When is cheating not cheating?

Whenever the topic of "what is a healthy diet?" is raised, many people get confused about the subject of "Cheat Meals" and why they can, or even if they should be, a part of a healthy diet. There are certainly fine points that can be argued for both sides, and it often depends on the motivation for opting to include "Cheat Meals".
Three main reasons are given for including Cheat meals into a regular routine of clean eating
To provide

  • Physiological Relief
  • Psychological Relief
  • Social Flexibility

It would be a good time to introduce terminology that is more appropriate to dieting and a healthy lifestyle. By replacing the word "Cheat" with "Reward", suddenly the purpose behind the break in discipline can be a little clearer. If we take a look at the common reasons given for including a Cheat Meal, again the term "reward" seems more suitable.

When used as an incentive to stay on track with your diet during the week, it can be useful because you know you have a reward coming. The important point here to remember is the reward must be earned. By always thinking in terms of reward, people can avoid rationalizing enjoying a "Cheat" meal too often, and in many cases, when it is undeserved.


When implementing a Reward Meal to provide physiological relief, the idea is to allow the body a small reprieve from restrictive calorie intake. The purpose of this is to boost glycogen stores, which can  become depleted when on a low calorie diet/ high intensity training routine. If you have been dieting pretty hardcore, it's likely that you have low muscle glycogen levels. Along with this often comes a sluggish feeling during your workouts and less than optimal strength. The optimal timing for rewarding yourself and also replenishing the body with extra calories and carbohydrates to reload the body with glycogen stores is immediately following an intense workout. 

The main point to remember is too still make smart calorie choices, nutrient dense food should still be the focus. Following a 90/10 plan is ideal, where 90% of the time you commit to clean eating and 10% of the time you allow a loosening of restrictions. The 10% should never be able to outweigh the 90% of clean eating. Reward Meals that are very high in Fats or Sodium may have negative effects that can tax the body well beyond the value of any positive that may have been intended. Also a claim that it can boost the metabolism is commonly made, however this is not supported by reliable scientific research at this point. 


Introducing a Reward Meal into the diet can also have crucial mental advantages by providing relief psychologically. Constant focus on maintaining a particular calorie count, portioning, and denying yourself all the simple cravings can be very taxing on the mind. A proverbial light at the end of the tunnel can be encouraging and rewarding, making the eventual indulgence all the more enjoyable. Again a very important point to remember is the "reward" component. A common negative people will claim against strict diets is that, if after a while you may have unbearable cravings and just snap, going on a buffet-style binge and indulging yourself in everything you've been missing. A more likely scenario is that you will have small slip-ups, which in time will become regular slip-ups until soon it has become a daily habit again to snack on the thing we know we shouldn't.

Maintaining the focus on Reward for efforts will help you to refrain from sliding into this predicament, and stay on track. Choosing a particular day of the week, say after leg training or a long run, is a smart strategy for implementing Psychological relief.


As far as Social Flexibility is concerned, we all need to attend family events, birthdays, work functions and so on, and we can often find ourselves in situations were a relaxed approach to our diet must be taken. Family and friends are usually supportive and accommodating to a chosen lifestyle but looking great should not come at the cost of sitting alone on Saturday night eating chicken breast and broccoli. At social events a lightening of restrictions can be applied but need not be totally abandoned. Be prepared, an "unplanned cheat meal" can be the worst form. Allowing yourself to eat outside a restrictive diet should be a measured and planned indulgence. If we view a Reward Meal as a parallel to another common indulgence, Alcohol, we see again that it must be a Reward for efforts, and not a total abandonment of healthy lifestyle. It is one thing to have a relaxing beer with work colleagues at the weeks end, it is another thing to wake on Sunday in a car park without your shoes.

So as for Reward Meals there are positives and negatives, and as often is the case, most positives can be mistreated to the point of becoming a negative, so stay on track when working Reward Meals into your diet. Remember these points

  • Food for function, even when indulging it should have a purpose.
  • Reward MEAL, not Reward DAY
  • Intended as a Reward for past efforts, never in anticipation of effort.

With the right amount of discipline, Reward meals can be highly beneficial to the end goal, so feel free to Reward in Moderation.