Do's and Don'ts of Cheat Meals

Paleo adherents often play by the 80/20 rule – stay wholesome 80% of the time, cheat the other 20%. But if you’re like me, this formula is ripe for abuse. Does that mean I eat well for 2 out of my 3 daily meals, then go crazy for dinner? Does it mean I eat clean 6 days of the week and stuff myself into a pancake coma on the 7th day? Or can my plate at each meal be 80% unrefined foods and 20% cheesecake? With that kind of math, the “cheat meal” – envisioned as a rare respite from clean-eating – devolves quickly into business as usual.

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To get around that, I’ve put together my own somewhat scientifically based do’s and don’ts for how and when I cheat.

DO have a plan. Cheat meals can be a healthy divergence. But if you don’t give yourself parameters, you’ll end up indulging more often than you should. So pick a rule and stick with it. Give yourself one cheat meal per week, or maybe two. Designate Saturday night as cheat-meal time, or maybe Thursday evening happy hour. Whatever the rule is, don’t deviate. Having a plan will keep you focused.

DON’T have a cheat day. A cheat meal is not a cheat day. Eat one crappy meal, then get back on the wagon. This is easier said than done. When you eat what you crave, you produce a hormonal response that makes you crave the foods even more and then it’s more difficult to return to healthy eating. Play around with your cheat meals to see how much indulgence you can tolerate without completely losing focus.

DO cheat before a fast. Much has been written on the benefits of intermittent fasting to jumpstart your metabolism and improve health. Having an epic cheat meal - or the more dignified term, “refeeding” – is often part of the protocol. (For an excellent primer on intermittent fasting and performance-based nutrition in general, get yourself to Karma CrossFit’s nutrition seminar on January 16).

DON’T cheat when emotional. You just got a big promotion at work. Or your boyfriend dumped you. In other words, you’re at an emotional extreme. This is not the time for a cheat meal. For better or worse, we often tie food to feelings. Something good happens, and we want to celebrate with pizza and wine. Something bad happens, and we want to drown our sorrows in fudge ripple. There are physiological reasons why food comforts, but for a healthy attitude towards food, it’s best to disassociate eating from emotion. That doesn’t mean kissing your celebratory pizza goodbye. But it does mean putting some time between the emotion and the meal. If you want to celebrate your big promotion, schedule a day later that week to go crazy. If you want to drown your relationship woes in a seven-layer chocolate cake, put it on the calendar. Food is fuel, not comfort.

DON’T cheat with foods that hurt your gut. If you feel awful after ingesting gluten/processed sugar/alcohol/soy/[insert other bad food here], don’t do it, even during a cheat meal. You’re going to feel sick enough as it is.

DON’T do a crazy workout before or after the cheat. Multiple studies have shown that you can’t exercise your way to weight loss. In other words, there’s no Murph-ing away your cheat meal. Diet is the key to losing weight, and you need a sensible diet plan – coupled with the occasional cheat meal release – to reach your goals. So if you decide to indulge, accept it and move on, getting back on the diet horse the next day.

DO forgive yourself. Let’s say you’ve violated all the above rules. Don’t beat yourself up. Becoming a healthier you is a process, and you’re bound to slip up now and then so remember to give yourself some slack.   

What am I missing? What are your rules for cheat meals?