A Treat and Not a Cheat

In a recent post, I talked about how I changed what I ate over the last few years.  Basically, I eat healthier foods, less junk food, limit fast food severely, and eat less highly processed foods.  I sometimes see writers who say that they love “real food” so much now, that they no longer like junk food or fast food, etc.  Chips, candy, cookies, cake, fries, pizza, etc. no longer tempt them.  Well, that isn’t me.  All that food I used to eat all the time, I still love.  I didn’t decide I don’t like it.  It is just that, now, it isn’t all that I like.

I used to hear people saying they liked fruits or vegetables and I just assumed they were, well, lying (or kidding themselves).  I couldn’t imagine anyone genuinely enjoying a salad (unless it had some huge amount of really high fat, high calorie dressing).  Over time, though, my tastes changed and now I genuinely like lots of things that I used to not like.

And, by and large this crowds out the other stuff.  I realized the other day that it has been a full year since I’ve had pizza from a restaurant or pizza place.  I think that maybe once in that time I bought a single serving frozen pizza, maybe.  Now, I haven’t decided I don’t like pizza.  It is just that it is rarely worth it for me.  I do take to heart Dr. Freedhoff’s questions in The Diet Fix to ask (1) if a food is worth it and (2) how much do I need to be happy.  Lots of times the answer is that the food isn’t worth it and I can be happy not having any of it.

But, sometimes I do think it is worth it.  And, then I have to think about how much I need to eat to be happy.  One of the things that helps me is to think of certain foods as being better to eat as treats, and not as a regular part of my diet.

What I never do, though, is think of any food as being a “cheat” and I never eat a “cheat meal” or, even worse, have a cheat day.  You can eat the exact same thing and call it a treat or call it a cheat meal.  But, I think it is way more dangerous to call it a cheat meal.

First, using the term cheat implies you are doing something wrong.  Cheating is a very negative term, and usually means you are doing something that you, or society, thinks of as morally wrong.  When someone plans to have a cheat meal, it can imply that person is doing something wrong.  Sometimes at Weight Watchers meetings I’ve heard members say things that indicate they think that they have gone off the Weight Watchers plan by eating some candy or cookies or whatever, even if they have the points to eat them.  I’ve heard members who felt they had done something wrong by doing this.  And, it can lead to them being derailed entirely.  Dr. Freedhoff addresses this issue in the Diet Fix:

Every time you decide to “cheat,” what you’re doing is making it easier to do so again and again. What might start out as a weekly cheat meal may expand to a full-fledged cheat day, to weeklong cheat vacations, to stressful-time cheat months, and finally to an all-you-can-cheat lifestyle. Of course, if you are feeling compelled to cheat, there are certainly other things wrong. Feeling the need to cheat means that you’re living with an overly restrictive lifestyle. The belief that using food for reasons other than fuel is cheating can derail even the most sincere dieter. We don’t eat purely for sustenance. Food isn’t simply fuel.

Freedhoff, Yoni Md (2014-03-04). The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work (p. 48). Potter/TenSpeed/Harmony. Kindle Edition.

Saying that eating a certain food or meal is a “cheat” sets up a diet mentality, where if you are “good” then you aren’t eating certain foods.  And, if you do eat those foods, then you are “bad” and cheating.  Once you set that up in your mind, I think it becomes way too easy to abandon the “diet” altogether since you’re already a cheater.

And, in addition to the psychological aspects, there is the fact that a cheat can expand from a food to a meal to a day to a weekend and beyond, as Dr. Freedhoff points out.  And, the reality is that while certain foods may be perfectly compatible with weight loss if eaten occasionally, they can derail weight loss entirely if indulged in too much.  About a month ago, I had a day that I was traveling and ate almost 2400 calories.  That is about double what I usually eat.  All of the damage was done at lunch and dinner.  That one day undid about one-third of the calorie deficit I had for the entire other six days of the week.  I’ve seen some who have a cheat meal or cheat day (or even a cheat weekend) every week.  This alone can be enough to undo a huge amount of the calorie deficit that may have been created during the rest of the week.

Another point is that if you have a cheat meal/day every week then it is harder to develop the new tastes for healthier, real foods.  If I had been having pizza or fast food every week during this past year, it would have been harder for me to genuinely develop real pleasure in eating a salad or a frittata.  Fast food and restaurant foods are often hyper palatable.  They often have more fat, more sugar, more salt.  Many of the real foods that are great are more subtle in their flavor.  If they have to compete with a pizza or a chocolate cake, they may be drowned out by the immediate sensations from the pizza or cake.  I still love pizza and cake, but the memory and sensation of them fade a bit when they aren’t regularly consumed.

Now, I am not saying that I abstain entirely from eating those kinds of foods (whether to do so or not, I’ll talk about in a future post).  But, eating pizza once or twice a year is worlds different from eating pizza once a week or even once a month.

So, what I do is focus more on having occasional treats, rather than having regular cheats.  Pizza or cake is, for me, fine as a treat. (I know that others won’t want to eat those foods at all).  But, how is a treat different from a cheat?  First, a treat is special.  Something you have all the time isn’t special.  It isn’t a treat.  If you have a cheat meal every Friday, then that is a matter of routine.  It isn’t a treat.  On the other hand, if you have a meal that is a bit more indulgent every few months then it really is special.  When I was growing up, we ate out seldom.  Maybe a few times a year.  Eating out was a special treat.  Nowadays?  Eating out is usually common, not special at all.

A treat is also something that is special because you love it.  This is why I don’t just automatically eat a piece of cake or a cookie or an appetizer at dinner.  There are plenty of things like that which are just not that great.  You get all the downsides of them and very little upside.When I have a treat, I make sure it is special and tastes great.  And, because it is not all that common to do, I enjoy it all the more.

Wednesday night, I had a treat.  I went out to dinner at Panera and ate something typical that I eat there.  I was well within my calories for the day and still had some left.  We were at a mall and my husband wanted to get coffee from Starbucks.  I’m not a coffee drinker.  He asked if I want a Double Chocolatey Chip Frappuccino.  Now, I have one of those usually 3 or 4 times a year.  I get a tall, with no whip, and nonfat milk.   So, calorie wise it was fine.  I would have gone a little over 1200 calories for the day, but I would still would have been averaging under that for the week. But, I had one earlier in the week.  And, I really didn’t want to have that many more carbs today.  So, I decided that it really just wasn’t worth it. I could have had it and still been on program.  It was within my points and within my average calorie range for the week.  But, I just felt that it wasn’t worth it right then.

What did I have for my treat?  I had a Coke Zero.  A few months ago I gave up Coke Zero (and other drinks with artificial sweetener).  I used to drink Coke Zero or Cherry Coke Zero all the time.  It was almost mindless. I didn’t really pay that much attention to it. Since I stopped drinking them, I’ve had one Diet Coke (at a fast food restaurant while we were traveling) and two Cherry Coke Zero mixes made using a Coke Freestyle machine.  So, I’ve basically had about one drink a month.  Wednesday night, I had a 20 ounce Coke Zero as my treat.  I enjoyed it immensely.  It was special.  I have no desire to go buy any more.  I was entirely satisfied with it.  And, maybe in a month or so I’ll have another.  Maybe not.  It was a treat and I liked it.  But, if I had one every week I think it would make things more difficult.  If I had a Double Chocolately Chip Frappuccino every week, it would cease to be special and wouldn’t really be a treat any more.  And, if I had it as part of a weekly cheat meal, it would be all to easy for the cheat meals to engulf all my healthy eating.

That’s why I occasionally have treats, and never have cheats.


  1. says

    Man, any diet soda I’ve had in the past 2 months has sent me flying to the bathroom. Good ole fashioned ‘the runs.’ I just can’t anymore on that. And pizza made me nauseous. I find the longer I eat healthy, the more violent my reaction can be when I don’t.

    I totally agree with cheats vs. treats mentality. 🙂

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