Why cheat meals are actually good for you

No, you’re not dreaming and no, this isn’t some kind of sick joke. The truth is – having the odd cheat meal here or there might actually be the key to maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle.

But before you get too excited and order that large pizza – it’s important to remember this concept doesn’t magically make junk food healthy. Instead, the notion of a beneficial ‘cheat’ meal is born from the idea that it may prevent the binge eating that often arises from restrictive diets and eating plans.

While many of us strive to eat right, hit the gym, sleep lots and practice self-care, sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is indulge in some controlled treat-yo-self moments. Accredited and practicing dietician and nutritionist, Megan Leane, explains why it’s OK to the break diet… every once in a while.

When it comes to healthy eating – is it better to indulge in a cheat meal from time to time rather than deprive yourself 24/7?

“So-called 'cheat meals' are a single mealtime where food choices are more relaxed and often physically larger than what would ordinarily be eaten on a controlled diet. It’s absolutely fine to indulge in different foods and eat until you’re full from time to time."

"In fact, this increases compliance knowing the restriction will end at a certain point in time. However, if you’re depriving yourself too much, a cheat meal can easily become a slippery slope for overeating. I prefer to educate my clients on how to include interesting foods and eat to satisfy the appetite on a daily basis as opposed to having to 'cheat'.”

What happens when we’re super strict all the time – does this have a specific impact on our minds and our bodies?

“Food and mood are closely linked. We know chronic calorie restriction increases the stress hormone cortisol, making it not only more challenging to continue doing so but also much more distressing to adhere to.”

When we deprive ourselves, are there any key nutrients or good fats we’re actually missing out on?

“The trendy fad diets these days such as paleo, LCHF (low carb, high fat) and keto, focus on restricting carbohydrates. These diets eliminate multiple food groups, including whole grains, fruits, dairy products and starchy vegetables."

"Carbohydrate is the body’s primary fuel source and low carbohydrate diets force the body into a state of depletion, making it incredibly hard to produce energy, concentrate, and perform physically (not to mention the poor mood effect, or 'hangriness'). Eliminating these food groups can compromise how much fibre, calcium, Vitamin C and other vitamins and minerals the body is getting."

"While our Australian Dietary guidelines do advise we consume low-fat animal products and limit our intake of added fats, this does not mean our diets should contain no fat. Weight loss diets often remove added fats and oils in order to keep calories low. In reality, our bodies require some healthy fats every day for normal functioning – fats like olive oil, avocado, oily fish, nuts and seeds.”

Are there physical or mental health benefits to a cheat meal?

“There are benefits to eating a “cheat meal” in the sense of reprieve from constant restriction. Eating more will deliver more nutrients, especially carbohydrates, to help refuel the body and the brain. We also know contained periods of elevated food intake can increase our hunger hormone Leptin, which will help to control appetite in the coming days.”

Do you believe it’s detrimental to our mental health to categorise food as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’?

“We really need to remove food labels! There is no such thing as “good” food and “bad” food – there are simply foods which are used appropriately or inappropriately. I strongly believe we should not be creating a list of foods which we must never eat. It’s unrealistic to never eat a particular type of food, and it also places a lot of anxiety and guilt around these foods, which are often actually quite enjoyable and a key feature of celebrations.”

Should we actually call cheat meals “cheat meals” or would we better to name them something else?

“The word ‘cheat’ infers we’re doing something naughty or wrong and creates anxiety and guilt around these meals. Friendlier terms include “refeed” or a “refuel” meals and are a bit more of a neutral way to look at them.”

What’s the biggest misconception when it comes to cheat meals?

“They’re most often used by people who are too restrictive in their eating. This is highly likely to lead to an episode of overeating, or a long duration of consuming junk food; for example, on a whole weekend. This can be risky for mental health with increased anxiety, guilt and feeling of failure around these times.”

How often are we allowed to ‘cheat’ if we want to continue maintaining a healthy and balanced approach to food?

“It all comes down to how big a cheat meal really is. A single serve item is best, so there are no leftovers and the portion will not result in feeling overfull – something like a chocolate bar, a small bag of chips or a single burger. It certainly doesn’t need to be junk food, but that is the overwhelming trend."

"A single serving will be appropriate once or twice a week and won’t impact greatly on long-term weight loss. If you cheat meal is substantially larger, such as a whole pizza, a family bag of chips, or a block of chocolate, it would be best to do so no more than fortnightly, however, I’d suspect most people would feel quite unwell with such a large portion.”

Is there a difference between ‘good’ cheat meal and a ‘bad’ cheat meal?

“A cheat meal is about carbohydrates – putting the body back into a state of fuel. While most people choose junk food, a healthy meal rich in whole grains will do the job just as well, if not better! Consider a homemade pasta or rice dish, or perhaps your favourite wholegrain crackers and peanut butter.”

Are there any ‘cheat’ meals you’d particularly stay away from?

“We really should be choosing a food that leaves us feeling physically and mentally satisfied. We should make an effort to avoid processed foods in these cheat meals, if only to minimise the unhealthy fats and excess salt and sugar.”

What can we do to avoid making cheat meals more frequent and just sticking to having them every now and then?

“Plan your meals to include some foods which are both healthy and satisfying. If you are happy with what you eat on a daily basis you won’t feel the need to 'cheat' more often. You can also work with a dietician to build in fun, filling, healthy foods every day and you will never feel as though you’ve gone without.”

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