Updated 25 September 2013

Cheat meals – friend or foe?

Many diets allow for cheat meals in a bid to keep dieters on track. But Dr Greg Venning says they do more harm than good.

A cheat meal is often used to keep dieters on track, allowing them one ‘naughty’ meal a week which they can look forward to and indulge in without guilt. But Dr Greg Venning (a chiropractor, a certified wellness professional and a self-styled wellness crusader) says they’re no good. In fact, he says they show that you are not making the right commitment to a lifestyle change.

“Indulging in a cheat meal reveals your real underlying beliefs around food, nutrition and self-worth - and the picture is not a pretty one. It shows you’re on just another diet, and the odds of success are heavily stacked against you,” he says.

Not great news for those of us who enjoy the odd indulgence. But is it really all bad? The answer may surprise you.

“If you believe that the food will actually benefit you, then it’s not a cheat. A cheat as defined here is anything harmful to your well-being, such as foods high in sugar, vegetable oil or processed and refined foods," explains Venning. He adds that if you’re “cheating” occasionally then you’re depriving yourself with your current diet, and he doesn’t believe that indicates a real lifestyle change.

“If you feel the need to cheat, or treat yourself, then you’re rebelling against an imposed set of rules that does not fit your belief system - and that perpetuates the merry-go-round of yo-yo dieting. That means it’s unsustainable, and that's just another diet you’re doomed to fail.

“When we cheat or treat, we’re showing our true colours. We’re displaying what foods we believe are ideal for us. By extension that might mean that you believe the ‘diet’ you’re on is not your ideal food. How sustainable is that?”

Cheating is emotional

Venning goes on to explain that a deeper issue related to cheat meals is that it is often an expression of your emotional baggage tied up in food.

 “You follow your chosen diet for a few days and then ‘reward’ yourself with your chosen cheat, only to feel guilty for it later on. That guilt creates a bigger stress load on your mind/body and further harms your well-being.

“Now you’re in a tug of war between being ‘good’ and ‘cheating’, and that only further drains your emotional resources which are already taxed by being on a diet. Your self-worth becomes tied to the food you eat or don’t eat.

“In a tug of war between your emotions and your will power, emotions will win every time.”

Venning says that the best way to get out of this vicious cycle is to make sure that your goal is long term health. This includes dealing with not only your diet but also stress and emotions, as they all affect each other.

The physical harm of cheating

And if this still hasn’t convinced you that your cheat meal may not be such a good idea, Venning says the physical effect of your chosen cheat can not only hamper your diet progress but also affect your long-term health.

“Dabbling with low quality foods on a regular basis has an accumulative effective of long-term damage. Your occasional but regular indulge will wreak havoc on your delicately balanced metabolic networks, and every sugar-induced insulin spike in your lifetime accelerates your rate of ageing. Every drop of oil from your fries makes you more prone to chronic inflammation, every drop of alcohol bathes your body in brain-decaying, cancer inducing chemicals, magnified if your cheat takes the form of a binge drinking session.”

A sobering thought, indeed. And here comes the million dollar question: “Is it really worth it?”

“What is it exactly you’re cheating on? When we talk about cheating we are implying that we are being unfaithful to someone or something. What does that represent to you? If you’re cheating on yourself, how are you ever going to find internal balance? How are you going to be able to look yourself in the eye and say that you are truly grateful for your life?”

Venning says people need to learn to pay attention to their bodies and try to remedy the problem, not take another quick fix short cut.

Is this the end of cheat meals?

However, taking all of this into consideration, Venning does concede that “doing something stupid from time to time is part of the human condition and can be incredibly empowering - as long as you can bring yourself back from the brink and get back on track”.

The point he is trying to make is that you need to draw a line at the point where you can move back to your chosen lifestyle with no sense of guilt or remorse, and feel stronger for the experience.

This also means you need to put a bit more thought into what you decide to indulge in.

“Choose your poison. Yes, I said poison. Anything that is a low quality food is a toxin and should be acknowledged as such. Some toxins will hurt you more than others so choose carefully. Between sugar and cocaine there are only degrees of ‘poisonous’ and it is up to you to decide where to draw the line.”

Photo: Woman eating chocolate from Shutterstock


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