The "Cheat Meal" is something you can look forward to as a way to reward yourself for eating clean and working hard in the gym. But as the name implies, is it really cheating? Nutrition guru Paul Nobles from Eat to Perform suggests otherwise. The idea of "cheating" creates a negative context surrounding your food and eating habits; and just like many eating disorders pits you against your food.
I have often argued against the “cheat meal” idea. I think it sets up an unhealthy relationship with food because it implies that you are cheating on your diet. Since we believe you should mostly be “not dieting,” the idea of cheat meals is contradictory to our core beliefs. A super restrictive way of eating that makes you reset when you eat a food that is on the “naughty” list argues against moderation and looks an awful lot like an eating disorder called orthorexia nervosa. As long as you’re eating enough total calories and providing your body with the essential fats, vitamins, minerals, and hydration it requires, you’ll be pretty healthy. Restricting foods puts you at a risk for malnourishment and malnutrition. Look, I eat mostly meats and veggies and if that represents the majority of your nutrition, then great. You will never see me make an argument against that. However, a life of restriction and 7/30 day resets is just unhealthy. Let’s face it – fitness people tend to be a little more diligent to their food choices, but if you constantly have the same group of women or men trying to get you to participate in their “misery” challenge where you live on yak butter and protein shakes for a whole month, just say “No.” If your gym is constantly pushing this type of behavior and you’re being ostracized for eating “unclean” foods, leave that gym because they have a very skewed vision of health and fitness.
Similarly, there are groups popping up all over Facebook related to burpee challenges and sit up challenges or whatever. A lot of them are being set up because people have a bad relationship with food, so they are doing “guilt burpees” to pay the Calorie bill. Folks, this isn’t any better than limiting your food choices. Exercising to purge your body of excess energy or waste or anything of the sort is called exercise bulimia and it’s no way to live. In the same vein, restricting your food intake while you engage in high intensity activity can result in long-term metabolic adaptation that reduces your resting metabolic rate – probably due to loss of lean mass.
The perfect approach to nutrition for each of us is individual and ever-evolving. Each of us needs to build our plans around our schedules, food preferences, and energy demands. For most of us, that includes eating foods that might not show up on the “nice” list. So what can you do? Eat mostly whole foods and eat for joy occasionally, but always have some understanding of what amounts of food your body requires to exist daily. Calories DO count. Don’t remain unaware of that simple fact because if you are guilt eating a Snickers alone in a bathroom it’s probably because you have been dieting too long, too restrictively and you are hungry. Energy density isn’t always a bad thing. Understand that just because a food is “natural,” that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Likewise, processed foods aren’t always bad for you! Everything has to be looked at in context.
Like most things in life the key is moderation. "Treat yo self, don't cheat yo self"!
About the Author:
Paul Nobles first got interested in nutrition and training after his own struggles with health and weight issues. He is a personal trainer, nutritionist, and runs the website Eat to Perform.