A lot of us have experimented with “cheat meals” and “cheat days”—occasions on which we give ourselves free rein to consume whatever we want, caloric consequences be damned. But is either habit healthy?
The short answer: Cheating is never good. In fact, using the word “cheat” to characterize how you’re eating can damage your perception of your diet and trigger unnecessary, unhealthy binging. Enjoying something delicious, however, is absolutely OK. To navigate the often murky waters of dietary indulgence, we culled tips from three top nutrition and fitness experts.
Don’t call it cheating.
“I don’t believe in the word ‘cheating,’ says Karina Lisenbee, a member of Gold’s Gym Fitness Institute. “Putting a label on food, good versus bad, is dangerous. That means you’re restricting yourself from something you really want. I think it’s more important to have a good grasp on a healthy eating lifestyle and enjoy it.” Margot Micallef, CEO of Skinnypasta, a company that makes high-protein, gluten-free pastas concurs: “I have a problem with the very concept of cheating. It provokes deprivation. It suggests that what you’re doing every day is somehow inferior to what you would prefer to do.”
Do establish milestones and treat yourself as you reach them.
Did the number on the scale go down by five? Maybe that’s an occasion for your favorite dessert—or, better yet, a non-food-related reward, like a new workout outfit. “Have milestones set up, make it something celebratory,” says Jay Cardiello, who is also a member of the Gold’s Gym Fitness Institute and star of the TV show My Diet is Better than Yours. Cardiello stresses that people with a solid mind-set should be celebrating themselves and not have it be a “cheat.” He adds, “The vocabulary needs to be changed.”
Don’t go off the rails for an entire day.
Giving yourself a pass to consume anything for 24 hours can mean thousands of extra calories in french fries, milkshakes, or brownies. If you’re trying to lose weight, you’ll hurt your progress. “You shouldn’t have the mentality that you can just eat whatever you want all day,” says Lisenbee. The key is finding a balance between what makes you feel good and what is realistic to maintain your fitness goals.
Do plan ahead for a big meal.
“If you’re going to have a really indulgent meal, you should train hard, have a really good workout, and have maybe fruit, light snacks or a lot of water throughout the rest of the day,” says Lisenbee.
Don’t ignore your body when it tells you you’ve had enough.
If you give yourself the license to eat more than usual for one meal, pay attention to how you feel afterwards and adjust your diet over the next day or two accordingly. “Be intuitive to how your body feels,” says Lisenbee. Use how you feel as your tool. “If I have a hamburger and fries one day, I won’t have it the next day. My belly will be too full and I won’t want that. If you have a big meal at night, you probably won’t want a big breakfast the next day.” Learning how your body works can be a very effective tool when it comes to maintaining dietary and fitness regiments.