Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures, so with just about every diet I’ve ever prescribed, I’ve given “permission” for people to incorporate their favorite treats. It’s something I make room for in my own daily life and believe others should, too.
This concept of eating your favorite treats while on a weight loss plan is often referred to as “cheat meals.” But personally, I would never think of eating your favorite foods with planned indulgences as “cheating” on your diet. I’m not alone.
“I don’t like to use the word ‘cheat meal’ because I think it connotes that there are good and bad foods,” said Martha McKittrick, a registered dietitian, and health and wellness coach. “You think if you are ‘cheating,’ you are eating a bad food, and it sets up a mind game.”
“Cheat meals are an indication of not being happy with your diet,” added Mascha Davis, a registered dietitian in private practice and national media spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Changing the word “cheat” to “treat” can make all the difference in the way foods are perceived and can prevent the potential for disordered eating, according to experts. But whether you call them “treats,” “splurges” or something in between, most agree that there are positive aspects of including them in your diet.
The benefits of planned indulgences
Incorporating planned indulgences helps to give people something to look forward to, especially when following a stringent weight loss plan. And whether it’s a piece of cake, a scoop of ice cream or a big juicy cheeseburger, scheduled splurges can also break up the monotony of restrictive eating, which can help you stick to your plan for the long-term.
“People who treat themselves are giving themselves permission to eat something they enjoy. … It’s not ‘off’ the plan or ‘bad,’ ” McKittrick said.
On the flipside, forgoing your favorite foods on a regular basis could lead to bingeing on them when you run into, say, a platter of doughnuts or a buffet table lined with fried foods and desserts.
Davis recommends including portion-controlled treats every day, like a piece of dark chocolate after dinner, a small portion of chocolate-covered nuts, a small oatmeal cookie, roasted chickpeas or air-popped popcorn.
“If you love what you eat, you will be able to keep the weight off long-term, and you don’t need to cheat!” Davis said.
But changing up a weight loss plan by incorporating whatever it is your desire to eat doesn’t work for everyone. “I’ll say to clients, ‘do you want to have one meal a week that you can enjoy and not have to worry about being on the plan?’ A lot of my clients want it, but others don’t want to go there. … They just want to stick to the plan,” McKittrick said.
“If you are really restrictive, on a 1,200-calorie diet, and you want to eat a little bit of your favorite meal, it’s hard to stop,” said David Levitsky, professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University.
In some cases, including even a small treat on a daily basis could trigger overeating. “If someone could have a forkful of dessert every night, that’s fine, but for others, I honestly believe it sets them off,” McKittrick said.
“I have tons of patients who can have a small amount of dark chocolate every day, but if I had a box of chocolate in front of me, I couldn’t have just one. Everyone is different, and you have to know your own body.”
Don’t turn a ‘cheat’ snack or meal into a ‘cheat’ day
“There’s nothing magical about ‘cheating,’ ” Levitsky said. “If you think you are getting away with something and you can ‘cheat’ more frequently, the rate of weight loss will go down.”
One of McKittrick’s patients gave himself an entire day to splurge. “He was super-rigid all week long, but on Sundays, he ate nonstop for the whole day.” Though he lost some weight initially, his weight loss came to a halt, because his strict days were simply making up for his Sunday binge. “We changed it to one treat meal … and now he’s losing a steady 2 pounds a week.”