When it comes to contentious debates around weight loss, “cheating” ranks pretty high. Some people who’ve set a weight goal and are staying on track may think integrating a “cheat day” or a “cheat meal” will derail them, sometimes for months or even longer. Often based on past experience, they might believe one slip-up will be enough to send them falling back into old habits.
But there are others who see these moments of indulgence as similar to a release valve, taking the pressure off in a way that lets them maintain focus and momentum. They don’t see the strategy as stumbling — instead, they find a cheat meal keeps them from making every meal into a junk-food fest.
In a way, both sides are right, because as everyone who is trying to lose weight knows, mindset is huge — especially when it comes to cheat meals. How you approach them and particularly what you think will happen afterward, is crucial for whether they’re successful or self-sabotage.
Here are some expert tips for being able to indulge without setting yourself back:
Planning ahead can be a fantastic way to meet your nutrition goals — for example, meal prep time helps many people track their calories and macros in advance for the week ahead.
But if you’re building in a cheat meal or cheat day and have a laser focus on that, you could be setting yourself up for a cycle of deprivation and bingeing, says certified nutritionist Kimberly Snyder, co-author of “Radical Beauty” with Deepak Chopra.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”HEX 0073bb” class=”” size=””] “Give yourself space to indulge occasionally, and regularly allow yourself to let go in a responsible way…” [/perfectpullquote]
“Being in a perpetual cycle of deficit for days, only so you can go wild on a cheat day, can lead to an unhealthy mindset around food,” Snyder says. “Give yourself space to indulge occasionally, and regularly allow yourself to let go in a responsible way, but without planning for the exact day and time you’ll be doing that. That gives you a better chance of sticking to your healthy eating habits the rest of the time.”
The language you use when talking about your cheat choices makes a big difference, because it can affect your mindset. Snyder prefers to use the term “treat” instead, because it implies a reward, and gives those who have indulgent moments a feeling of enjoying what they’ve chosen. That’s a major shift away from saying things like, “I was so bad yesterday,” when talking about food choices.
That can also provide a positive change in what you actually eat. Often, just the thought of a “cheat meal” sends messages to the brain that you need to find something worthy of that dubious honor, says registered dietitian nutritionist Michelle Abbey of The Nature Nutritionist.
“This can lead people to look for something high-calorie, possibly fried, likely to include dessert, and maybe some alcohol,” she says. “That will result in a lot of inflammation, GI distress and possibly feeling bad physically and mentally later on. It’s a yo-yo way of eating, and can wreak havoc on your body and your performance.”
Another radical shift in mindset may be seeing your treat meal as part of your goals, instead of a break from it, according to Caitlin Self, certified nutrition specialist and licensed dietitian, of Frugal Nutrition.
“In most cases, changing up your diet once a week or a few times a month can be immensely beneficial for your body, even if you’re eating ‘junk’ food,” she says. “Remember that the body wants to be challenged, that’s how it gets stronger.”
In fact, lightly overeating once a week can slightly boost metabolism for about 24 hours as your body works to process and store the extra energy, Self says, adding that another important consideration is what your overall goal might be — to lose weight within a certain timeframe or to develop a healthy lifestyle. She believes occasional moments of indulgence are useful for that latter goal, because it helps you to learn to eat intuitively.
“When you do that, you’ll likely discover that all foods can have a place, no food is inherently good or bad,” she says. “That means a ‘cheat’ is just another meal you enjoyed, not a moral issue or something you’ve done wrong.”