To cheat or not to cheat…

Sorry to disappoint you, but this one’s about food. Get yer mind outta the gutter, OK?

Mark Sisson tackles this topic in way more detail than I am going to go into. If you want the science of the thing, read his post on the subject of cheat meals here: Mark’s Daily Apple

What you really want to know though is this (and I know you do because, I’m well, human) –

Is it actually beneficial to go off my diet and indulge?

So, here’s my multi-level response… Yes and no.

First, let’s talk about the no, which is going to be way more nuanced than you probably expect. I dislike the notion of a “cheat meal” or “cheat day.” It implies that you’re doing something wrong. Cheating in school leads to discipline (and you being uneducated because you cheated instead of putting in the work). Cheating in your relationships is disloyal, dishonest and hurtful. So how, if we’re going to take the language we use seriously, could cheating on your nutrition be a good idea?

If the point of improving your nutrition is improving your health, then cheating on that means you’re ignoring your health. Call me weird, but I believe that words matter. Words are stand-ins for ideas, and the idea of cheating is not a good one. So, if what you want permission from me to do is sneak around and be self-deceptive with regard to your nutrition, you’re not going to get it. Sorry.

Now, you’re probably looking at those two paragraphs and wondering how on earth there could be a Yes buried in all this. Well, again, it’s about intentions and the language we use to describe those intentions. No, I do not believe in nor encourage nutritional cheating. I do, however, think that the occasional, intentional indulgence can be a good thing.

The keys here are that it must be INTENTIONAL – as in you know what you’re doing and it’s thoughtful, mindful and deliberate, and it must be OCCASIONAL – as in it’s not a habit or a regular feature of your eating habits.

To roll back a little, you will never hear me encourage you to diet. Dieting is temporary. Temporary efforts achieve temporary results. There are some circumstances where a temporary modification in your habits can be desirable or necessary, but if, for example, you’re trying to lose weight or improve your overall fitness and health and you go on a “diet” for two or three months then you can expect to achieve two or three months of results. Expecting permanent change from something you do for a short time is, frankly, stupid.

IF you’re overweight, out of shape and your health is suffering because of these facts it’s not because you ate cake on Thursday because your coworkers had a party for someone who had a birthday. I did not end up 50+ pounds overweight because I had a slice of pizza. As Aristotle said, we are what we repeatedly do.

As Mark Sisson points out so well in his own article on this subject, before we can talk about “cheat” meals we need to be certain that the majority of the time you’re eating properly. If 80% of what you eat is appropriately aligned with your daily energy and macronutrient and micronutrient needs then having birthday cake or pizza as a part of the other 20% is perfectly fine. In fact, if you’re nailing it 80% of the time then not only can you indulge with that 20%, you don’t even have to create the psychological conceit about it being “cheating.”

The troublesome part is getting that 80% nailed down properly, which is why there is a multi-million dollar industry devoted to cranking out new diets constantly. On nearly a daily basis I get messages from people who want to know what I think about one diet or another. Mostly, I think they’re silly. The main reason why anyone loses weight on a diet has nothing to do with the design of the plan and nearly everything to do with the fact that being on a diet makes people mindful and conscious of what and how much they are eating. The other big component is that you’d be hard pressed to find any diet that encourages you to eat a lot of processed and packaged food.

But I digress. Should you have a cheat day? If you insist on calling it that and viewing it as doing something naughty, then no. I’m not a fan. That point of view, in my opinion, carries and negative connotation, and in the event you get a bit carried away with it you’re likely to feel guilty, and if you feel bad enough (and are prone to emotional eating like I have been) that can lead to a nutritional blow out – where a cheat meal turns into a cheat day, cheat week or cheat month… or just plain giving up on yourself.

However, if you indulge intentionally, mindfully and occasionally (striving for eating appropriately about 80% of the time) then yes, I think it can be a good idea. Mark Sisson covers the science behind this pretty well in his article linked above if you want more detail. Here’s the other thing – if you know you’ve already hit your 20% threshold of indulgence for the week and someone offers you a cupcake, instead of feeling deprived be conscious in that moment that you’ve already had your fill of yummy treats for the week and just politely decline. As a side note, when I started to be more mindful of what I ate I started to also be much more selective when it came to indulgences. A Snickers bar or fast food burger is an automatic no for me, not because I’m on some hyper-restrictive diet, but because being mindful about what I eat means that I save my 20% for higher quality treats – I sincerely believe that a well-made bacon cheeseburger is one of the finest of all human creations, so there’s no way I want to have to skip the opportunity to intentionally indulge in one because I burned up my 20% on a Whopper.

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