Up until very recently (like literally two weeks ago) I would’ve told you that cheat meals were a bad idea. In fact, I did tell you that cheat meals were a bad idea. In a blog in April of 2013, I wrote:
… cheat meals become unnecessary because we construct a diet around rules that are a reflection of our core beliefs and values. We choose to eat foods that are healthy and nutritious (very nearly) all the time. We do so because quite simply it is in our best interest. But healthy and nutritious doesn’t mean arduous. On the contrary, your diet should only be comprised of foods you absolutely love. Foods you cannot wait to eat! Foods that provide you with tremendous pleasure and satisfaction.
When you construct a diet based on rules that intuitively make sense to you, “cheat meals” are superfluous.
Oh, to have all the answers! (Ahem.)
Anyway, I’ve done a 180 on the cheat meal concept, and here’s why:
I recently decided to pursue competitive bodybuilding. Yeah, I know. So cool, right? I’m ridiculously excited about it because I love to lift heavy stuff and because non-scale related goals keep my pumped up and motivated.
Along with the new fitness routine, my bodybuilding coach handed me a meal plan. I’m not gonna lie, meal plans make me nervous. I haven’t followed a specific meal plan since my lap-band surgery in 2007 (which was removed in October of this year for medical reasons). Idk, too many bad memories of diets gone wrong from my 20+ years of trying to starve myself thin, which only ever made me fatter and more miserable.
So no, I don’t have fond memories of meal plans.
But I’m in a very different place now. I battled my food demons, lost 120 pounds and have kept it off for more than eight years. Lap-band or no lap-band, I’ve learned a lot about my food triggers and how to manage them.
Here’s the thing: I thought I wasn’t “cheating” before I started this eating plan. After all, I only ate foods that were 1) healthy, and 2) absolutely delicious! I call it my “two tables” strategy and it has served me very well as I lost the weight and then kept it off. What I didn’t realize until I started following the bodybuilding eating plan – which includes three (yes three!) cheat meals per week – is that I was allowing myself little “micro-cheats” several times a day, every day of the week. Like a slow dripping faucet I would eat a slice of cheese here or sneak a Peppermint Milano there (darn those things!). But just like a sink with a slow dripping faucet, my diet (and my pants) filled up with too many of these little “extras.” So no, I wasn’t eating “cheat meals” per se, but I was cheating just the same. And the problem with all this micro-cheating is that I never really noticed it so it wasn’t terribly satisfying.
If you’ve never seen a bodybuilding meal plan, they’re very, very specific. If it says you eat 3 oz. of grilled chicken breast and 6 spears of asparagus at 3:30pm that’s exactly what you do. Not five spears, not seven. Six. There is no wiggle room in it, and that’s kinda the point. My coach (she’s a personal trainer and a nutritionist) has successfully guided lots of people through this process. There is a formula to it and I’ve chosen to plug into it. The only flexibility is those much-anticipated cheat meals.
So now that I’ve got license to cheat, at first I wasn’t sure what to do with it. Should I go whole hog and break the bank? Should I make that cheat meal an entire cheesecake?!? Hmmm, but would that undo all the hard work I’d put in all week? Surely one cheat meal isn’t worth that.
In the end I’ve eaten out for most of my cheat meals, including a couple of holiday parties, which may have included a cocktail (or three). What surprised me the most is how completely liberating it is to just relax a little bit and enjoy myself.
I spend so much time thinking about stuff like: “I wonder how many carbs are in that?” or “Do you suppose that has butter in it?” so allowing myself to not think about all of that – even for just one meal – gave me a tremendous amount of pleasure.
One caveat: One of those cheat meals went a little crazy and I was so full I couldn’t eat the 9pm snack prescribed in my bodybuilding meal plan. (Yes, I get to have a satisfying snack every evening before bedtime!) When I talked to my coach about it at our next session she told me that’s how you know that a cheat meal has gone too far. But there’s a learning curve to it, she assured me. “You’ll get it,” she smiled.
Indeed I will.
My cheat meals give me the freedom to indulge in a more controlled way than what I’ve ever done before, and in turn strengthen my resolve to adhere to a strict eating plan the rest of the week.
Maybe the moral to the story is: if having the flexibility of a cheat meal helps you stick to your day-in-day-out healthy eating plan, then go for it! If it feels too much like a slippery slope, then don’t. We’re all on our own path to wellness, and I’m so excited to be on the journey with you!