Indulging in that fried chicken or deep-dish pizza you really want can be a healthy move — if you do it the right way.
Find yourself frequently daydreaming about your next juicy burger and fries? Everyone is familiar with food temptation and the urge to let loose now and then. And it’s okay to satisfy those cravings occasionally, even if you’re dieting.
Many nutrition experts recommend that people don’t try to be a dietary saint all the time. It’s OK to add occasional indulgent foods into an otherwise healthy eating plan. This is where cheat meals come into play. Those are meals that contain crave-worthy foods that aren’t on your current diet plan. You can try this approach either with a single meal or a certain day of the week, which is known as a cheat day.
These indulgences can help you stick with your healthy eating plan. A study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology that found that giving in to an impulse to eat something naughty can help a person stay motivated and stick to long-term goals. When study participants were told they could deviate from their somewhat-rigid diets one day a week, they were also better able to come up with more strategies to help them overcome temptation. The participants who weren’t given a cheat day were less able to regulate when they ate unhealthful foods.
Weight management and body composition changes are complex processes, and it’s not clear whether cheat meals can help older people achieve and maintain healthy body weights. It’s likely that some people lose weight with the cheat method because they’re controlling their daily calorie and limiting high-calorie, less healthy foods.
While cheat meals may be the right approach for some, it’s not the best plan for everyone. Weigh these pros and cons to carefully consider if this is the best weight-loss strategy for you.
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How Cheat Meals Can Help You
Sometimes it helps to break the rules. When you’re pursuing a lofty goal like consistent healthy eating, a cheat meal here and there can help you stay on track. You don’t want to follow restrictive dietary standards if they won’t be possible for you. A diet that has a release valve — a way to fudge on the plan without giving up entirely — might work better than one that doesn’t have one. This may be the best approach for you if you fit into one of these categories:
You have a reward-driven personality. A scheduled cheat meal (or day) can be seen as a bonus for your commitment to healthy eating, and it’s something to work toward. Planning for a not-so-far-off day when you’ll let yourself order what you want at the drive-thru makes it easier to resist giving into temptation in the short run.
You’re able to keep your cheating in check. With cheat meals, it can be hard for some people to know when to slam on the brakes. If you’re the type of person who has the self-control to limit high-calorie foods to a specific meal or day, then this approach is good for you.
The Potential Pitfalls of Cheat Meals
Cheat meals come with a few caveats and can’t be a universal recommendation for older adults. If you recognize yourself in any of these scenarios below, cheat meals may not be a great idea.
You don’t trust yourself to limit unhealthy eating to one meal. Not everyone can regulate their eating behaviors in the same way. For some, it’s easy for cheat meals to become a slippery slope. If you can’t maintain some degree of self-control within your cheat meals or days, you run the risk of going overboard. This can lead to weight gain and worsening health. And with age, the ability to burn off the excessive calories of two substantial helpings of lasagna is diminished.
You’re developing an unhealthy relationship with food. If cheat meals will make you think that nutritious foods are boring and undesirable — and the indulgent ones you allow yourself are all you want — it may be better to skip this approach. (Take our quiz to help find out if you have a healthy relationship with food.)
You eat emotionally. Because this is a reward-based strategy, it may be ineffective for people who have a hard time self-regulating their emotional eating. There is also a concern that the word “cheat” has a negative connotation and causes feelings of guilt. Research suggests some people end up thinking they lack behavioral control over healthy eating when they associate dietary cheating with guilt.
The Bottom Line
The most effective healthy eating and weight loss strategy is the one that you can stick to. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. For some people, cheat meals may be a great way to maintain overall healthier dietary habits. For others, it can lead to problematic eating and psychological strain. Balance, moderation, and a positive mindset are the key to success.
Your Cheat Meal Cheat Sheet
If you decide to incorporate cheat meals into your eating plan, keep these best practices in mind.
Find a schedule that works for you. There is no specific guideline for when or how frequently your cheat meals should occur. Often people will have one cheat per week, but the frequency can change depending on your health or weight loss goals. It can take some trial and error to pinpoint what works best for you.
Set some boundaries. Cheat meals aren’t a free ticket to excessive overeating. Keep them sensible. A double-cheeseburger with large fries and a large soda can easily add up to your calorie intake for a whole day. You don’t want your healthy eating days to be spent trying to make up for a full day of pigging out. And you also don’t need to deal with the guilt that can come from that.
Plan ahead. Deciding when and where your cheat meals will happen is a good first step. If you know you’ve got a birthday party or other social event happening soon, it may be wise to plan your cheat meal around that.
Many times, winging it with cheat meals can backfire. And saving indulgences for special occasions has another perk. One study in the journal Appetite found that people who associated chocolate cake with celebration had more success with their weight loss goals than those who linked this food to feelings of guilt.
Stay true to your cravings. It’s important to choose foods you truly enjoy and have an urge for. If you really want potato chips and dip, then eat that — not a bowl of ice cream. You’ll probably still want the chips later.
Mix healthy and cheat foods into the same meal. One way to successfully work some foods you crave into your diet is to add a small amount of it into an otherwise healthy plate of food. In a Vanderbilt University study, participants felt just as satisfied with a meal when they ate a mini-portion of something not-so-healthy and filled the rest of their plate with nutritious food than when they only ate the unhealthy stuff.
So sprinkle a little full-fat cheese on that salad. Or have a large salad with your small cheeseburger. Some people may benefit by focusing on just one or two cheat foods instead of trying to fit them all in at once.
Ask for help. If cheat meals aren’t working for you, consult with a dietitian or other qualified health professional who can help you build an effective and enjoyable healthy-eating plan that includes room for indulgences. If you find yourself falling into a pattern of near-daily cheat meals, there’s a good chance that your diet isn’t sustainable, and you may need advice to turn things around.
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