I see a good number of mentions of the concept of “cheating” during a diet. Many individuals who are cutting plan for what they refer to as “cheat” days or meals, a time during which eating guidelines are loosened. I never cheat because I don’t believe that there’s such thing as cheating when it comes to food. For example, I eat ice cream and chocolate and drink wine several nights a week. But it’s not cheating. How does that make sense?
According to Mirriam-Webster online, cheating is “to break a rule or law usually to gain an advantage at something.” Considering that, I see cheating in relation to whatever activity, whether it’s on an exam, on a spouse, in a sport, on a resume, or whatever else as just plain wrong. So then why would I program cheating into my lifestyle? If cheating provides an unfair advantage, how does eating “bad” or “dirty” food provide an unfair advantage? If anything, foods typically on the “cheat” list are nutrient sparse and sugary or fatty. Wouldn’t eating those things set a person back on the path toward their goals?
Here’s another question: assuming that there was some sort of pill that could make a person ripped overnight, providing a truly significant time advantage over getting ripped via traditional diet and exercise, would taking it constitute cheating? In my opinion, definitely not. Who would that person be cheating? Perhaps if he or she were competing in a “get ripped naturally” competition, then yes, but otherwise, it wouldn’t be cheating. It’s like saying that someone who has their stomach stapled is cheating to lose weight. So even if the logic of a “bad” food being a “cheat” held water (i.e. that it somehow was a hack for losing fat faster) the concept that it is cheating to hack a process that is unique to the individual and affects nobody else is illogical on its own.
All this is to say (if I hadn’t made my opinion clear already) that nothing about the concept of cheating with regard to food makes sense, which is why I don’t schedule cheat meals. They simply don’t exist in my mind. For me, a food is either ok to eat regularly, ok to eat occasionally, or not ok to eat ever. I’m not a proponent of the “If It Fit Your Macros” (IIFYM) paradigm, since I prefer to eat foods with a high nutritional content, but it’s still important to me to have some freedom to eat something less nutritious if I want it. For example, I enjoy having a serving of full fat, sugared ice cream a few times a week or 20-30 grams of 100% dark chocolate (yes, I love baking chocolate) with some red wine, but I would never eat, for example, a soy-based product, margarine, or a product sweetened with agave. I draw an eat/ no eat line and stick to it.
I also think that applying the concept of cheating to food can be detrimental because it puts a negative slant on the act of eating. It means that by eating that thing, you’re doing something bad or wrong. In my opinion, that’s the type of psychology that can provide conditions conducive to the development of an eating disorder.
How I reconcile eating less nutritious foods with my goals
On several pages across rippedforever.com, I explain that my philosophy about diet and exercise revolves around sustainability. Physique goes along with this; my interests are not in bulking and cutting cycles, since by definition that practice means that each condition is not sustained. My diet is part of my lifestyle, not something that comes to a halt, so maintaining it had better be as close to effortless as possible. I include less nutritious foods in my lifestyle because they allow relief from periods when I might be too low on calories or not be taking in enough fat or whatever. They provide psychological grease by effectively addressing the natural phenomenon of cravings.
Just as I believe that the most effective lifting programs employ a periodization protocol that cycles the type of lift, load, set volume, rep volume, rep speed and rest interval at multiple scales (intra and inter-day, week and month) — see the RF Strength Method here, eating should be the same. Periodization in the gym is highly beneficial because it can help reduce fatigue, improve recovery, prevent psychological staleness, and reduce plateauing and stagnation. I find periodization as it relates to food consumption to be beneficial for the same reasons. I cannot eat below maintenance for months on end while lifting heavy if I want to slowly drop to 5% body fat. Although I might not adhere to the more strict periodization guidelines I set for my lifting, I might need a day or two each week to eat at my maintenance level to offer my body a break. I might need some good food high in naturally occurring saturated fat and cholesterol, like a few eggs cooked in a couple of tablespoons of lard to allow my hormone levels to reset. I might need an enormous bowl of oats with coconut oil and honey and dark chocolate to replenish glycogen stores sometimes. Ice cream is just something I love, so it’s a great psychological treat. Maybe I’ll have a double serving of red wine one night because I just enjoy the ensuing relaxed state. Does this sound like I’m doing something bad to myself (like a “cheat meal/ day” implies) or am I creating the ideal environment for mental and physical growth and progress? You know what I’d say.