Daily Expert: I’m a Dietitian and I Don’t Do Cheat Meals

I don’t have cheat meals—or cheat days.

While my diet is healthy, it isn’t devoid of joy either. What most people call “cheat meals” I refer to instead as “conscience indulgences.” Semantics? Maybe. But to me there’s a huge difference between the two—a difference that may be the key to helping you determine if a cheat meal mentality is right for you.

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You see, every Friday in the Mohr Household is Donut Friday, where my wife and I take our girls out for a donut before we drop them off at school. We also have family pizza night once a week. Both Donut Fridays and Pizza Night were born as traditions and I’ve built my diet to make room for these family moments.

To me, it’s important that I don’t frame these traditions as “cheating,” which implies something bad, which then may lead to guilt. “Cheating” isn’t a feeling I want to carry with me throughout my day and it isn’t something I want to pass on to my children.

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John Berardi, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., cofounder of Precision Nutrition once had a cheat meal routine, but he gave it up. “I gave myself permission to choose what I wanted all week long,” Berardi says. “Maybe I enjoy some dessert on a Tuesday night because I’m in the mood for it, or maybe I don’t because I’m satisfied from dinner.”

This form of eating, also known as intuitive eating, empowers the person to make food decisions for themselves, instead of letting a special day or meal dictate.

Another side effect of “Cheat Day,” Berardi says: “For most of the people I’ve coached, having one Cheat Day means the rest of the week is food purgatory. Cheat Day is the happiest day of your week. You wake up on Cheat Day morning like a kid at Christmas,” he says Berardi.

For this person, cheating is less of a small indulgence and more like Thanksgiving Day, but once a week. This person is following a diet that’s so restrictive, in my opinion, that it’s not sustainable.

That said, Berardi recognizes that cheat meals do work for some people. “The idea of a weekly Cheat Day can useful both mentally and physically,” he says.. This is the person who needs a meal or a day to indulge a little. Having that allowance lets them stay on track the rest of the week, and week after week. If this is you, and a little cheat works for you, then by all means continue.

It’s not just Berardi and myself who are having growing concerns over “cheating.” Emerging research is also shifting professional perceptions.

A study published last month in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied found that people who ate an indulgent dessert actually curbed their total calorie intake. Those in the study who ordered a healthy dessert ate more. From that you might then infer that a cheat meal (or cheat course in this case) may help you stick to your diet.

But a growing, collection of research testing the theory that cheat meals encourage disordered and binge eating. Though the findings haven’t been all that strong statistically speaking, they do suggest that “cheats” can promote disordered eating and binges—especially among fit men.

So ask yourself, are more of the “cheat meal” type or the “conscience indulgence” type?

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