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Environmental Nutrition: Should you cheat on your diet?

Matthew Kadey, Environmental Nutrition on

Many people live for the glory of cheating on their diets. This concept of eating your favorite treats while otherwise following what you consider an optimal diet is often referred to as “cheat meals.”

Many nutrition experts recommend that people don’t try to be a dietary saint all of the time and incorporate some leeway into an otherwise healthy eating plan. “You can eat healthily and be healthy without eating nutritious foods 100% of the time,” says Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition expert with a focus on mental wellness. “When you remember this, it’s easier to stay on track with healthy eating because a less healthy meal isn’t viewed as a setback.”

Studies suggest that long-term adherence to restrictive diet programs is poor when there is little allowance for dietary wiggle room. Whether it’s a piece of cake, a scoop (or two!) of ice cream, or a juicy burger, scheduled splurges can provide a much-needed release valve from your normal eating pattern.

It may benefit those with reward-driven personalities the most. If someone thrives on incentives and is in the proper headspace when it comes to eating habits, a cheat meal can be viewed as a reward for sticking to a commitment to healthy eating and something to work toward.

“Some people like to plan for their indulgences and others do better with a more flexible approach, eating them when the urge comes up,” notes Cassetty. “No matter which way you approach it, remember that one role of less healthy food is to bring pleasure and enjoyment, and that’s part of being healthy.” She adds that learning how to enjoy less healthful foods is part of developing a healthy and balanced relationship with your body and food.

A study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that planning “hedonic deviations” can help a person stay motivated and stick to long-term goals. For instance, the researchers showed that those who had been told they could deviate from their somewhat rigid diets one day a week had higher capacities to self-regulate and came up with more strategies to help them overcome temptation. Also, the subjects who were not permitted to “cheat” on their diets showed decreases in their ability to self-regulate by the end of the diet, while the intermittent diet breakers felt more positive about the diet and motivated to continue at the end of the study than the control volunteers.

 

In the end, though, your personality may be the determining factor in how successful or detrimental this “cheat meal” philosophy is. “For some people, the concept of cheat meals can be damaging and triggering, particularly for anyone who has had a poor relationship with food or their body and has participated in any form of disordered eating,” Cassetty says. If you believe that if you are “cheating” you are eating “bad” food this can set up a detrimental mind game. “Beating yourself up over what you eat can be physically and mentally unhealthy for certain people,” adds Cassetty.

Also, by saying “cheat meal,” someone may think that they are restricting themselves at all other times from things that they enjoy, which can make a healthy eating lifestyle harder to sustain.

Instead of thinking that a salad is something to enjoy, a mindset may develop where it’s looked upon as a means to getting towards a reward meal of greasy pizza.

When it comes to cheat meals, everyone must find what works for them and be honest about whether it’s serving their best interests. “Remember that it’s what you do most often that matters most,” says Cassetty.

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