If you’ve ever dieted to lose weight, you’ll know how difficult it is to stick to a rigid eating plan. The feeling of missing out on foods you love can lead to indulging in cheat meals or treats – leaving you feeling guilt-ridden afterwards.
In good news for dieters, research has suggested that occasional cheating – what scientists call a “hedonic deviation” – might be have a positive effect on impulse control.
In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology researchers assigned participants one of two groups – one on a specific eating plan, the other with a more flexible approach. They found that “behaving badly” in the short run led to more positive outcomes and greater motivation in the long term.
Planning is essential for success
Naturally, there’s a catch. The authors said that a cheat meal only worked in a person’s favour if it was part of the diet plan and not a source of guilt.
They said many dieters fell victim to the “what-the-hell effect”, abandoning eating plans because one setback led to a sense of failure. For example, when you allow yourself one Tim Tam – and end up eating the whole packet.
But researchers said dieters who planned for occasional treats were more likely to view minor setbacks positively and remain motivated to stick to their goals.
Accredited practising dietitian Lisa Donaldson agreed planning was key when it came to incorporating hedonic deviations into a long-term weight loss plan.
“Being organised and prepared throughout the week will ensure that you stay on track with your weight loss goals,” she said. “Having a day where people can relax the reins a little can make healthy eating less daunting,”
Not an excuse to pig out
But there’s a fine line between flexible eating and sabotaging goals, Ms Donaldson said.
A cheat day is not a free pass to slump on the couch and chow down on mountains of fast food. And dieters should avoid regularly choosing indulgent meals over nutritious, whole foods.
The trick is to identify the “naughty” food for that day or week – such as dessert or wine with dinner, bacon and eggs for brunch, or a coffee and cake date with your best friend – and stick to nourishing meals for the rest of the time.
This approach to dieting needed caution, Ms Donaldson said, because focusing too rigidly on “healthy” versus “unhealthy” choices could lead to a negative relationship with food.
“Keep the idea of ‘cheat meal/cheat day’ in mind if it resonates with you – but try not to follow it to the point of feeling guilty because you have indulged,” she said. “Food and guilt do not belong together. Savour and enjoy all meals, regardless of their nutritional benefits.”
Avoid a “diet mentality”
Organisational, health and counselling psychologist Dr Rachel Abramson agreed that guilt and food are an unhealthy combination.
“Cheat meals” and “diet hacks” played no part in healthy weight loss, she said. They reinforced a “diet mentality” – where counting calories and watching what you eat could leave you feeling deprived.
This could lead to short-term weight loss. But dieters who reach their goals and start to tuck in on all the “prohibited” foods they have been avoiding will frequently find they regain the weight they have lost.
“If someone needs to lose weight for health and fitness reasons, they need to rethink the way they eat. Permanently,” Dr Abramson said.
“Are they eating healthily, but just too much? Are they eating poor quality food because of lifestyle matters? Are they eating when they are not hungry?”
By addressing the underlying reason for weight loss, individuals could change the way they think, feel and act around food, she said.
“They are more likely to reach and remain at their weight-loss goals down the track.”