I know this phrase has been used for a long time, years in some cases, however as I believe words have a powerful impact on our psyche and that using it in relation to diet/lifestyle when many us currently have, or have had, an unhealthy relationship with food is detrimental to the process of developing a long-term, healthy association with what we eat.
The connotation is that choosing to eat something that is outside your day-to-day diet (and by diet I mean the food you eat, not a fad) you are doing something ‘bad’ which, no matter how much of a conscious decision you think you made to eat that food, by linking cheat to it will inevitably cause guilt, whether consciously or sub-consciously and that does not create a positive experience or association.
Many struggling with eating disorders, whether mild or extreme, whether over-eating or under-eating suffer from a negative association with food, and whilst the use of the phrase ‘cheat meal’ is done with innocent intent, it does create a connection within our brain that is not positive and therefore continues that negative association with food.
Should we use words like treat, indulge, reward instead? Definitely not. These are just as damaging. The saying ‘Don’t reward yourself with food, you’re not a dog’ comes to mind. Many of us were brought up with the use of food as a reward – eat your dinner and you can have dessert, sit up straight for the hairdresser and get a lollipop, be good when visiting and you can have can have an ice cream on the way home – all of these things create a negative association with food, despite the intention to associate it with positive actions. Rewards, for children especially, should not be associated with food.
So if we shouldn’t use a negative word or a positive word what should we use? I guess it really depends on your definition of what a so-called ‘cheat meal’ is. For a clean eater it might be having a meal that has processed food in it, for calorie counters it might be eating above your recommended daily calorie intake level, for IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) eaters it might be blowing one of the macros – which if one group looked at the other they may not even consider that a ‘cheat’. As a clean eater, if I chose to eat a cupcake, a IIFYM eater wouldn’t consider that a cheat if I was in my daily allowance, if a calorie counter chose to eat all their calories in chocolate they wouldn’t consider that ‘cheating’ but both the clean and IIFYM eaters would.
I had thought Outside Normal Lifestyle (ONL), but then the use of the word normal does have connotations of this meal being abnormal, a negative association. Perhaps Outside Lifestyle (OL) is as close as we should get to naming it. If you are truly living this lifestyle, these OL occasions will be very rare indeed and therefore I understand the need to acknowledge them in some form.
In terms of lifestyle this meal is often associated with calorie counters, and is usually eating a meal that is way higher in calories than their daily limit. I have a real problem with this when that ‘cheat meal’ is on a weekly basis. For a start I don’t think it allows your body enough time to get used to a new lifestyle, particularly if you are new to the change to the way you relate to food – let’s face it, most people have spent years eating unhealthy food which our bodies can easily become addicted to, so why would you keep reminding it of what, in order to live a healthier life, you have chosen not to eat? How can you make a clean start if you keep going back to bad habits? Additionally, you are mentally setting yourself up to fail because you then see the ‘lifestyle’ as the bad guy, and the cheat meal as your reward for persevering through the week, especially as most people do choose to ‘cheat’ on the weekend – which is actually the worst time to do it, and when all the work you have put in during the week to adjust to your new lifestyle is undone. This isn’t at all healthy mentally or physically.
If this is a real change to your relationship with food, to the way you eat, and kinds of foods you consume, if it really is your lifestyle, then these meals shouldn’t even be ‘planned’ until you are fully in control of the new lifestyle, and I would recommend not even thinking about have an Outside Lifestyle meal until at least three months into the process. Give your body plenty of time to adjust to your new healthy relationship with food, to detox from potentially toxic foods such as sugar, (if that’s part of your new lifestyle), give your taste buds time to adjust. Then, if you feel you must, choose one food, not a whole meal, and eat it. Making sure you are giving your body a decent chance to give you feedback too – don’t do it when you have starving, or when you are rushed. Go into the situation with a satisfied stomach and plenty of time. Really taste the food, savour each mouthful, and make a mental note of how you feel. Also make a mental note of how you feel afterwards. For me, my first foray back into my old lifestyle was a packet of potato chips which I couldn’t even finish because they were so salty, and left me with a oily film in my mouth. Gross! I can’t say I’m completely free of my love of potato chips but I am certainly not rushing out to buy another packet!
I also think if you ‘plan’ these occasions in terms of choosing to eat OL because of your own actions, they don’t give you any wriggle room for situations where you feel you simply don’t have a choice but to eat. In saying that, we ‘always’ have a choice! Sometimes it’s just harder to exercise that choice than other times, and I understand that. However, if you feel you can stay within your lifestyle regardless of the situation you are in, then by all means plan them, but I would highly recommend you try and do this when you absolutely ‘need’ to rather than when you want to. For example, if you are going out for an anniversary dinner, you don’t ‘need’ to eat OL, however if you have a sick child who has been hospitalised and your only option is the hospital cafeteria then that is a ‘need’, in my opinion.
How often can you eat outside your lifestyle choice and still be ‘living that lifestyle’? I guess it depends on the lifestyle/diet of the person, what it is they are choosing to eat outside that lifestyle and whether it has a fundamental impact of the core theory of the lifestyle. A ‘vegetarian’ who has a roast meat dinner once a month is not a ‘vegetarian’ – vegetarian’s do not eat meat, ever. However, a clean eater who may have a cupcake once a month, is still a clean eater, but a clean eater who has processed food on a daily basis is not a clean eater. If you truly feel you can control your lifestyle choice in all situations and would like to plan an outside lifestyle meal, once a month should be the maximum. give your body plenty of time to accommodate the meal, balance back out your macros, calories, etc. and this frequency shouldn’t impact negatively on your overall health, well being, and weight. That being said, we are talking about a meal, not a ‘day’ or a ‘weekend’. You will still need to maintain some level of control. It’s not permission for a complete free-for-all. Your body still has to process, the calories do still count, and you may well find if you completely over-indulge that your body will really react negatively to the situation causing you some discomfort.
Let’s stop the association with this meal being either positive or negative and accept that some times you will eat outside your lifestyle choice, and it shouldn’t even register on your good/bad, negative/positive, guilt radar. Let ‘outside lifestyle’ merely indicate that the meal included food that is not part of your usual lifestyle choice as a mere acknowledgement and nothing more.