If you’re reading this article, then you’ve got internet access, and you have at least a passing interest in nutrition. Based on those two criteria alone, you’ve most likely heard of “cheat meals” or “cheat days” in the context of dieting. My confidence in this assertion is fueled by a 2017 study by Pila et al that wanted to explore cheat meal content on social media – their procedures began with a quick Instagram search of content tagged with the “#cheatmeal” label, which promptly delivered 1.6 million hits. As of today, that hashtag is associated with over 4.2 million posts, so the phrase is ubiquitous and has some staying power. But what does it actually mean?
Like any colloquial, informal term, multiple competing definitions exist. The general characteristics of a “cheat meal” are pretty straightforward: it’s an indulgent, hedonically pleasing, high-calorie deviation from one’s typical diet. But beyond these basic characteristics, the Instagram pictures tagged with “#cheatmeal” give us a more detailed look at what this term means to the people who actually use it.
As reported by Pila et al, photos tagged with “#cheatmeal” predominantly showcased food (82%), with the rest displaying people (15.5%) or text (3.8%). 54% of the images displayed volumes of food that were consistent with a “binge episode,” and caloric estimations of food pictures ranged from 214kcals to 9120kcals. 71.3% portrayed calorically dense, hedonically pleasing foods, such as “hamburgers, fries, pizza, and ice cream.”
Images of people mostly involved “intentional exposure of the body” (40%), a person actively eating (30.5%), or a person exercising (15.8%). The researchers noted that images generally featured people who “had flexed muscles and wore revealing attire.” For posts containing text, the most common themes involved 1) “normalizing the large quantity of food and supporting overindulgence” (43.5%), 2) “endorsing a strong commitment to exercise and fitness” (34.8%), or 3) “glorification of restraint and willpower to commit to rigid dietary and fitness practices” (21.7%).
In summary, cheat meals appear to be acute feeding opportunities characterized by the ingestion of large volumes of energy-dense and hedonically pleasing foods, generally implemented by fitness-oriented folks who are using them as a transient deviation from their diet. What’s so bad about that?
The Drawbacks of Cheat Meals
Parallels With Binge Eating
If we dig deeper into the study by Pila and colleagues, we get a glimpse of some of the unfavorable characteristics of cheat meals. For example, when analyzing the commentary accompanying “#cheatmeal” posts, the researchers found many instances of idealizing food or binge eating episodes, with text reflecting a hyperfixation on overeating food for hedonic purpose. For example, posters used words and phrases such as “feast,” “heaven,” and “obsessed may be an understatement” when describing food. Furthermore, the researchers noted: “The resemblance between cheat meals and binge episodes was illustrated by textual content that displayed a pattern of loss of control during cheat meal consumption. This is consistent with empirical studies suggesting that objective binge episodes are characterized not only by the amount of food consumed, but chiefly by the perceptions of loss of control.” The described loss of control may be described as “dietary disinhibition,” which is “a behavioral indicator of a loss of control over eating, where an individual consumes greater quantities of food, independently of their level of restraint.” Dietary disinhibition is a common characteristic observed in individuals with binge eating disorder (and other eating disorders), and disinhibition can be predictive of excessive food consumption and binge eating episodes.
There were also many instances of text that reinforced “over commitment to fitness” or reinforced excessive dietary restraint. As the researchers put it, cheat meals were commonly “encouraged, provided that they are ‘earned’ and compensated for.”
The clear parallels between “cheat meals” and binge eating, both in terms of caloric intake and perceived loss of control, are quite troubling. In addition, we see that the cheat meal concept is presented in combination with messaging about “earning food” on the front end (or “compensating for it” on the back end), along with a rigid commitment to excessive exercise and dietary restraint. At best, this creates a potentially dysfunctional, transactional view of food – we earn “credits” through rigid dietary adherence or exercise, which are exchanged for transient periods of hedonic overconsumption. At worst, this promotes a cycle of repeated binge eating and restriction. Excessive restriction is used to justify binging, but also contributes to the desire to binge and loss of control during the binge eating episode. As a result, excessive caloric consumption occurs during the cheat meal, which necessitates (in the eyes of the dieter) compensation through even more rigid or aggressive approaches to exercise or dietary restraint. This promotes an even greater desire for a subsequent binge, and fuels even greater overconsumption and loss of control, with the cycle repeating into the future.
The parallels between cheat meals and binge eating are, at minimum, cause for caution. It’s not difficult to envision a scenario in which this strategy promotes, or at least predisposes one to, cyclical binge-and-restrict sequences, and reinforces a dysfunctional view of food. To make matters worse, the researchers found that text accompanying posts often normalized and minimized the physical and psychological health risks of potentially deleterious eating behaviors. So, where caution is needed, individuals exposed to “#cheatmeal” content are receiving misplaced reassurance instead.
Incompatibility With Goals and the Fundamentals of Operant Conditioning
Those weren’t the only issues identified in this study. In many instances, text accompanying posts discussed cheat meals as “rewards” for maintaining their fitness program, and framed cheat meals as goal-directed fitness behaviors. Starting with the concept of using cheat meals as rewards for diet or exercise adherence, I believe this is a great example of having “just enough knowledge to be dangerous.” In this context, I’m not referring to literal danger, but rather a counterproductive misapplication of a well-established behavior change strategy.
Operant conditioning is an approach to learning (or behavior modification) that utilizes reinforcement, either positive (rewards) or negative (punishments), to strengthen or encourage particular behaviors. In Chapter 5 of his excellent textbook on behavior change, Dr. Edward Sarafino presents 12 tips for effectively using reinforcement in this manner. Some noteworthy excerpts include:
- “Don’t use reinforcers that could work against the behavioral or outcome goals. For instance, it’s not a good idea to use sweets as a reward for meeting subgoals in a diet program to reduce caloric intake.”
- “Be sure to maintain a high degree of reward value during the intervention. If you are using consumable reinforcers, be careful not to let the person become satiated on them before a training session is over. To prevent this problem, you can either switch reinforcer types periodically or give small portions of the food or drink for each instance of reward.”
- “Make sure that some kind of reinforcement can be presented immediately after the appropriate behavior and that it will not disrupt ongoing desirable responses very much.”
To be clear, there is an evidentiary basis for using rewards and other forms of operant conditioning to successfully influence behavior change. However, the concept of a several-thousand-calorie cheat meal as a reward for successful weight loss, body composition change, or dietary adherence is, in terms of operant conditioning, an objectively terrible idea. It is literally the “glaringly bad example” presented in this particular textbook, among the countless possibilities of bad examples across the broad field of behavior change (the book is not remotely nutrition-focused). The reinforcer (cheat meal) directly opposes the goal of the fitness program, allows the dieter to become fully satiated (which may detract from the perceived value of the reward), and disrupts the ongoing behaviors it intends to reinforce.
Along these lines, it’s important to remember that weight loss interventions tend to have pretty high success rates, but long-term maintenance of a reduced body weight is associated with far lower success rates. In other words, people can lose weight just fine, but keeping it off is a major challenge. Research strongly suggests that persistent behavioral changes are key to facilitating long-term weight maintenance of weight loss, and framing cheat meals as rewards detracts from the concept of implementing sustainable and persistent changes to behavior. Rather, it presents a recurring reminder of an alternative behavior (unrestrained eating versus restrained eating), which happens to be way more enjoyable (in the short term) and hedonically pleasing. It also reinforces the idea that dietary adherence is inherently transient in nature and unsustainable; dieters push their way through a temporary period of unsustainable restriction, eagerly looking forward to their next reprieve (cheat meal). In summary, the idea of using cheat meals as “rewards” is a blatant misapplication of operant conditioning, which directly opposes the intended purpose while reinforcing perspectives that threaten the likelihood of long-term success.
If you’re interested in using rewards as part of your behavior change strategy, consider opting for rewards that are either unrelated to your goal-related behaviors and outcomes, or directly compatible with them. For example, upon reaching a particular milestone, you might reward yourself with a leisurely activity like a movie night, a purchase related to one of your hobbies (such as a new book or game), or an extra self-care day – these are certainly enjoyable rewards, but they’re unrelated to your goal-directed behaviors or outcomes rather than directly disrupting or opposing them. Alternatively, you might reward yourself by shopping for some new clothes to accentuate your physique changes or enjoying a recreational physical activity that is made easier by your fitness progress – rather than disrupting or opposing your progress, these rewards accentuate your progress and amplify your motivation for continued goal striving.
Now, moving on to the concept of cheat meals being framed as goal-directed fitness behaviors. First, this might strike you as a bit of cognitive dissonance – how is a 9,000kcal, uncontrolled binge eating episode compatible with a diet or fitness-oriented goal? As Pila et al explained, people posting about cheat meals often suggested that cheat meals were good for boosting metabolic rate or promoting muscle growth. One example statement said: “Cheat meals on days I’m working on muscles been great [sic] for spiking the metabolism and growing the muscles.” Others pointed to perceived psychological benefits, suggesting that cheat meals were necessary to “maintain psychological health within a typically restricted lifestyle.”
First, let’s nip the perceived physiological benefits in the bud. It is true that dieters may experience some metabolic adaptation, which is characterized by a reduction in total daily energy expenditure in response to energy restriction. In theory, it is possible that some non-linear diet strategies involving transient increases in energy intake, such as refeeds or diet breaks, may confer some benefits related to attenuating drops in energy expenditure or preserving training quality during prolonged periods of dieting. While there is some experimental evidence reporting beneficial impacts on psychological/behavioral outcomes and training quality, evidence related to preservation of energy expenditure or metabolic rate is a bit mixed at the moment (for an up-do-date discussion of this literature, be sure to check out this segment from the Stronger By Science Podcast).
Furthermore, of all of the intermittent dieting strategies one might employ, cheat meals represent the worst available option (Figure 1). Refeeds and diet breaks are often implemented in hopes of striking a very delicate balance: the goal is to increase energy intake high enough (and for long enough) to physiologically replicate a transient state of sufficient energy availability, without reaching a level of overconsumption that substantially hinders weight loss progress. When we look at experimental research, we see that aggressive, acute overfeeding strategies are inefficient and unsuitable for this purpose.
A study by Dirlewanger investigated the effects of acute overfeeding on changes in leptin levels (the primary hormone that drives metabolic adaptation) and energy expenditure. The good news is that the short-term, high-carbohydrate overfeeding protocol increased leptin by 28% and total daily energy expenditure by 7%. However, the overfeeding protocol involved three days of eating 140% of one’s energy needs (that is, being in a 40% energy surplus, or eating about 40% more calories than would be required to achieve neutral energy balance). As Greg Nuckols has explained in a couple of very informative articles (one, two), changes in body weight and composition are ultimately driven by immutable and quantifiable aspects of energy balance, and if you’re trying to frame aggressive, short-term overfeeding as a metabolic-boosting strategy for dieters, the arithmetic simply doesn’t work out – any theoretical metabolic benefit is totally overshadowed and washed out by the enormous influx of extra calories.
When it comes to the psychological ramifications of framing cheat meals as goal-directed fitness behaviors, I see a lot more potential for harm than benefit. First and foremost, it’s simply difficult to justify cheat meals as being goal-directed within the context of an evidence-based approach to goal-setting. With such an approach, you establish an entire hierarchy of interrelated goals. This hierarchy is anchored by a superordinate goal, which is an overarching goal that, when properly established, reflects an individual’s values and idealized future self. For example, one might set a goal to “be healthy” – this isn’t very specific, but it reflects the fact that the individual values their health, understands the importance of living a healthy lifestyle, and sees their ideal future self as being a healthy person who does healthy person things. In order to support and achieve this superordinate goal, one would also set a series of intermediate goals in their goal hierarchy, and intermediate goals would be supported by yet another series of subordinate goals. Intermediate goals are a little more specific than superordinate goals (for example, “exercise more”), and subordinate goals are the most specific of all (for example, “lift weights for 60 minutes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at the gym near the office”). An example of a health-focused goal hierarchy is presented in Figure 2.
One of the things that makes goal hierarchies so effective is that the components are interrelated. A subordinate goal supports an intermediate goal, and that intermediate goal supports the superordinate goal. In fact, there are some instances in which multiple lower-level goals support the same higher-level goal, which is known as “equifinality” (Figure 3):
There are also some instances in which a single lower-level goal supports multiple distinct higher-level goals, which is known as “multifinality” (Figure 4):
The point is a goal hierarchy establishes an interwoven, interconnected base of support for the overarching superordinate goal. Within a properly constructed goal hierarchy, you won’t find overt contradictions or lower-level goals that directly oppose higher-level goals. Within this context, it’s hard to justify a place for the common cheat meal paradigm (over-restrict, implement a cheat meal to transiently escape the excessive restriction, and consume several thousand calories for the sole purpose of hedonic enjoyment) within a goal hierarchy. In the example goal hierarchy pictured above, the superordinate goal is “be healthy,” and intermediate goals relate to factors including psychological health, exercise habits, and dietary modification. This general set of goals is pretty consistent among active dieters, and it’s very difficult to justify the idea that cheat meals are promoting or facilitating these outcomes.
On the contrary, it’s quite easy to explain how cheat meals directly oppose and contradict these outcomes, which introduces elements of conflict, contradiction, and cognitive dissonance within the goal hierarchy and the mind of the dieter. “Mental contrasting” is a strategy that involves envisioning a desired future (in which you’ve successfully achieved your goal), then contrasting it with the present reality. This exercise challenges you to wrestle with the contrast between the idealized future and the present reality, which can yield a lot of beneficial outcomes. Mental contrasting can increase expectations of success, promote confidence in goal attainment, boost enthusiasm for goal striving, and spur action in pursuit of one’s goal. It can also provide a lot of clarity about what your major obstacles are, and how you might set up an effective goal hierarchy to achieve your desired outcome. If a dieter consuming frequent cheat meals did some focused mental contrasting, I very much suspect they’d eventually recognize cheat meals as an obstacle more so than a goal-directed behavior.
In summary, cheat meals aren’t particularly compatible with a well-aligned goal hierarchy, which has the potential to introduce some cognitive dissonance and threaten self-efficacy and enthusiasm for goal striving. However, I think the potential psychological toll of cheat meal implementation goes a little deeper than that, and a quick primer on the “abstinence violation effect” will explain why.
Consequences of the “Abstinence Violation Effect”
When people begin a diet, they impose some form of dietary restraint, which is a term used to describe the tendency to consciously restrict or control food intake. In practical terms, we’ve all seen people use various dietary restraint strategies, such as dietary tracking, portion control, fat avoidance, carbohydrate avoidance, or the avoidance of specific foods. There are many forms of dietary restriction that may be helpful or unhelpful, depending on the way they are implemented. More specifically, a dieter may approach their diet with flexible cognitive restraint or rigid dietary restraint, and the route they choose makes a big difference.
Readers are directed to a review paper by Helms and colleagues for a deep dive into the research on rigid and flexible cognitive restraint, but the short version is that rigid dietary restraint is bad news. As I mentioned in a prior Stronger By Science article, “Rigid restraint describes an approach that sets a lot of inflexible and dichotomous boundaries, with clear delineations between acceptable and unacceptable intakes. For example, someone dieting with rigid restraint would only eat a small list of ‘diet foods,’ insist upon hitting macronutrient or calorie targets with exceptional precision, and maintain a regimented and hyper-specific meal schedule. With this approach, perfection is the goal, and there is little room for flexibility, adaptability, or approximation. There are also very few gray areas, so behaviors can be quite easily categorized as unequivocal successes or failures.” A basic comparison of rigid and flexible cognitive restraint is presented in Figure 5.
Someone approaching a diet with rigid cognitive restraint might impose very specific boundaries for what constitutes “on” diet, and what constitutes “off” diet. In fact, one could argue that the concept of a “cheat meal” necessarily depends upon this rigid delineation – to cheat in a game is to violate the rules, and to cheat on a diet is to violate the imposed set of dietary restrictions, and therefore to transition from a state of being “on the diet” to a state of being “off the diet.” But what are the psychological ramifications of this transition?
In Chapter 6 of her excellent textbook on health psychology, Dr. Jane Ogden discusses the causes and consequences of overeating in dieters. In doing so, she draws parallels to research on abstinence-focused approaches to cessation of addictive behaviors. In doing so, she mentions that addictive behaviors are often framed in the biomedical literature as being irreversible and outside of the individual’s control, which may encourage “the belief that the behavior is either ‘all or nothing.’” It is believed that this perspective may contribute to high rates of relapse among individuals with addictions to smoking and alcohol consumption. For example, when a former smoker views success as a dichotomous outcome (total abstinence or relapse), a single cigarette is not viewed as a minor slip-up, but a fully failed attempt at abstinence, and therefore a transition from a state of non-smoker (abstinent) to smoker (not abstinent). As such, this “all or nothing” mindset, which is reflective of rigid cognitive restraint, may increase the likelihood that a small lapse or deviation from one’s diet will cascade into a full-blown “relapse,” which may take the form of eating a way-larger-than-necessary cheat meal, increasing the frequency of cheat meals, allowing a cheat meal to become a cheat day or cheat weekend, or discontinuing the diet altogether.
For example, imagine a hypothetical dieter who is dieting pretty aggressively with rigid cognitive restraint, and they’re including cheat meals as a goal-directed component of their diet (even though it conflicts with several other higher-level goals in their goal hierarchy). When they incorporate their next cheat meal, they may subconsciously view it as a “lapse” in their diet, even if everything goes according to plan – given their rigid cognitive restraint, the fact that they’re eating food items and food quantities that would otherwise be “off limits” signifies a transition from “on-diet” to “off-diet.” If their cheat meal doesn’t go according to plan (for example, they experience the commonly observed “loss of control” and eat far more than they intended), this would be viewed as an even more egregious lapse.
As described by Ogden, the psychological ramifications of this lapse can pose a major challenge. Such a lapse is likely to reduce self-esteem and self-efficacy, which are important factors in several different theories and models related to behavior change, such as the Health Belief Model, Social Cognitive Theory, and Self-Determination Theory. The ubiquitous inclusion of self-efficacy as a pillar of several behavior change theories and models reinforces a fairly intuitive point: to achieve goals that involve behavior change, believing in yourself and your ability to succeed is critical. Furthermore, one of the major benefits of anchoring your goal hierarchy with a superordinate goal is that it gives you an aspirational set of values and ideals that are identity-based. In other words, your superordinate goal clarifies what’s important to you, and what type of person you are (or intend to be).
So, while a lapse related to cheat meals might threaten your self-efficacy, it can also turn your entire goal hierarchy upside down. If you’re dieting, your superordinate goal probably reflects a particular type of idealized self: confident, in control, health-conscious, and goal-focused. A superordinate goal prompts us to ask, “Am I the kind of person who does (blank)?” This identity-based aspect of superordinate goals promotes more successful goal pursuit by enhancing goal meaning, strengthening guidance during goal-striving, and amplifying goal importance, but can also make lapses in goal-striving particularly jolting. A small discrepancy between one’s current self and one’s ideal self (which is baked into their superordinate goal) can fuel motivation, but a large discrepancy can threaten one’s belief that they’re even able to achieve that idealized version of themself in the future.
Even if it doesn’t topple your entire goal hierarchy, this contradictory mismatch between goal and behavior can lead to impaired mood and self-blame. As described by Ogden, impaired mood is a reliable predictor of overeating among active dieters; the “masking hypothesis” proposes that dietary disinhibition (and subsequent deviation from a restricted diet) is a response to lowered mood that allows dieters to mask their negative mood state through the reward sensations that accompany hedonic eating. The pleasure and reward centers of our brain light up when we consume hedonically pleasing food, so large intakes of palatable foods are commonly used to cope with negative mood states by transiently inducing positive mood states. Some research also suggests that dieters may use overeating as a (subconscious) strategy to distract themselves from negative mood states, or to shift responsibility for their negative mood state; rather than attributing their negative mood state to uncontrollable aspects of their lives, they instead overeat in experimental conditions, then attribute their negative mood state to their eating behavior. Thus, we can see a cyclical problem forming: negative mood state can prompt overeating, but overeating can threaten self-esteem and self-efficacy, which can lower mood state.
This ties in with the “abstinence violation effect,” which describes the transition from a lapse (small deviation from diet) to a relapse (larger or more sustained deviation from diet). Research on addictive behaviors shows that they can be triggered by negative mood state, and that psychological responses to an initial lapse include cognitive dissonance (in our case, a mismatch between one’s behavior and one’s superordinate goal), internal attributions (blaming one’s self for the lapse), and guilt. Self-blame can be particularly troublesome, as lower levels of self-blame are predictive of long-term eating disorder remission, and feelings of guilt and self-blame may directly fuel the progression of binge eating disorder.
These psychological responses can directly promote the transition from a lapse to a full-blown relapse, and trigger what is sometimes called the “what the hell” effect, which is “characterized by disinhibition” (a common feature of cheat meals, as reported by Pila et al). Due to underlying rigid cognitive restraint, a dieter experiencing a “lapse” (which may take the form of a planned or unplanned cheat meal) may experience cognitive dissonance, self-blame, and guilt, ultimately leading them to conclude, “I’m already off my diet, so what the hell – might as well live it up.” This may promote the state of disinhibition described by Pila et al, and reinforce the transition from lapse to relapse. Such a chain of events would be very intuitive, given that cognitive dissonance directly challenges one’s goal hierarchy, these internal attributions (self-blame) directly challenge self-efficacy, guilt directly challenges the maintenance of a neutral-to-positive mood state, and rigid cognitive restraint directly reinforces the “all-or-nothing” perspective leading to disinhibition and the “what the hell” effect.
This “what the hell” effect can be further reinforced by a couple of key cognitive shifts that occur during a lapse. A lapse can trigger what researchers call “motivational collapse,” which can lead to a state in which the dieter senses a reduction in self-efficacy and self-control, passively giving into their urges to overeat once an initial lapse has occurred. There is also evidence suggesting that a lapse can trigger active (rather than passive) reactions against the diet. Rather than passively giving in to desires to overeat, some dieters may experience a cognitive shift in which they actively overeat as a form of defiance or rebelliousness against the restrictions of their diet.
Wrapping It Up
We’ve covered a lot of topics in this section, so it’s time to put them altogether:
To set the stage, we’ll begin with a hypothetical dieter. They’re dieting somewhat aggressively, implementing rigid dietary restraint – there are specific foods that are “off limits,” they must hit their quantifiable dietary metrics with perfect precision, and any deviations from this very strict plan is perceived as failing to stay “on the diet.” However, since the dietary approach is so aggressive and restrictive, the dieter allows themself one weekly “cheat meal,” where anything goes. It serves as an escape from their unsustainably rigid diet.
The dieter begins a cheat meal – this might be a pre-planned cheat meal that is perceived as a goal-directed behavior, or this might be an unplanned cheat meal driven by an overly restrictive dietary approach. As the meal begins, the jarring shift from a highly restricted diet to a completely unlimited, hyperpalatable meal might induce some degree of disinhibition, whereby the dieter “loses control” and eats even more than planned or anticipated. As the meal progresses, the dieter recognizes that their dietary intakes are incompatible with being “on the diet,” as they eat forbidden foods in forbidden quantities. They also recognize that their current cheat meal, even if part of their plan, seems to be incompatible with their superordinate goal, which reflects their overarching values and idealized sense of self.
Naturally, this disconnect between their idealized self and actual behaviors reduces their self-esteem and self-efficacy. In response, they begin to blame themselves, either for “giving in” to the temptation of the unplanned cheat meal, or for getting carried away with their overconsumption. These psychological responses lead to a more negative mood state, which may be masked by additional overconsumption, but may also lead to cognitive shifts that are characterized by a loss of motivation or a sense of defiance or rebelliousness. The dieter may think, “what the hell – I’m already off my diet, so why force myself to stop now?” Alternatively, they might be discouraged by their lapse in dietary adherence, and overeat as an act of defiance or rebellion against their restrictive diet. This collection of factors, which sum together to reinforce the “what the hell” effect, are summarized in Figure 6.
The sequence of events and consequences in Figure 6 can lead in a few different directions, but none of them are good. One possibility is that the combination of reduced self-esteem and self-efficacy, paired with the hedonic enjoyment of the unrestricted meal, may encourage the dieter to “relapse” in the form of discontinuing their diet altogether. In such a scenario, the diet is terminated prior to achieving the individual’s diet-related goals. In fact, the dieter might be in an even worse place than they started, given that their diet attempt failed to achieve the desired level of physical progress, but had negative emotional and psychological impacts that may persist into the future.
Even if immediate diet cessation is avoided, it’s possible that the dieter may instead start to utilize cheat meals that are larger or more frequent. Cooper and colleagues have proposed that people who engage in binge eating episodes (that is, substantial caloric overconsumption in the context of disinhibition) might developing deleterious coping strategies, such as positive thoughts about eating (“eating makes me feel better”), permissive beliefs about eating (“it’s okay to binge”), and loss-of-control beliefs (“I’m unable to control my eating”). They further propose that these thoughts and beliefs may directly trigger future binge eating episodes. Unfortunately, this may slow or stall a dieter’s progress, as large or frequent cheat meals can completely eliminate the energy deficit achieved throughout a week’s worth of mild-to-moderate energy restriction. For example, maintaining a daily deficit of 400 kcal/day on days without cheat meals can be fully neutralized by one day per week with a 2,400kcal surplus, two days per week with a 1,000kcal surplus, or three days per week with a surplus of around 533kcals. A dieter who “relapses” in the form of larger or more frequent cheat meals may neutralize their weight loss progress over time, lose motivation and self-efficacy, and ultimately discontinue the diet without achieving their intended goals.
Another possibility is that, after a brief period of disinhibition and uncontrolled overeating, the dieter may regain control and attempt to compensate for the overeating episode by redirecting their guilt and self-blame toward aggressive restriction. This might feel effective in the short term, but merely promotes (and might even amplify the severity of) the next binge-restrict cycle. The recurring cycle of perceived failures and unsustainable compensatory behaviors will contribute to very problematic eating behaviors in the short term, but may ultimately chip away at self-efficacy, self-esteem, and motivation to an extent that leads to cessation of the diet. Once again, the dieter fails to achieve the desired level of physical progress, but experiences negative emotional and psychological impacts that may have a more prolonged impact.
At this point, we’ve described some common characteristics of cheat meals, and explored why they might be an unfavorable strategy for dieters. However, it’d be shortsighted to end the conversation there. After all, people are implementing cheat meals for a reason – it’s challenging to implement dietary restraint over long periods of time, and a diet that leaves no room or flexibility for periodic caloric increases or periodic hedonic enjoyment of eating has limited sustainability. With this in mind, let’s explore some alternative strategies that might be more effective and more advisable than cheat meals.
Alternative #1 to Cheat Meals: Planned Hedonic Deviation
In a 2016 study, Coelho do Vale and colleagues investigated a strategy called “planned hedonic deviation” across three experiments. It’s exactly what it sounds like – a small deviation or detour from one’s goal-striving behaviors, which is baked into the plan and implemented for the purpose of enjoyment.
In one of the experiments, 36 participants were divided into two groups for a short (14-day) diet period, with a follow-up assessment one month after the diet. One group received instructions to do a standard diet with a daily calorie target of 1500kcals. The other group incorporated planned hedonic deviation; they aimed for 1300kcal/day six days per week, but were permitted to consume up to 2700kcal on the seventh day. As a result, both groups aimed for a weekly calorie target of 10,500kcal, but the calories were distributed differently throughout the week. This concept is graphically depicted in Figure 7.
Both diet groups lost small but similar amounts of weight during the diet. However, results indicated that planned hedonic deviation led to better maintenance of self-regulatory ability levels, better retention of motivation to pursue the diet, and more positive affect, while attenuating a small drop in perceived diet plan efficacy (that is, the perception of how effective the diet will be for weight loss) that was observed at the beginning of the diet in the standard group (Figure 8). In addition, the researchers noted that unintended dietary deviations significantly predicted reductions in goal pursuit motivation within the standard diet group, while these deviations did not appear to significantly impact goal pursuit motivation within the planned hedonic deviation group.
With only a 14-day diet period, we can’t reasonably expect pronounced differences in weight change between these two dietary approaches. However, the planned hedonic deviation appeared to impart some favorable psychological effects related to self-regulation, motivation, perceived efficacy, positive affect, and the ability to maintain motivation after unintended deviations from the diet plan, which bodes well for the prospect of a successful and sustainable long-term diet. On the surface, one might suggest that these results actually support the use of “cheat meals” – once per week, a group of participants ate more calories than normal, deviated from their “base diet,” and seemed to do quite well with the strategy. However, the details are important when it comes to psychological outcomes, and there are some key differences between a planned hedonic deviation and the common cheat meal described by Pila et al.
What’s the Difference?
In previous sections of this article, I explained that while some dieters view cheat meal implementation as a goal-directed behavior, they’re actually introducing contradictions into their goal hierarchy. Unrestricted eating, often in the context of rigid cognitive restraint, disinhibition (perceived loss of control), hyperfixation on food, and compensatory restrictive behaviors open the door for some negative psychological impacts, and are hard to frame as being truly goal-compatible. Even the basic terminology is fundamentally incompatible with framing cheat meals as a goal-directed behavior. Cheating in sport is athletic misconduct, cheating on an exam is academic misconduct, and it’s easy to see how a dieter would intuitively frame (and internalize) a cheat meal as dietary misconduct, prompting them to absorb the negative psychological connotations that come with such a perspective.
In contrast, planned hedonic deviation, as described by Coelho do Vale and colleagues, is explicitly baked into the set of dietary goals. Planned hedonic deviation isn’t about becoming fully disinhibited and eating in an uncontrolled and unquantified manner, nor is it an unplanned binge that occurs when a dietary hits their “breaking point” in terms of motivation and dietary restraint. The extra calories consumed during a planned hedonic deviation are afforded by reallocating calories from earlier in the week, and the weekly dietary budget is explicitly maintained. Planned hedonic deviation is like allocating a fixed amount of monthly income toward a clothing budget, whereas cheat meals are like going on frenzied, price-blinded, unrestricted shopping sprees and waiting for your monthly bank statements to retroactively assess the impact.
In other words, the calorie influx is supposed to happen, and is implemented in a controlled manner that is fully compatible with the entirety of the goal hierarchy based on predetermined caloric calculations. Such an approach supports a wide range of positive psychological outcomes associated with flexible cognitive restraint, rather than supporting a wide range of negative psychological outcomes associated with binge eating episodes or dietary lapses. In doing so, the planned hedonic deviation can truly be framed as a goal-directed (and goal-compatible) behavior, and is unlikely to invite the negative internal attributions, negative psychological ramifications, and restrictive compensatory behaviors that may be invited by the implementation of cheat meals.
If you’re a proponent of cheat meals, or a regular cheat meal consumer, you might feel that I am strawmanning cheat meals, or characterizing them in a way that is oversimplified, exaggerated, or excessively negative. First, I have no intention of misrepresenting cheat meals; rather, I aim to lean on the empirical evidence documenting the common implementation and presentation of cheat meals, which is the form of “#cheatmeal” that millions of people engage with online. Second, you might contend that your cheat meals are always planned ahead of time, conservative or moderate in terms of total energy intake, and completely under control (rather than disinhibited). You might observe that they’re never followed with guilt, self-blame, or other negative psychological ramifications leading to compensatory restrictive behaviors. In other words, your cheat meal is simply an intentional and refreshing caloric boost that allows for some hedonic eating, without any of the troubling characteristics of binge eating episodes. In such a case, I’d argue that you’re already implementing planned hedonic deviation under a different name.
In this scenario, you’re already on the right track, but a name change might be worth considering – “cheat meal” seems like a misnomer in this context, and you aren’t doing yourself any psychological favors by labeling a goal-directed behavior with a term that connotes misconduct or failed adherence while implicitly reinforcing rigid cognitive restraint. Aside from the internal consequences from framing planned hedonic deviation as cheat meals, there could be external consequences as well; without proper context, a well-intentioned post or comment about your cheat meals (which are more accurately described as planned hedonic deviations) may unintentionally lead others down a path toward “#cheatmeals,” with characteristics that parallel binge eating episodes, rather than planned hedonic deviation strategies.
In summary, there are many distinguishing features and characteristics that make planned hedonic deviations much more appealing than cheat meals. However, there is one potential downside of the planned hedonic deviation which is, by definition, planned ahead of time. The extra calories for the planned deviation are drawn from the other days of the week, which makes them a bit more restrictive than they would otherwise need to be. For example, in the study by Coelho do Vale, daily calorie intake had to drop from 1500kcal/day to 1300kcal/day in order to implement a day with planned hedonic deviation (2700kcal). For this reason, someone who doesn’t feel the need for a hedonic deviation may feel that they restricted calories to an unnecessary degree throughout the week. In addition, progress can be a highly motivating factor during weight loss; when things are going smoothly and body weight is dropping, the reward of expedited progress might be more appealing than the transient reward of a hedonic deviation. In these scenarios, there’s no sense in forcing a planned hedonic deviation when it’s not actually desired. That brings us to yet another, and even more flexible, alternative to cheat meals.
Alternative #2 to Cheat Meals: Slack With a Cost
In a 2017 study, Sharif and Shu investigated a strategy called “slack with a cost” across six experiments. They also use the term “emergency reserve” to describe this strategy, but I prefer not to use this phrase in the context of dieting; the dieting process can be psychologically and emotionally taxing at times, and the last thing we need is to utilize “emergency” terminology that opens the door for catastrophizing and amplifying diet-related concerns.
The general idea behind slack with a cost is that excessively ambitious goals can lead to large or frequent instances of failure, which may reduce self-efficacy and threaten motivation for goal striving. On the other hand, excessively easy goals are often too mundane or too insufficient to spur meaningful progress; due to their unchallenging nature, they struggle to capture our interest and inspire or motivate us to strive for successful goal attainment. This is particularly true when people are pursuing a superordinate goal that is very important to them. According to Sharif and Shu: “When there is a superordinate goal, more difficult goals may be perceived as more attractive (valuable) as they increase the chance of obtaining the superordinate goal.”
“Slack with a cost” aims to find the sweet spot by making ambitious or challenging goals feel a bit more attainable. This strategy introduces a little bit of flexibility or “wiggle room” in the goal-striving process, which facilitates flexible cognitive restraint while also providing a very mild “cost” to disincentivize the goal striver from frequent deviations.
For example, in one of the experiments by Sharif and Shu, participants were instructed to complete a tedious, repetitive task, but received monetary compensation for successfully completing the task in accordance with their goal. As I described in a previous article: “Some participants were instructed to complete the task 5 days per week (easy), some were instructed to complete the task 7 days per week (hard), and others were told that their “official” goal was to complete the task 5 days per week, but they should aim to complete the task 7 days per week. Finally, the fourth group was given “slack with a cost”: they were told to complete the task 7 days per week, but that up to 2 days per week would be excused, if they needed it.”
During the protocol, participants received $1/day for that day’s efforts, plus a $5 bonus for successful weekly goal completion. The “slack with a cost” group would therefore be penalized for skipping days (they’d lose $1 for each skipped day), but their weekly $5 bonus wouldn’t be impacted unless they skipped 3 or more days. With this approach, participants are striving toward an ambitious goal (7 days per week), but they’ve been granted some wiggle room, such that small deviations from this goal (1-2 skipped days) would not wipe out the weekly bonus. This strategy explicitly promotes flexible cognitive restraint, but also incorporates a small cost (losing $1/day); as a result, skipping a day is not viewed as total failure, but participants fully understand that skipping days carries a small cost, such that frequent day-skipping is not in their best interest.
Slack with a cost is very interrelated with effective goal setting, so a more in-depth explanation of this strategy can be found in a Stronger By Science article about goal setting. However, the overall findings of this series of experiments by Sharif and Shu can be summarized pretty concisely: people preferred goals that involved slack with a cost, perceived them to have higher attainability than hard goals but higher value than easy goals, and also experienced more sustained persistence when striving for them. In terms of the specific experiment described above (monetary rewards for a tedious, repetitive task), the “slack with a cost” group was more persistent and more likely to receive their monetary bonus than the other conditions, and slack with a cost was also the most preferred experimental conditions among study participants. In short, slack with a cost was an efficacious strategy that was embraced by study participants, which made an ambitious goal feel more flexible and attainable.
This concept can very easily be translated and applied to dieting. A dieter can establish a predetermined, weekly “calorie reserve.” This represents a set number of calories that the dieter may “tap into” throughout the week, but only if desired. The calorie reserve can be accessed at any time throughout the week, but the size of the calorie reserve remains fixed, such that it can be quantifiably incorporated into the dieter’s weekly calorie goal (rather than being a “blank check” for calories, as is often seen with cheat meals). This general concept is presented in Figure 9.
For example, the dieter may wish to use their entire calorie reserve on a Thursday (Figure 10).
Or, the dieter may wish to use their entire calorie reserve on a Saturday (Figure 11).
Alternatively, the dieter may wish to spread their energy reserve over two different days. For example, they may consume half of their energy reserve on Tuesday, and the other half on Sunday (Figure 12).
Within this framework, dieters have the flexibility to tap into their calorie reserve when they wish to. There is a small cost associated with this decision (slightly delayed time to completion of the weight loss goal), but utilizing the calorie reserve is not operationalized or perceived as “failure” or “going off the diet.” This goes a long way in avoiding the “what the hell” effect, and the full sequence of events depicted in Figure 6. Since the calorie reserve is budgeted and predetermined, it is explicitly and quantifiably incorporated into the diet, and fully compatible with the dieter’s entire goal hierarchy.
As an added bonus, this strategy reinforces proper alignment of goals and incentives. As previously discussed, framing a cheat meal as a reward for weight loss is contradictory, and induces a substantial degree of cognitive dissonance. However, “slack with a cost” passively incentivizes the choice to refrain from utilizing the calorie reserve (without explicitly penalizing the choice to utilize it), which realigns the reward (expedited weight loss) with the individual’s goals. If a dieter is enjoying their progress and is more excited about expediting their goal attainment than enjoying some extra calories from the reserve budget, they can simply choose to abstain from using the calorie reserve that week. They have no obligation to utilize the calorie reserve, and they did not have to impose unnecessarily large restrictions throughout the week in order to free up calories for a hedonic deviation. In this way, the “slack with a cost” strategy functions as a flexible middle ground between standard dieting (with a stable daily calorie target) and planned hedonic deviation (with a predetermined choice to incorporate a high-calorie day).
Tips for Implementing Planned Hedonic Deviation or Slack With a Cost
Whether you’re implementing planned hedonic deviation or slack with a cost, there are a few common goals in mind. You want to avoid the disinhibited, binge-like characteristics that are commonly observed with cheat meals, and you want to fully capitalize on the hedonic aspects of a transient elevation in calorie intake. A few simple guidelines can help you achieve these outcomes.
When it comes to palatability, strike a balance
In the nutrition world, palatability describes the degree to which a food (or combination of foods) suits our flavor preferences. When we hate a food, it’s unpalatable; when we enjoy a food, it’s palatable; when we absolutely love a food, it’s hyperpalatable. During a hedonic deviation, we want our meals to be palatable enough to actually be hedonically pleasing. However, we might want to tread lightly when it comes to hyperpalatable foods or meals.
For some people, the incorporation of some hyperpalatable foods during a hedonic deviation might be just enough to “scratch the itch” and satisfy a craving, without any unfavorable consequences. In that scenario, hyperpalatable foods are totally fine. However, some folks don’t seem to do as well with periodic incorporation of hyperpalatable foods during a sustained diet. They may find that hyperpalatable foods tend to trigger a state of disinhibited or uncontrolled eating, leading to a situation where it’s difficult to stop eating once they’ve started. In such cases, modest, planned deviations give way to large, unplanned episodes of overconsumption. Some dieters may also find that periodic consumption of hyperpalatable foods increases the frequency of their food cravings or urges to overeat throughout the week.
In summary, dieters should consider their own personal experiences when exploring how palatable and hedonically pleasing their planned deviations should be. If you observe an instance (or multiple instances) in which you get carried away during a planned hedonic deviation, or you get carried away when tapping into your calorie reserve, participation in a “counterfactual thinking exercise” might be an advisable strategy. This involves retroactively reliving the experience, and is intended to help you identify where things went wrong, and how specific alternative steps or actions might have led to more desirable outcomes. Upon some reflection and counterfactual thinking exercises, it’s not uncommon for individuals to realize that consumption of hyperpalatable foods tends to derail their planned hedonic deviations (or their utilization of their calorie reserve); for these individuals, it would be advisable to alter food choice to minimize the intake of hyperpalatable foods while dieting. In fact, after some experimentation and reflection, some dieters may find that even well-planned implementations of hedonic deviation or slack with a cost tend to disrupt or derail their dieting efforts. These individuals may choose to forgo the entire concept of utilizing cheat meals, planned hedonic deviation, or slack with a cost while dieting, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Choose thoughtfully, take it slow, and pay attention
The major “sticking point,” or the primary barrier, challenge, or source of friction during a diet, can vary among individuals. Some people find it challenging to navigate group eating opportunities (with friends, families, or colleagues) while implementing calorie targets, others battle with food cravings (or a mismatch between their ingrained dietary habits or preferences and their newly implemented calorie targets), and some struggle with physiological hunger. In fact, an individual’s “sticking point” can change as they progress through various stages of dieting; while group eating opportunities might be the big challenge early in a diet, hunger might become more impactful as the individual experiences more and more successful progress toward their goal.
So, while some dieters may be implementing planned hedonic deviations or slack with a cost to enable more dietary flexibility at group eating events or to incorporate more of their favorite high-calorie foods, others may be more focused on increasing satiety (that is, attenuating hunger). While there are a number of simple, practical, and effective ways to enhance the “satiating efficiency” (that is, the relative impact on hunger reduction, per calorie) of a meal, I want to state an important caveat before discussing them. Having one or two high-satiety meals throughout the week may be transiently enjoyable, but they aren’t likely to resolve hunger-related challenges on the other days of the week. So, a more robust approach to combating hunger while dieting involves incorporating some of these strategies throughout the entire week, not just during higher-calorie days.
Beyond that, an even more robust approach would involve incorporating these strategies while implementing an acceptance-based approach to hunger while dieting. A full discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this article, but the general idea is that “acceptance-based interventions seek to change one’s relationship to unwanted thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations, as opposed to trying to change or control them.” In the context of hunger, this involves working to reframe hunger as a natural and predictable element of energy restriction. The aim is to change your psychological responses to this physical sensation, rather than waging war on hunger and inducing psychological distress through efforts to continuously avoid or suppress it. It’s easier said than done, but the payoff is substantial.
Now, getting back to those tips for enhancing the satiating efficiency of a meal. First, deliberately choosing food sources can be very helpful. Structuring your meals with high protein, fiber, and water content, in addition to low energy density (a smaller ratio of calories to total food volume) can go a very long way. For some examples, this type of meal composition can easily be achieved by building your meal around food sources including fibrous vegetables, lean protein sources, and low-calorie soups. There is also research to suggest that selection of unprocessed or minimally processed food sources, in addition to food sources with harder textures, might be helpful as well.
It’s possible that harder textures may be indirectly promoting satiety by slowing down your eating rate, as hard foods tend to require more time spent chewing. There’s scientific evidence to suggest that slower eating rates promote a greater degree of satiety, which might relate to two potential mechanistic explanations. First, slower eating rates allow greater time for the body to produce, release, and sense a variety of hormones and neurotransmitters that convey the message of satiety. Second, slower eating rates often give us more time, per calorie ingested, to interact with the aromas and flavors of the food. In this sense, a slow eating rate can be said to enhance the “hedonic efficiency” (that is, the relative hedonic enjoyment per calorie ingested) of a meal. Hard textures may promote slow eating rates by necessitating extra chewing, but slow eating rates appear to enhance satiety independent of food texture. For example, one study found that eating apple juice with a spoon (as if it were a soup) enhanced satiety when compared to drinking the same apple juice. It was the same exact food with the same exact texture, but merely slowing the rate of consumption enhanced the satiety response.
Along the lines of “hedonic efficiency,” it might also be helpful to eat mindfully. Mindful eating describes the act of being mentally present while you eat, while making a dedicated effort to pay attention to the flavors, aromas, and experience of enjoying the food. In some cases, we may eat in a distracted state; for example, we might mindlessly snack on pizza while watching a sporting event with friends. Between the action of the game and our conversations with friends, we might not be “mentally present” enough to fully enjoy and savor the aromas and flavors of the food we’re consuming.
In this scenario, we’re ingesting a considerable number of calories, but the hedonic enjoyment of this consumption is attenuated or blunted by our distracted state. I’m certainly not suggesting that we should retreat from society and enjoy all of our meals in an isolation room devoid of sensory stimuli, nor am I suggesting that mindful eating is a surefire way to passively reduce energy intake. Rather, I would encourage dieters to keep an eye out for passive, unintended overconsumption that may be caused by distracted eating, and I would also speculate that mindful eating may help dieters enhance satiation efficiency and hedonic efficiency when they’re implementing planned hedonic deviation or slack with a cost. By implementing the strategies discussed in this section, the dieter may get more “bang for their buck” and amplify the potential benefits of planned hedonic deviation or slack with a cost.
The MacroFactor Approach
Many diet-related apps put their users in an unnecessarily difficult position that reinforces the sequence of events depicted in Figure 6. Many start with excessively restrictive dietary guidelines or targets, and compound the issue by implementing design choices or functional elements that reinforce rigid cognitive restraint. For example, some apps have warnings, alerts, or fonts that turn red when you exceed a daily target or eat a food they consider to be “bad.” Some lock you into rigid schedules for meal frequency or timing, or cease to function properly if your “adherence,” quantified as the gap between your target intakes and actual intakes, falls outside of a tight, arbitrarily selected range. Others even go so far as to categorize and tabulate your “good days” and “bad days.”
So, before we even get to the implementation of planned hedonic deviation or slack with a cost, MacroFactor sets the stage for success by using the most rigorous scientific evidence available to calculate an initial estimate of your total daily energy expenditure, and an advanced algorithm that begins updating this estimate after the first day of app use. This estimate, combined with a highly customizable goal setting procedure, allows you to individualize your approach to ensure that you’re consistently aiming for a suitable and sustainable calorie target. On top of that, the algorithm functions in an entirely adherence-neutral manner, and the app was thoughtfully built with functionality and design elements that directly reinforce flexible cognitive restraint.
Implementing planned hedonic deviation is quite simple within MacroFactor. If you’re on a coached program and interested in a small shift in calories, you can select “shift calories” when setting up your program, and select the high-calorie day of your choice. If you’d like to have more control over the magnitude of your calorie shift, you can also switch over to a collaborative program, which allows you to control your calorie shifting with even greater levels of customization. Of course, you don’t necessarily have to shift app settings unless you want to – if you simply choose to eat, for example, about 200kcals below your target six days per week, while eating about 1200kcals above your target on the seventh day, you’ve successfully implemented planned hedonic deviation. The MacroFactor algorithm doesn’t require that you hit the exact calorie target set for each individual day. In fact, even if you miss some targets and end up lower or higher than your anticipated weekly budget, the adherence-neutral algorithm will have absolutely no issues handling this scenario and making appropriate adjustments.
It’s even easier to implement slack with a cost within MacroFactor – all you need to do is determine how large of a caloric reserve you’re comfortable with, and go about your business. Whether you’re using a coached or collaborative plan, you’d set your daily calorie target for your “base diet” (that is, the calorie target you’ll be aiming for on a typical day, prior to tapping into your calorie reserve). When you want to tap into your calorie reserve, no changes are needed; simply consume more calories, track them in your food log, and let the adherence-neutral algorithm take over. Since the algorithm is impacted by your actual energy intake (rather than your pre-set calorie target) and changes in body weight, it is equipped to make appropriate week-to-week adjustments whether you use all, some, or none of your calorie reserve. As long as you’re logging all of your intakes, everything is taken care of.
Summary and Conclusions
Cheat meals are commonly implemented in a manner that promotes unfavorable psychological consequences, which may dramatically impair quality of life while dieting and significantly reduce the likelihood of successful goal attainment. However, there are alternative strategies that, based on scientific evidence, appear to achieve the purported benefits of cheat meals while attenuating the negative consequences that are commonly observed. Planned hedonic deviation involves reallocating calories toward a weekly, preplanned high-calorie day, whereas slack with a cost involves establishing a capped, weekly calorie reserve that the dieter may choose to utilize as desired. The benefits of these alternative strategies are likely to be amplified when implemented within the context of a well-designed goal hierarchy, flexible cognitive restraint, acceptance-based approaches to weight loss efforts, mindful eating strategies, and thoughtful choices related to food selection and meal composition. Collectively, these strategies are helpful components of a dieter’s toolkit, which may simultaneously enhance quality of life while dieting and the likelihood of successful and sustainable long-term goal attainment. Fortunately, these strategies are very easy to implement within MacroFactor.