No doubt most people are familiar with the concept of the “cheat meal” in dieting. However, I’m not a fan of the term “cheat meal”, or “dieting” for that matter. “Cheat meal” implies there is something inherently wrong with the occasional indulgence, and “dieting” is a word loaded with all sorts of preconceived notions and negative connotations. When I hear the word “dieting”, I am conditioned to recall Slim Fast shakes, Magic Bullets, salads with watery dressing, and bland fat-free food. However, it is possible to lose weight while eating food rich with flavor, and yes, even significant amounts of fat! Having said all that, I prefer to use the term “free meal” in lieu of “cheat meal”, and “healthy eating” instead of “dieting”.
Back to the point – the occasional indulgence. It is not only acceptable to enjoy a not-so-healthy dish now and then, it’s actually something to be encouraged. Eating is more than just an act of fueling the body for survival; it’s a multifaceted experience that relates to one’s culture, social sphere, and emotional wellbeing. Changing your eating habits can be stressful and isolating, especially if those in your social circle aren’t concerned with healthy eating. Enjoying pizza or a burger with friends can be socially and emotionally revitalizing, and can serve as a reward for your disciplined eating throughout the week.
There is one catch: the free meal should be planned. Otherwise, indulgences may become too frequent, sabotaging your weight loss efforts. As a general guideline, it’s okay to enjoy one free meal per week, and one free snack per week (spread apart as far as possible). However, the free meal is not a green light to binge-eat, so you must moderate your intake. The idea is that if you periodically and mindfully indulge in your cravings, you are less likely to lose control and binge-eat.
Losing weight is a number game. As long as you are in a caloric deficit, you will lose weight. Most people’s idea of a free meal is something like pizza, which is calorically dense. It would be difficult to maintain a caloric deficit eating pizza every day, but eating pizza once a week can fit reasonably within a caloric deficit. Junk food, in and of itself, is not necessarily unhealthy. Rather, the unchecked indulgence of junk food is unhealthy. The overall structure of your dietary intake determines health, not specific foods.
The occasional indulgence can also help prevent you from falling in the “all or nothing” trap, which is a fallacy more commonly committed by perfectionist-types. When eating to lose weight, it’s almost inevitable that most will give into temptation at some point, and when that happens, some will catastrophize the situation. After a minor slip up, some believe their weight loss efforts to be ruined, so they give into gluttony, binge-eat, and give up (thereby actually ruining their efforts by falling into the “all or nothing” trap). By enjoying free meals & snacks, you can intelligently moderate your indulgences in a guilt-free manner while avoiding the “all or nothing” trap.
So remember, occasional indulgences can be a healthy component of your weight loss program, and that’s nothing to be ashamed about.