Are Cheat Meals Really Ok?

To indulge or not indulge. This is always a difficult question when pizza is staring you in the face on a Saturday night, after a week of sticking to your meal prep and “clean” snacks. No matter how many group exercise classes you complete after enjoying that pizza slice (or two), is that cheat meal really worth it? 

This question is difficult to answer when you’re considering what’s best for weight loss versus overall mental health and the likelihood of actually sticking to a diet. Generally speaking, allowing yourself to indulge in a controlled fashion can actually help you stay on track with your diet by preventing a total deprivation that is building up and waiting below the surface to get footloose and fancy free. 

The Benefits of Cheat Meals 

Most people who try to quit and avoid anything cold turkey increase their chances of going overboard when they finally do cave to those cravings. But, if you learn to do this in a controlled way it can actually be better for your mental health. The biggest area to focus on is your mindset toward food and your cheat meals. 

The Dangers of a Cheat Meal Mindset 

The most important thing you should do is remove the negative language around foods as good or bad. By calling an unhealthy meal a “cheat” meal, it gives the impression that something is wrong because “cheating” is wrong. On the other hand, you shouldn’t treat a food or meal as something “good” like a reward for behaving well (such as eating healthy all week previously). 

Food should be seen as something that provides you energy as well as pleasure. No, this doesn’t mean cutting pizza out of the picture for good, it means reworking the entire concept of what makes food “clean” or something you use for a cheat meal. Healthy foods do good for the body and should be consumed more often than unhealthy ones. However, one unhealthy meal or “treat” (maybe once or twice a week) can be something that provides mental health benefits, such as pleasure.

How to Build a Healthy Relationship with Food

To determine if you see food in the right way, try keeping a food diary for 2-3 days and write down every emotion you are feeling before and after a meal you eat. Then look back to see if you can find a pattern between the types of meals you ate and how it affected your mental state. 

If you tend to eat unhealthy meals during times of stress, sadness, or anger, maybe you’re not having a healthy relationship with food. If you are enjoying a slice of pizza with some friends during a happy occasion like a birthday party and you don’t feel bad after doing so, then you likely have a healthy relationship with food. 

Preparing healthy, flavorful meals can also help you stay on track with your fitness goals. Our blog features healthy recipes that feel as decadent as a cheat meal.

The Right Approach to Cheat Meals

If you have a healthy relationship with food, cheat meals or any meal that’s not part of a healthy diet are okay. They can even be good for you emotionally plus have the added perk of keeping cravings from going out of control. But if you find yourself engaging in a lot of negative self-talk or shame and notice you are using certain foods for comfort, having a cheat meal may happen more frequently and thus stunt any weight loss or healthy goals you may have. 

The best advice? Go ahead and have that slice of pizza if you aren’t going to feel guilty about it later, especially if you’re staying healthy through the week at least 80% of the time. Don’t try to out exercise a “bad” or unhealthy meal either because that also shows feelings of guilt that need to be “corrected.” If you truly enjoy a food for what it is and keep your physical and mental health in mind, all types of food can fit your diet. The goal is to have a healthy relationship with the foods you eat. 

Lindsey Gass

Lindsey Gass, RD, LD/N is a registered dietitian in Miami, FL. With a bachelor’s degree from Florida International University, Lindsey has years of experience in clinical, sports, long term care, and community nutrition. Lindsey currently works in critical care at Jackson Memorial Hospital, where she provides nutrition support and participates in trauma research. Outside of her career, Lindsey is an avid runner and Nike run club pacer working towards qualifying for a Boston marathon. Follow Lindsey on Instagram at @lin.health for nutrition tips and tricks. Learn more about Youfit’s Registered Dietician