As of lately, food porn has been quite the hype. Specifically, indulgent food porn. Whether it be Pinterest boards of peanut butter Oreo brownies, Instagram feeds of donut or pizza-themed cheat days, and Buzzfeed’s Tasty videos of insanely cool desserts that no one would actually make (think unicorn cream puffs or a blue velvet cake made in a rice cooker!), the aesthetics of food porn are just so appealing, both in terms of visual beauty and, oddly, physical satiety. For the most part, it’s because we can eat with our eyes, imagine the aromas of the delicious food, and not gain weight while doing so. Also, for some strange reason, people enjoy watching others eating food. Like, really enjoy it.
Normally, it’s not considered a mentally healthy habit to label certain foods as “clean”, “dirty”, let alone a “cheat”. However, you cannot deny that some foods contain more health benefits, whereas others may pose more health risks. Sometimes we can’t help but refrain from having more cookies than we want and force ourselves to consume more greens than we wish. I mean, you can train your taste buds, after all (actually, not really. I still haven’t gotten my palette to enjoy grapefruit. And it’s been four years!). Nevertheless, only in a perfect world can we have our treats and eat as much as we want of them while not expanding our fat cells. Yes, fat cells don’t actually “burn off”. They shrink when you lose weight and swell up when you gain weight.
But anyways, these cheat meals, and even cheat days, have taken the food porn mediums by storm as they have risen in popularity even more these past few years. Why is that? Why are cheat days and cheat meals becoming more acceptable both among fitness influencers and those who follow them? Even more questions rise with cheat days and frequent cheat meals regarding fat gain, recovery, and the credibility behind them. Should cheat days and cheat meals even be done right?
Well, before we dismiss cheating on a diet entirely, we need to understand that not every cheat day or meal is created equal regarding thermic effect and micro-nutrient content. How so? Certain types of cheat meals such as fried chicken, kung pao tofu, burgers, and buffalo wings will be higher in protein than, say, avocado sushi and ice cream, which will be higher in carbohydrates and lower in protein. Water retention may be the same, but glycogen stores and possible fat retention, depending on how much you decide to consume, may not. So, I’ve broken down each type of cheat meal with their pros and cons, and the differences between all of them.
- The All-Out: Sometimes you’re hungry. REALLY. FREAKING. HUNGRY. But obviously, vegetables don’t sound good to you. You want a freaking stuffed-crust pizza with extra toppings, or animal-style fries with every sauce known to man. While some of these meals just sound absolutely ridiculous, it’s honestly a wonderful experience to try something way too extra to be real. From anecdotal experience, enjoying two vegan donuts and a slice of blueberry pie that was literally the size of my head probably had to be my favorite example of an “all-out” cheat meal. Nothing healthy about this dessert plate whatsoever, and I’m pretty sure the calorie content was at least half of my caloric maintenance (but I obviously didn’t care about that). These meals may satisfy some people even quicker than healthier alternatives, because they might feel restricted from their current regimen. Though it may not seem like it, cognitive registration of consuming the sugar, fat, and/or carbohydrates they’ve craved for so long can translate into physical satisfaction. It’s why some individuals will feel more content just taking a scoop of regular ice cream than having a bowl of homemade blended sorbet. And face it. Does fat free sorbet actually taste better than So Delicious coconut milk ice cream?
- The Tracked Cheat Meal: Basically a cheat meal planned ahead of time! Knowing the numbers of their meals, whether healthy or not, can actually help people alleviate their anxiety over food. Tracked cheat meals can be an all-out cheat meal, a healthier cheat meal, or even just a regular meal with an extra scoop of Nutella or something as simple as a cookie. My example would be this vegan orange chicken salad I created with mushrooms and spinach, which I included on a Saturday where I chose to track my meals. What makes these cheat meals more ideal for health and fitness progression is that the rest of the week’s worth of food and exercise can be manipulated around that particular cheat meal. Some people choose to lower their daily calories a little bit and exercise a little bit more prior to this cheat meal in order to downplay the “damage”. This isn’t to say that tracked cheat meals are entirely healthy, of course. Simply to put it, tracked cheat meals should not be part of a long-term diet because tracking shouldn’t be part of a long-term diet in general. Can you really picture yourself weighing out your food precisely by the gram ten, twenty, or thirty years from now? Food isn’t solely based on numeric value–food encompasses water, macronutrients, and micronutrients, all of which are essential for bodily functions.
- The “Healthified” Cheat Meal: Say you have mad cravings for pizza…or ice cream…or donuts…or sushi…or lasagna…or all of the above. However, you don’t really have to experience the real deal and would rather consume something a bit more nutrient dense that still tastes incredible. This is where the healthified cheat meal comes into play. Being pretty self-explanatory, healthified cheat meals are essentially recipes of pizzas, pancakes, cookies, and many more that are composed mainly of more wholesome food. Alternatively, you can purchase a packaged item that is a healthier substitute for its counterpart, such as a Lenny and Larry’s cookie or a raw vegan truffle. Other examples include making homemade baked donuts or customizing a bowl of nachos with air-fried tortilla chips and sensible toppings such as dairy free cheese, yogurt instead of sour cream, and Pico de gallo rather than store-bought salsa. One of my favorite “healthified” cheat meals has to be an ice cream cookie sandwich made with a Munk Pack peanut butter chocolate chip cookie and “nice” cream (just blended frozen bananas!)!
- The Refeed: For some people, it doesn’t matter so much about what they eat, but much of it they eat. Example: are two tablespoons of peanut butter actually fulfilling to me? No way. Neither is 3/4th’s of a cup of cereal, 1/2 a cup of pasta, 11 air-fried sweet potato chips, or 1 ounce of dark chocolate. Hence, enjoying an entire box of the Nature’s Path Dark Chocolate Macaroon Love Crunch cereal with Peanut Butter Panda Puffs was the perfect way for me to replenish my glycogen stores that were depleted for quite some time, given that I didn’t eat a lot of carbohydrates during that week. My workouts were way more effective the next day and the following days! So, the refeed is essentially all about eating the same healthy foods, but in larger quantities–specifically in the form of carbohydrates. Refeeds have actually proven to enhance performance in training, stimulate muscle growth, increase the metabolism, and improve strength and general progression in fitness. If you would like to consider a cheat meal but don’t necessarily want to go overboard, then refeeds may work for you. Yep, you can enjoy as many peanut butter-stuffed dates as you wish, and accomplish your goals. Cheers!
- The Simple Swap: Just putting it out there, some foods just do not taste the same when healthified (sorry, shirataki noodles. You just don’t quite compare with rice noodles.). But if you still want to eat healthy overall while enjoying part of the “real deal”, then you can do exactly that. Simply make your regular meals but add a little splurge or two, such as adding a dollop of vegan butter onto your baked potatoes or enjoying your vegetable curry with white rice instead of brown rice. This is a great way for people recovering from eating disorders and other food anxieties to gradually accept stigmatized foods back into their diet while learning that one or two scoops of cookie butter won’t kill them. Pictured above are two bowls of nice cream, one with peanut butter and dextrose-sweetened dark chocolate, and the other with Newman’s Own original chocolate creme filled cookies, which are made with organic ingredients, are lower in sugar than Oreos, and taste just like Oreos. Yep, the cookies may not be the healthiest topping for nice cream, but come on, cookies n’ creme nice cream. How can you pass that up?
Distribution of cheat meals is ultimately up to you. Some people choose to have only one cheat meal a week. However, the majority of people aren’t satisfied with just one (at least I wouldn’t be). For the most part, cheat meals can be incorporated throughout the week in which the individual still manages to eat relatively healthily for most the day, essentially following the 80/20 rule. On the other hand, some people like to block one or two days of the week to break free from their regimens and satisfy all of their cravings within the span of 24 hours. These are best known as cheat days, which are popular to watch online but can also be considered as part of a negative outlook on food.
Why exactly are cheat meals/cheat days classified the way they are? For one thing, people who have experienced troubles with eating disorders, food restriction, and/or extreme dieting already have polarized views about particular foods. These views are tremendously challenging to overcome, so simply making a cheat meal or a cheat day a regular part of their regimen can help some individuals overcome their anxieties and realize that their previous fears about gaining ten pounds overnight or even dying from a sugar overdose are irrational. Plus, with the way certain brands and companies market their products as such, we can’t help but categorize foods as good and bad.
Though every food can be broken down as an aqueous mixture of carbohydrates, fats, protein, vitamins, minerals, colorants, enzymes, fatty acids, and other trace constituents, the specific quantities of each component of food differentiates from each other too excessively, both within and with every type of food out there. Face it. An apple will not have the same physiological and metabolic effects on your body as a serving of chocolate chip cookies will. Though caloric content may determine weight loss, the amounts of micro-nutrients as well as the fiber from the apple will impose different outcomes on digestion, growth, development, and general health than the cookies per say.
Now that the breakdown and justifications of these cheat meals have been laid out, how can someone utilize cheat meals for their progress in their health and fitness journey? Well, there are several reasons. As most people know, food is fuel for our physical activity, cognitive ability, metabolic functions, and every element necessary for survival. Carbohydrates = energy; fat = absorbance; protein = building and repair.
A carbohydrate-based meal, for instance, serves to replenish a generous amount of glycogen stores that would be used for an intense pump in the gym, rather than risking not consuming enough carbohydrates and possibly breaking down muscle during the workout (this is only if your body fat percentage is already quite low). The stored energy supplies the necessary components for growth and effective training, so after a cheat meal or during/after a cheat day, most gym-goers train the body parts they want to grow in size. Weight training is most optimal for muscle growth and caloric expenditure, but including some form of cardio aids in recovery and fat shrinkage.
What are the benefits of cheat meals in terms of diet? An indulgent treat and/or day full of splurges are experiences that anybody just starting to clean up their diet would look forward to since cravings tend to increase and temptation becomes even more frustrating. That’s why bikini competitors, models, and celebrities enjoy the most indulgent foods after months’ worth of dieting and training rigorously. I mean, someone can live off a diet with only protein and vegetables for so long. Personally, that would last me about five days. In this case, a cheat meal is seen as a celebration for working very hard for an extended amount of time. Additionally, making a cheat day out of a restaurant hopping adventure with your friends, family, and/or partner can also be an extremely pleasurable experience. Besides, when in Rome/New York/Los Angeles/Tokyo/Paris/any other foodie city (I’ve heard that Taiwan, New Orleans, Charleston, Toronto, and Ensenada are other amazing cities, but I’ve never been!).
Cheat meals are also said, supposedly, to aid in metabolic acceleration. To an extent, this is true. When your body consumes more calories than expected, the leptin levels in your body temporarily increase. This specific discovery was only found when participants were overfed a carb-heavy meal or protein-heavy meal, not a meal heavy in fat or red wine. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis, which involves self-conscious physical activity such as fidgeting, writing, cleaning, walking, etc., also increases in the body’s effort to burn extra calories, though this difference is not necessarily significant. To optimize digestion, make sure you remain active throughout the day with lots of walking as well as drinking plenty of hydrating liquids such as water and tea.
More importantly, how should anyone take cheat meals from a psychological stance? For one thing, depending on the quantity, the macronutrient breakdown, the sodium content, and how well your body can actually tolerate certain components of the food, the physiological effects can vary drastically. Two pieces of candy will not have the same effect as an entire box of pizza or a pint of ice cream. One is mainly sugar, and the latter two have drastically more fat and carbohydrates. However, the psychological and emotional outcome may result the same way: an utter feeling of despair.
My advice on how to emotionally and psychologically handle cheat days is to take it one step at a time. Allow yourself to feel a little guilty if you need to eliminate the mental toxicity some way, but right after that, hop back on track. Complete an intense workout to put the extra glycogen stores and energy to good use, and listen to your body the next day. More often than not, you will either eat less than usual, or just like you usually would. Make sure to drink plenty of liquids, consume mostly wholesome food, but never restrict yourself or force anything unpalatable down your throat for the sake of detoxification.
Most importantly, remember that one or two cheat meals or even cheat days does not make you an “unhealthy” person, let alone a failure towards your regimen. Food encompasses the same major and minor components, just in different breakdowns and structures. They do not account for your intelligence, your kindness, your capacity to love others, nor your overall self-worth. If you do find yourself in a binge-restrict cycle or a constant state of anxiety with food, evaluate your current diet and consider looking into professional guidance. Cheat meals may serve you well to teach you that food isn’t the enemy, but be wary that they can trigger some dangerous behavior. You can experiment for yourself or reach out to a professional who can help you create a meal plan.
If you are considering incorporating cheat meals into your diet but are hesitant about it, don’t act right away. Try a simple swap meal or a refeed meal, or even just try a small portion of a less micronutrient-dense food to see how your body reacts. Most likely, you won’t experience a huge physical difference asides from possible water retention and differing blood glucose levels. Once you come to terms that a few cheat swaps and cheat meals won’t do you too much harm, they may become part of your regular routine.
- PRO TIP: cheat days and cheat meals are even more fun if you have a friend accompanying you! Just make sure you are adamant about what you don’t want to share…
Thank you so much for reading this incredibly lengthy post! It took me several weeks to compile, and I hope you got some value out of it (even if it was just from the food porn!)!