The CHEAT meal

May 24, 2022 | Nutrition

The ‘cheat’ meal – we’ve all heard of it, but where did it come from and can we PLEASE stop using this word to describe food!!

I personally really dislike the name ‘cheat’ meal. It implies you’re ‘cheating’ on your good healthy nutritious diet with food that’s not so good, healthy or nutritious. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to the meal itself, but I am strongly opposed to the name. ‘Cheat’ meals or ‘cheat’ days gives off a dirty, bad, ‘you’ve done something wrong’ vibe, which I don’t think is conducive to a good mindset around food and nutrition. It makes us feel bad, like we’ve done the wrong thing, like we’re letting ourselves down, and we shouldn’t be making ourselves feel bad because of food! Referring to ‘less-nutritious foods’ could be more helpful language to use, even though it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Food, especially in Australia, is at the heart of culture. We get together to share food with our friends, families, work colleagues and even by ourselves for all sorts of special occasions, to celebrate, to mourn, to bond, and everything in between.

Now there are times where you might want to be a bit more strict and steer clear of the less-nutritious foods, for example if you have a stretch goal you really want to achieve, or a competition or photoshoot that you’re working towards. In these cases, your goals need to be clear, your reason ‘why’ needs to be strong, so your willpower can keep you on the straight and narrow. BUT, if you’re looking to create a long-term, sustainable, healthy lifestyle, having a glass of wine to celebrate a promotion, indulging in some Domino’s cheesy crust pizza on a date night, or
having a slice of cake for grandma’s birthday can totally be a part of it! In my opinion, long-term, sustainable results are best served balanced.

But what does this look like? That’s a very difficult question to answer, as it looks slightly different to everyone, depending on their goals, previous history and headspace. Context does matter.

Here’s an example. For me, having a couple of fresh hot cinnamon and sugar doughnuts at the markets once a week is not going to kill me, in fact, it will probably make me really happy and fulfilled. But,

  • If I ate these doughnuts religiously every single day, every day of every week of the year, my body might not love me for it, OR
  • If I had coeliac disease, it actually could kill me if I ate the doughnuts, OR
  • If I had experienced an eating disorder in my life and used to binge on cinnamon doughnuts, this might bring back some really negative thoughts which would not make me feel very good.

From personal experience, the second I tell myself I’m cutting something out of my diet, the second all my senses are drawn to the smell, sight and taste of that thing. It’s human nature – we always want what we’re told we can’t have. On one hand, this can be a great way to test your self control. On the other hand, it can be a great way to make you go a little nuts over something like chocolate if you were trying to cut down on it. On the contrary, when I am not restricting myself, and allow myself to have a creamy cheesy pasta, or some chocolate and buttery popcorn
watching a movie on a Friday night, it actually does wonders for my mental health, and I have no problem mostly sticking with my nutritious diet.

The reason I don’t think it’s great to have a super strict, restrictive diet where you’re cutting out certain foods, is because it can cause you to obsess over certain types of food, and can cause you to binge on it when you do give yourself a small window to eat it.

Now, let’s be smart here, if we’re talking about cutting out processed foods, sugar, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, these are probably good things to be cutting out of your diet for the most part, and only having in very small doses. Everything in moderation (look, I’d prefer for no human to ever smoke again, so if you can cut that out altogether, that’s my strong preference).

Something I like to do (sometimes) when incorporating less-nutritious food into my diet, is by pairing it with more nutritious food, or cooking it myself so I can be more in control of the ingredients. An example of this is pizza, I love eating pizza, so I allow myself to eat it on occasion. Either we’ll order a pizza from the restaurant around the corner, and eat it with a salad that we buy or have leftover in the fridge, or we’ll make our own pizza dough ahead of time, and create our own pizzas! Or sometimes I just eat the restaurant made pizza without the salad and I don’t stress
about it!

If you’ve got a calorie and macro plan that you’re following, you can fit these less-nutritious foods into your tracked daily intake ahead of time, and plan the rest of your day’s nourishment around it in order to stick with your plan. It may mean you don’t get to enjoy your high protein yoghurt with berries for dessert that day, but the look on grandma’s face when you get to enjoy her birthday cake is worth it.

We should always focus on nourishing our body first, but we should also remember that having a single slice of cake to celebrate your grandmother’s birthday is not the end of the world. Sure, it’s maybe not the most nutritious food in the world, but as long as you’re not doing it all day every day, everything is going to be ok. Life is all about balance in my opinion.