Why 'cheat' meals are good for you when dieting

An occasional cheeseburger won't hurt - much.
An occasional cheeseburger won't hurt - much.  Photo: William Meppem

Brownies = bad. Burgers = bad. Pasta = bad.

Salad = good. 

The logic is simple. But, it's not sustainable. 

Supplement salads with something indulgent occasionally.
Supplement salads with something indulgent occasionally.  Photo: William Meppem

"Rigidity breeds failure," says Kate Di Prima, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.

"There's lots of confusion out there in terms of what people should actually be eating, and there are lots dietary programs. This is what I say: 80 per cent of your meals, should be clean, healthy, foods that you can hopefully make from home. And then 20 per cent of the time allow yourself a little bit of an indulgence."

But for most people, finding the balance between healthy living and "Treat yo self!" is easier said than done. This is where 'cheat' meals or, as Kate likes to call them, 'treat' meals come in. 

"A cheat meal combines something you really enjoy and lessens the strictness of a dietary pattern," explains Kate. "For example, it could be that you've been following a salad-based plan, so you might have a cheat meal that's a spaghetti bolognaise. Or it could be a carbonara or a burger. It's just something that you've enjoyed over the years and that you recognise positively."

A common misconception is that cheat meals have to be sugary and greasy. But this is not necessarily the case. 

"A cheat meal can be different for everybody. It doesn't have to be take-away fast-food. It can just be slightly bigger and a little bit more kilojoule or calorie-laden than what they're used to," explains Kate. 

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For many people, cheating on their diet comes with a heavy side serving of guilt. But, allowing yourself the occasional treat is actually a good thing (and not only for your tastebuds).

"The research that seems to be coming out now is that people are more able to stick to something with a bit more discipline if they know that reprieve on the horizon: on the weekend, they can have a glass of wine. Or they can have a pizza with the family. It's not just one big long haul of dietary restrictions," says Kate.

The mental benefits of 'cheat' meals go beyond just keeping you sane - they can also help you stay on track. As well as encouraging people to complete an extra 10 minutes on the elliptical, "It gives them drive," says Kate. 

"It keeps them motivated to adhere to a healthier dietary pattern in the long-run. "

While there is no conclusive research to suggest 'cheat' meals are just as good for you physically, Kate says they do have some impact on how your body functions: 

"Obviously if you actually eat more, your body's going to have to do more work," says Kate. 

But that does not outweigh the extra kilojoules you're consuming. "It's actually a bit misleading to say 'eating more speeds up your metabolism'...you've got to do more metabolic activity to burn it, yes. But at the end of the day it's not about your metabolism. It's just that your body eventually evens itself out:  you eat more so you have to burn more, you eat less you burn less."

Despite all the positive benefits, indulging still presents some risks. And, according to Kate, there are two main traps people fall into. 

The first is emotional: "Once people start 'cheating' their psychology takes over and they start to feel like they've blown their so called 'diet'. So they think, 'Well I've broken it, I'll just keep going.'"

The second is about personality. " I've found just in my experience, that there are two personalities - people either moderate well or they have to abstain," explains Kate.

It's about recognising what works for you. "If you know that you're not very good at having things occasionally maybe you need to engage someone's hep with cheat meals. If you have a flatmate or partner, that can make sure you don't go back for second, third and fourth helpings."

Either way, the message is clear  "It's not meant to turn into a binge," says Kate. "It's not a 'cheat day' where you have everything and go hell for leather." 

The message is  cliched but true: everything in moderation.  

Salad? Yes. Brownies? Sometimes. Wine? On weekends. 

Your body and mind will thank you for it.