food

The biggest mistake you're making with your eating habits

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I have quite a few friends who are trying to lose weight. And they are super-strict with their diets throughout the week.

Monday to Friday, they stick to steamed chicken, veggies, green smoothies and salads. They only drink water and herbal tea. They eat nuts and fruit for snacks and stick to only a few glasses of red wine.

But on Saturday and Sunday, it’s time for their cheat meals. Chocolate, chips, deep-fried fish and chips, fried dumplings, burgers – whatever it is, it’s the calorie blow-outs that get them through the rest of their week of healthy eating. “Cheat meals are amazing!” they say. “Don’t judge me for eating two dinners instead of one!”

The idea of cheat meals fascinate me. They’ve become such a popular concept in the health-and-wellbeing world, and they’re often held up as the best possible way to make sure that you stick to your diet – after all, you still get to indulge in an ‘unhealthy’ food once a week.

But I wasn’t so sure about the entire concept. So I decided to chat to holistic wellness expert, Kirsty Welsh, about it. And it turns out that they’re not such a great idea.

Here are a few of the reasons why you shouldn’t rely on cheat meals as your crutch to get through the rest of the week:

1. They make you feel guilty about eating food.

“I don’t like the word cheat meal,” Kirsty tells me. “It’s pushing guilt and shaming, when we want to focus on nourishing your body.”

It’s so true. Just the phrase “cheat meal” gives the indication that you’re somehow doing a really naughty thing by consuming something that isn’t a steamed piece of lean meat or a vegetable. And this isn’t a good thing – particularly because we really don’t need any more reasons to feel worse about ourselves.

Hands up if you’ve ever beaten yourself up for eating a cheeseburger? Or half a tub of ice-cream? Yeah, me too. It’s such an incredible waste of energy and really not worth the guilt and shame you put upon yourself for such an insignificant moment.

At the end of the day, food is food. Some food does an incredible job of nourishing and fuelling your body. Other foods are not so good at this. Accept this. Try to eat more of the better stuff and less of the not-so-great stuff. And then give yourself a pat on the back for doing the best you can.

2. They can cause you to overeat.

Who's judging?

Deprivation can send a lot of people crazy. Instead of thinking about the things you can eat, you just think about the things you can't eat. And when you finally get the opportunity to eat them, you go a little bit crazy.

"Cheat meals can create binging habits – you can overeat very easily," Kirsty explains. "You try to get everything down that you can't have during the rest of the week and your calorie count can really blow out."

Think about it. If you go to Max Brenner on a Saturday night, and get a chocolate cake and a milkshake and an extra chocolate lick on the side (after all, it's your only opportunity to get a sweet treat!), you'll easily consume over 2000 calories in one sitting.

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Instead of saving all your treats for one day, spread your treats out over the week and eat them in small, reasonable portions. Don't buy big portions of anything and definitely don't keep big blocks of chocolate or packets of Tim Tams in your pantry.

It's also encouraged that you do overeat one day a week, as it keeps your body guessing. "If you’re consuming limited calories through the week, it can slow down your metabolic rate," Kirsty explains. "So if you increase your calories one day a week, it keeps your metabolism chugging over."

However, this isn't an excuse to load up on 7000 calories by eating three plates of creamy pasta in one day. "Increase your calories with good food," Kirsty encourages. "Go for more almonds, more avocado, that sort of thing."

3. They're not so great for your mental relationship with food.

In the long term, Kirsty says the best thing you can do is examine your relationship with food - and figure out exactly why you're eating what you're eating.

"It's all about working out addictive relationships and looking at the reasons behind those addictions," Kirsty tells me. "If you rely on a cheat meal to get you through the week - what are you looking for out of that cheat meal? Are you looking for comfort, or are you looking for something sweet? If you want something sweet, go and have a strawberry. And if that doesn't satisfy you, then you're probably relying on chocolate and sweets for a more emotional reason."

If your cheat meals are a crutch for the rest of your healthy eating, you may be fueling your addiction rather than fixing it. "While someone’s doing the whole cheat meal thing, they also need to be addressing their relationship with food – so they can transition to a body awareness phase," Kirsty explains. "You need to start being aware of how the food feels in your body. You come to realise that healthy food makes you feel good and you don’t necessarily need to binge on the weekends."

The other thing? There's nothing good about feeling like you're constantly depriving yourself. "Deprivation is not a healthy mindset so you’re not going to have a healthy body," Kirsty says.

I agree with that. Over the years, I've learned that I should never ban myself from eating particular foods. It just makes me obsess over them. Instead, I let myself eat whatever I want - but I've learned to listen to my body, and it tells me what it likes and what it doesn't.

This has resulted in a natural move away from lollies and chips, away from heavily processed food, away from anything deep-fried and high in fat. It's meant more smoothies, more leafy greens with my dinners, more sushi and more rice paper rolls. And I still have Max Brenner sometimes. When my body calls for a chocolate lick.

Listen to your body and let it tell you what it wants. That's the best possible thing you can do for it.

Do you believe in cheat meals?

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