When Can I Cheat?

Megan Dahlman
March 15, 2022

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When Can I Cheat?

I like to sum up eating for a trim and fit body very simply: eat your PRO’s. It’s important that you fall into a regular rhythm of eating meals that consist mostly of lean protein and lots of fresh produce. Healthy fats and whole grains are important as well, but if you can make the bulk of your diet protein and produce, you will feel so much leaner and stronger. I guarantee it. (Get the lowdown on good healthy eating habits here.)

Of course, if you follow these nutritious guidelines, it eliminates a lot of the so-called “fun foods”. Delicious pasta dishes, beer and wine, chips and dip, desserts, lattes, soda, fancy pastries and breads, and any other craveable foods are out. Bummer. Often, when you begin a healthy eating regimen, all you can think about is when you’ll get to eat the “fun food” again. “When can I cheat?”

​The most important thing with creating a healthy eating lifestyle is that you do your best to re-engineer your brain so you’re not craving these foods all the time. If all you can think about is diving into a big bowl of ice cream or chowing down on a bag of chips, it’s gonna be a giant uphill battle to your body composition goals! Get your mind off of it. You need to redirect your focus when the cravings begin. Go for a walk, play a quick game on your phone, do 10 push-ups, strike up a (text) conversation with a friend. And stop watching those cooking shows and looking at recipes on Pinterest! Generally, cravings have nothing to do with physical needs for nourishment.

Also, the more lean protein and fresh produce you eat, the more your brain will crave these foods instead. It’s a great place to be. I know that if I go more than a day without some giant servings of leafy greens I start to get a little desperate and feel gross. You need to get here.

However, it’s nearly impossible and not necessarily healthy (mentally) to never again eat foods that deviate from nutritious guidelines. Most people are aware of the phrase “cheat meals”…essentially full meals or just instances that you cheat, or don’t stick to the rules.

I prefer to use the term "splurging", instead of cheating. Doesn't "cheating" sound morally bad? As if you're making a mistake or doing something wrong when you do it? Let's simply change the vocabulary so we think about it differently in our minds.

It’s important to allow yourself to splurge. The reason is mostly psychological.

I believe we were created to enjoy and delight in the many amazing flavors of food that surround us. I always picture heaven as a huge Christmas dinner with the most amazing foods, and the emotions and feelings that come with dining with friends and family. Nothing better than that! But, when we obsessively restrict what we can eat for a long period of time, the pressure builds and the cravings become so strong that we end up completely binge eating. Been there, done that?

We need a "pressure release valve".

You will be much more successful with your long-term fitness goals if you allow yourself to eat foods and drink beverages that deviate from the guidelines in a controlled manner. You need a plan. And with a plan, you can have something to look forward to when that chips and salsa craving rears its ugly head on a Wednesday afternoon.

Here are some guidelines for “splurge meals”:

  • One option is to have a full “splurge day”. Choose one day each week that you allow yourself a break from the rules and the planning to enjoy foods you really like. For most people, it makes the most sense to designate one weekend day to this. (Beware that you don’t turn both weekend days into splurge days!) This is helpful, because you can look forward to that one day when you know you can have that food you desire. Every other day of the week needs to be spot-on with your nutrition.

  • Another option is to space it out, and choose several meals throughout the week to deviate from the rules. In order to see body composition changes, you must make sure these meals don’t total more than 10% of your weekly meals. So, for someone eating 4 times per day, 7 days a week, that’s only about 3 meals per week. Not very many! A chart to keep track may be helpful.

  • "Splurging" is anything that deviates from eating healthy and nutritiously. Having a piece of candy is just as much of a splurge as having a burger and fries, even though the calories are vastly different. The point is to keep unhealthy foods (no matter the quantity) in a completely separate category in your mind. You need to be at a place where you don’t want to nibble on candy or chips all day long. Remember, it’s not about the calories. Ultimately, it’s about creating a healthy eating lifestyle that will last for the longhaul. It may take some brain re-wiring to accomplish this.

  • Missing or skipping a meal is also “splurging”. It’s very important, especially in the beginning when you’re learning to eat better, that you eat on a regular basis. When you skip a meal, you’re missing an opportunity for your body to be fed with good nutrients. Again, remember, it’s not about the calories. We tend to think skipping a meal is not as bad as eating a bad meal. It is, when you’re learning to eat right.

  • To make sure that your splurge meals don’t completely undo all your hard work from the rest of the week, watch your portion sizes. Practice eating less of something that’s not as good for you. Instead of eating a full burger and plate of fries, eat half the burger and only a handful of fries. Instead of eating 3 or 4 pieces of pizza, have 1 or 2 pieces and a side salad. So if you’re choosing to eat something that isn’t a part of your guidelines, simply eat less.

  • On splurge days or with splurge meals, drink more water than you normally would. Typically, foods that we crave are higher in sodium and fat. Drinking a lot of water will help stave off some of that bloated feeling you get when you eat unhealthy.

  • Don’t let splurge days or splurge meals derail you from your forward progress toward your goals. This is key. This is the mindset of “well, I already ate a piece of cake, so I might as well eat the whole thing.” When you have a splurge meal, the very next meal that you eat should be perfect. If you have pancakes and sausage for breakfast, make sure it’s a grilled chicken salad for lunch. Don’t lose your focus. I’ve talked to many clients that eat something bad for breakfast on Saturday and then the rest of the weekend was just downhill from there. They never regrouped and got back on track. Having a plan ahead of time for when and where you’ll let the rules slide is pivotal in whether or not you’ll totally fall off the wagon.

  • Finally, no, you don’t HAVE to have splurge meals or splurge days. You know yourself best. If you don’t think you can handle one splurge without triggering all your previous food cravings and going on a binge, then maybe it is best to stay focused for now. Just beware, being 100% compliant is nearly impossible for the long haul. It’s good to develop the discipline and control to encounter an unhealthy meal, to know when you’ve had enough, and to really enjoy it without guilt.

If you are trying to lose body fat and gain muscle mass, then reining in your eating habits is necessary. About 90% of the time, you should be eating lean protein, lots of produce, healthy fats, and some whole grains. For the other 10%, your cheat meals or cheat days, having a good strategy is imperative. Make sure it’s no more than 3-4 meals per week, don’t overeat, drink lots of water, and get right back on track as planned. With these strategies, you will be able to take a breather from the rules and still be able to see forward progress toward your physique goals.


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Trainer, nutrition coach, and Christian mom — in a culture that’s obsessed with “gym-selfies” and a number on the scale, I’m passionate about helping moms discover what it feels like to actually love their bodies and thrive in them.
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