2 Big Reasons Why Cheat Meals Are Worse Than Darth Vader
“I’ll take two giant pretzels, oooh and that macaroni and cheese too. Aaand I’ll take two slices of the deep dish pizza, a dozen pigs in a blanket, a chicken parm sub, and a tall Sam Adams. Don’t worry, it’s my cheat day!”
I get asked all the time about my eating habits… ESPECIALLY when I’m out with friends or at a Nerd Fitness meetup. They wonder if I’m going to pick the chicken and broccoli with iced water, and are often curious when I stray outside of the expected norm. In their minds, it’s probably like watching a Jedi stray from the Light and cannonball into the Dark Side.
Speaking of Star Wars…how about that Force Awakens trailer? Holy crap.
But I digest (get it?!).
Anyways, some would look at me, the leader of Nerd Fitness, and ask what my reasoning is behind my meal choices. What’s that? I’ve strayed from the Paleo Diet and decided to eat a bacon cheeseburger with fries? I can see their minds trying to compute: “How can you eat that garbage and then turn around and tell people how to be healthy? Isn’t that hypocritical?”
Others who know I run a fitness site might say something like, “Oh, is this your cheat day?” or “Are you having a cheat meal?” What they’re really asking is “Let me guess, you’ve eaten really well all week and then reward yourself with an unhealthy day of eating whatever you want…aka a cheat day.”
So I tell them: It wasn’t a cheat meal. In fact, I never use the term “cheat meal” or “cheat day.” I think we should all stop using this term!
Just like the Dark Side can appear to solve all of your problems (Cast lightning from fingers? Do a force choke? I look better in black any way), cheat meals can seem like a harmless way to “stay on target.” However, the Dark Side has its own powerful agenda, subtly working its evil behind the scenes to take over your brain, and “cheating” can sabotage your efforts to stay healthy too if you let it take over.
Cheating is Bad!
We’ve being taught since we were little kids that cheating is bad.
Don’t cheat on your tests, don’t cheat on your boyfriend, don’t cheat on your wife, don’t join the Dark Side. People who cheat are losers. Cheating is a character flaw, and so you are a bad person if you cheat. I’ve actually found the same to be true when I think about the idea of cheat meals – aka, “if I am going to eat cheat meals, then I am a bad person.”
Okay fine, I don’t actually have a crisis of consciousness if I eat a pizza roll, but I know plenty of people who worry a tremendous amount when they’re eating something unhealthy during their cheat days. After all, it’s ‘cheating’ on their diet: they eat one thing and it feels like they’ve ruined their entire day. Clearly, the word “cheat” can have an impact on the decision making process.
Think of the following things that we’ve probably done or said or heard:
- If you eat your broccoli, then you can have dessert.
- If you go to this aerobics class, then you can celebrate with cake.
- If you starve yourself today, then you can eat a flash-fried buffalo tomorrow.
- If it’s your cheat day, then you can eat WHATEVER YOU WANT!
In each of these instances, we have this mentality that what we’re doing is BAD (but ohhhh so good), that we’re cheating on our diet when we eat a cheat meal, and that it comes as a reward for making it to the end of a long string of tough, healthy decisions that we don’t like in the first place.
“If I can just get through this shitty week of depriving myself of awesome food, then on the weekend I can cheat and eat bad food.” Aka “I’m going to cheat on my diet, which I’m not a big fan of any way.” Not only does this set us up to overindulge, but it undermines our healthy eating decisions, which we’re trying to set up as an everyday status quo that is effortless!
It’s like saying, “I’m only going to occasionally cheat on my husband, but I’m not a big fan of him anyway. And if I’m gonna cheat, I might as well go alllll in.”
If you’re going to have long-term success and remain healthy for the rest of your life – and we already know dieting doesn’t work – then I want you to start by removing the term “cheat” from your vocabulary. You are not depriving yourself all week while being on a diet until you can cheat on the weekend.
Instead, you are making a conscious decision to treat yoself:
But you do so guilt-free, just like Tom and Donna do in the above video. Words are incredibly powerful, as we pointed out in our article, Dragonborn: The Dangerous Power of Words:
A research study divided people into two groups: one group was told that each time they were faced with a temptation, they would tell themselves “I CAN’T do X.” For example, when tempted with ice cream, they would say, “I can’t eat ice cream.” The second group was told to say “I DON’T do X.” For example, when tempted with ice cream, they would say, “I don’t eat ice cream.”
As each student walked out of the room and handed in their answer sheet, they were offered a complimentary treat. The student could choose between a chocolate candy bar or a health bar. As the student walked away, the researcher would mark their snack choice on the answer sheet.
The students who told themselves “I can’t eat X” chose to eat the chocolate candy bar 61% of the time. Meanwhile, the students who told themselves “I don’t eat X” chose to eat the chocolate candy bars only 36% of the time.
I CHOOSE to eat healthy foods almost all of the time because I like them and they help me reach my goals. It’s not done with an end date in mind. I’m not dieting until a vacation. I’m not dieting until swimsuit weather. I’m eating how I eat. And occasionally I CHOOSE to eat unhealthy foods, and I do so with a smile on my face. There’s no dieting or cheating, no starving and bingeing, no being faithful and then cheating. I love my normal routine, composed of mostly healthy foods, that also happen to taste delicious. I also like occasionally eating something not so healthy.
And that’s normal. No Dark Side necessary.
Don’t reward the good with the bad
In addition to the mentality above, I don’t like that cheat meals encourage you to reward healthy behavior with unhealthy behavior.
This would be the equivalent of completing your Jedi training, only to discover the lightsaber you’ve earned is 20% less powerful than your previous one. Crap! It’s taking a few steps forward only to end up taking a few steps backward as a result.
The invisible power of rewards as incentives is incredible. Just ask Pavlov. Stop putting an invisible barrier in between you and eating healthy.
Starting today, I want you to stop treating your good, boring behavior (“dieting”) with bad, exciting rewards (“bingeing”). Instead, we want to make a fundamental change to our relationship with food. You can get fit without EVER going on a diet, but it starts by STOPPING the boom/bust cycle of diet/binge, healthy/cheat mentality.
It means reconsidering the term diet and how you view your relationship with food:
- DON’T go all-in on a diet for 30 days and then return to your old ways of eating once you lose X lbs.
- DO start making permanent, small changes that you can live with consistently.
- DON’T reward yourself with bad food for good behavior.
- DO occasionally eat bad food guilt-free, but make it a treat, not connected to good behavior.
- DON’T say “I’m just gonna join the Dark Side until I get what I want”
- DO seek to bring balance to the Force in all aspects of your life.
Instead of dieting (damn I hate that word), make a conscious decision to make healthier choices throughout the week. It can be simple like one less soda, an extra vegetable. But it’s a deliberate decision on your part to adjust your brain to what “normal” actually looks like. As the Adaptation Principle teaches us, we can drastically alter what our bodies view as normal, given consistent change over enough time.
If Luke can learn to live with a robotic hand, you can learn to live with more healthy decisions. I promise.
Your new normal is just how you eat during the week. OCCASIONALLY, you might choose to treat yo’self on the weekend or for a random meal in the middle of the week and eat something that you wouldn’t normally eat. It’s not bad. It’s not cheating. It’s not Dark Side behavior. But it’s certainly not reacting to your good behavior (sticking to a diet all week) with a bad reward.
As Master Yoda said, “Eat or eat not. There is no diet.” Meh…close enough.
If anything, reward your good behavior with more things that make you want to continue being better:
- A great new Jedi robe, one inch too tight that you can fit in after another month of training.
- A class/course that you’ve always wanted to take that encourages you to develop yourself further.
- A trip to a powerlifting meet that inspires you to want to get in even better shape.
So, no more rewarding bad with good. You can still choose to mostly eat well, with occasional meals that stray from your normal routine of leveling up…but it’s not a reward for anything – it’s just what it is. And if you are going to reward yourself for being healthy, make it a healthy reward.
Momentum is powerful – use it to your advantage!
Stay on target
Yeah yeah, I hear you, “But Steve, rewarding myself with bad food allows me to behave myself during the week, knowing that I can go all out during the weekend!” or “But I read one study that showed [insert reason that allows me to do what I want to do].”
I hear what you’re saying. I still disagree.
Remember, we’re after long-term changes. Changes you can live with permanently and that don’t make you feel like you are restricting yourself. Changes that don’t make you feel the lure of the Dark Side weekly. Changes that give you a healthy relationship with the way you fuel your body. We’re after changes that get you EXCITED about your new lifestyle. And it starts with our brain; we need a sound mind to bring balance to our body.
Food doesn’t need to be something we endure until we can gorge ourselves on unhealthy crap. Food is something we can have a positive relationship with, that helps us reach our goals, that also allows us the freedom to make the occasional decision that lines up with a party or social function.
If you’re worried about losing your cheat day, do this instead:
Never miss two meals in a row.
If you eat a meal outside of your norm for lunch, make dinner healthy. If you have an unhealthy Saturday evening, make Sunday healthy. Never make two decisions in a row that don’t line up with your goals, and don’t overthink it. After a few weeks, if you are not progressing in the right direction, it’s time to replace one additional bad decision with one additional good one, and then reevaluate again.
I’d love to hear from you on this:
Do you employ cheat meals? Do you have a cheat day? Do you think I’m totally wrong? Are you a Sith Lord?
Let’s hear it!