Can you relate? For me I was never a fan of cheat or treat meals but I experimented with them over the years because it kinda made sense.
When I worked hard all week to be compliant and disciplined with my eating it felt very natural to feel like I had earned a reward and some freedom in my eating choices for a meal or even a day.
It felt sensible, innocent, and harmless. What I have noticed over the years, through my own experience, and the experiences of others, is that cheat meals seem to do more harm than good.
From a psychological perspective I can see why. There is a term called moral licensing that pretty much says being good gives yourself permission to be bad. Making “good” food choices all week makes you feel good about yourself therefore making you more likely to give in especially when you have conflicting desires like, “I really want to be good but I also want that cheeseburger and fries.”
As humans we often like to moralize anything that matches our impulses to make ourselves feel better. The more we can reduce pain, stress, and negativity the happier we will be. Or so we think.
Whether people realize it or not cheat meals have a significant impact on the way we think about food, eating, and ourselves. Here is how.
Cheat meals turn eating into a measure of worth.
The name cheat meals has commonly been changed to treat meals to take away the negative connotation that people are being bad when they indulge out of their normal regime.
Ironically the word treat seems to imply that we are deserving for having a good week or staying compliant to a plan. I wrote an entire blog post about labeling food as good or bad which you can access here, but ultimately we start to apply it to our self worth which is completely absurd.
When I eat good foods I am good. When I eat bad foods I bad.
When I stick to my diet I am worthy. When I fall off of it I am not.
Food is just food and the less we can associate food with labeling the more we can eat food based on how we feel, whether or not we are hungry, and how much we really need. Food labeling encourages a black or white way of thinking like there is no middle ground. It makes us feel like we have to food choices in life, only being on track of off track.
The last place our self worth is defined is in the food we choose to eat.
They don’t take into account how you feel in the moment.
When I experimented with adding cheat meals into my diet I found that even after my week of good eating, I didn’t always want a cheat meal but I ate it because I deserved it and if I didn’t eat it then, I would have to wait an entire week to have it again.
Can you see where this completely ignored any awareness in regards to my body and only focused on rules and restrictions I placed on myself?
I also had times where cheat meals would turn into all out binges or a days worth of cheat eating if I messed up I might as well wait until tomorrow to start again fresh. Like the scenario at the beginning of this post, no cheat leftover could be left in the house because it would ruin tomorrow if I was trying to start clean. It didn’t matter if I was hungry or a certain food would make me more satisfied I just went along with this mentality.
This is equivalent to getting into a fender bender and than ramming your car into a wall anyway. You have the option to fix yourself mid binge. You have the option to bring more awareness to the moment and realize that you have the power and choice to switch gears. You have the knowledge that every choice can make a difference.
They perpetuate the all or nothing mentally.
This is essentially what this entire post is breaking down. The idea that eating has to be perfect and on plan or you fall off the wagon all together. I don’t even like the idea of a wagon. You are never on or off the wagon you just are.
Overdoing it one night just to wake up the next day and hardly eat until dinner time is a prime example of getting caught up to two extremes and never finding that middle, moderate ground.
I had a client tell me the other day that this whole perspective I talk about, practicing to navigate eating in between the extremes of deprivation and overindulgence sounds great in theory, but it is hard. Really hard. I couldn’t agree more.
But just like with every hard endeavor in life you practice. You fail. You try again. It is really hard to accept this eating but it is no different. You practice. You fail. You try again. Repeat this 20 times and maybe on the 21st you will get a little better and the next times and the next time.
How to break the cheat meal cycle.
I know you may be wondering what in the world you are supposed to do next. The question I like to ask people is this: why do you feel the need to have a cheat meal? Usually it is because people have been depriving themselves too much during the week. The more deprived you feel, the more likely you will be to overindulge at some point.
What you eat tomorrow is highly dependent on what you eat today. So while you might feel great restricting food all day, feeling strong and in control don’t be surprised if that night or that weekend you overindulge more than you cared for.
The answer is to feel more satisfied during the week so you don’t feel the need for cheats and treats.
Why not eat eggs and bacon for breakfast instead of egg whites and spinach?
Why not add cheese on your salad instead of just chicken and lettuce?
Why not eat a piece of chocolate every single day?
Why not feel more satisfied every single day of the week so you don’t feel like you are missing out or need to go all out on the weekend?
Perfect eating never leads to long term success. Consistency beats perfection and you may just be surprised how much easier it all feels when you learn to trust yourself more around any food every single day and not wait until the grand designated cheat opportunity.
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