restraint, International Journal of Eating Disorders, 26(1), 53-64.

5. Peos, J.J., Norton, L, E., Helms, E., Galpin, A.J., & Fournier, P. (2019). Intermittent Dieting: Theoretical Considerations for the Athlete. Sports (Basel), 7(1), 22.

6. Roberts, B.M., Helms, E.R., Trexler, E.T., & Fitschen, P.J., (2020). Nutritional Recommendations for Physique Atheltes, Journal of Human Kinetics, 71, 79-108.

7. Polivy, J. & Herman, C.P. (1999). Distress and eating: why do dieters overeat? Internal Journal Of Eating Disorders, 26(2), 153-164. 

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