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Do “cheat meals” encourage binge eating?

By Madalyn Oliver

Depending on who you ask, the definition of a “cheat meal” will vary. However, for the most part, a “cheat meal” involves the planned or scheduled consumption of foods that break the “rules” of one’s usual diet or meal plan, allowing you to indulge in whatever food your heart (or tastebuds) desire. Typically, “cheat meals” occur within the context of a restrictive diet or a meal plan that involves a period of strict dietary intake and/or depriving oneself of certain foods. However, deprivation and restriction is ultimately too hard to maintain long term and as such, “cheat meals” allow for a break in the rigidity.

Whilst for some people the concept of a “cheat meal” may work, for many, this method of scheduling “cheat meals” can have harmful consequences. Having forbidden foods that are off limits, except for certain times, may encourage binge eating at the time that they are allowed, a loss of control over eating during the “cheat meal”, thinking about “off limit” foods all of the time, craving “off limit” foods, and even obsessing about food.

Further, when we use the term “cheat meal” to describe food that is essentially providing us with the nourishment we need to function effectively in the world, we begin to prescribe a moral value to food. That is, we begin to inaccurately label foods as “good” (e.g. apple) or “bad” (e.g. chocolate cake). Whilst it is important to have an understanding of the nutritional content of the food we are consuming, labelling certain types of foods as “good” or “bad” can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and encourage the maintenance of a cycle of restricting and bingeing (as shown in the figure below).

Binge Cycle

So, what is the alternative? Eat the foods you want, when you truly want them and only if you are hungry (you may find our blog on reconnecting to your body with mindful eating helpful in learning how to recognise your body’s internal cues of hunger and satiety). By eating in a way that allows all foods in moderation, rather than restricting or cutting out particular food groups, you may no longer feel the need for a “cheat meal”. After all, you get to eat foods of your own choosing every day.