Experts weigh in on cheat meals and explain when it’s alright to have a cheat day

Dieticians and nutritionists give tips on how to cheat right, and why giving in once in a while is okay.

Photos of fitness coach Jennifer Chalouhi. She will preparing some of her "healthy" cheat. Victor Besa for The National
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Cheat days have become a modern ­phenomenon.

A quick scan of social media hashtags such as #cheatday and #cheatmeal, yields over a million photos of freakshakes, ­oozing cheese burgers and deep fried chicken wings. A few ­hundred more are posted each weekend in a ­declaration of freedom from the dieting drudgery ­suffered during the week.

Celebrities, who know a thing or two about ­restrictive diets, have also embraced the cheat meals ethos. Pop-star Beyoncé reportedly opts for a pizza with extra sauce and jalapeños, while model Gigi Hadid indulges in a cheeseburger once a week. Perhaps the most ridiculous example of all goes to action film star The Rock, whose cheat meals are the stuff of social media legend. His decadent treats included eight slices of sourdough French toast, topped with half an apple pie, or 21 pancakes, 4 double dough pizzas and 21 brownies.

Cheat days are a by-product of a restrictive diet, and as more people look to eating clean and getting fit, the urge to subvert those healthy eating habits becomes stronger, according to nutrition experts.

“The concept of cheat days are quite prevalent because fad and restrictive diets have become very popular,” says Maria Abi Hanna, who with fellow- dietician Nadine Tayara founded the Dubai-based wellness company KeepEatreal.

“Many individuals stick to rigid routines and end up having strong cravings ... which makes them look forward to cheat meals and days.”

Tayara says healthy eating and exercising should be a way of life.

“A small cheat every day, where the rest of the meals are balanced and nutritious is better than a full day of cheating,” she says.

“A healthy lifestyle is based on ­moderation and variety and allows for some ­indulgences without the need to schedule it. If you have a craving for something that’s not in your diet plan, it is best to give into it in small amounts instead of waiting for a full day of feasting.”

A new study by researchers at Australia’s University of New South Wales looked into the affect of binge eating on weekends and yo-yo dieting, and found that it impacts the gut and mental health.

Researchers experimented on rats and found that eating junk three days a week not only ­increased their fat mass but also caused a loss in bacteria beneficial to the gut.

Some evidence, according to the team, also pointed to higher ­depression and ­anxiety if the gut biota (environment) was affected.

Jennifer Chalouhi, a ­Dubai-based personal trainer and mother of three, believes cheat meals are an essential way to stay on the healthy track – but she stresses they need to be in ­moderation.

Even when having indulgent meals, she says people should avoid overeating foods with transfats, seed oils and gluten. “They linger in the body for a while and some people can take a long time to fully recover from their effects.”

Chalouhi views her cheat meals as realistic. “I do have them once a week, ­preferably on Fridays at lunch time and after my ­workouts.”

Her go-to meals are hamburgers, pepperoni pizzas and nachos with minced meat and cheese, sour cream and avocado. “Some weeks I’ll do a hamburger, but tend to omit one bun or have a salad and eat only half the fries. That way I feel less guilty, I’m still happy and I haven’t sabotaged any of my health goals.”

Cheat meals don’t ­necessarily mean ordering takeout food – you can even find them at the gym in some places.

The Steroid Cafe, which is run by the ­management of the MProve Fitness Centre in Abu Dhabi, has cashed in on the trend by offering a specially designed cheat menu on the weekends.

“Usually people who are dieting or are very conscious about the amount they eat to stay fit during the week, want to be flexible on the ­weekends,” says Dorottya Vajda, the cafe’s ­operations manager.

“Even if they exercise every day, they come in to have a cheat meal from time to time. We even have people from Dubai coming in to try our weekend menu.”

Some of the popular items on the menu include burgers, Nutella cookie skillet, cheesecake, sticky date pudding and french toast.

Abu Dhabi resident, Jake Marley says he works out to bring down his body fat. He is more aware of what he eats but doesn’t restrict himself and has seen results.

“I count my macros (carbohydrates, fats and proteins) so that I’m not ­undereating, but at the same time not going overboard either,” says the 40-year-old resident who does strength training five times a week.

“However, I do indulge in desserts or a massive steak, burger and fries once in a while. It keeps my cravings at bay and I’m progressing towards my goals without a hindrance.”

Marley believes there is a fine line between being conscious and obsessed. “Most people fall in the latter and that’s when it can become difficult to manage a healthy lifestyle.”

Rashi Chowdhary, a nutritionist based in Dubai, agrees. She goes as far to state that cheat meals keep us sane. “You cannot constantly keep ­worrying about the food you are eating, this way your relationship with healthy food will always be negative and eating clean can become a chore.”

Chowdhary advocates the Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule adopted by the health industry. The concept promotes opting for nutrient dense food 80 per cent of the time, while leaving a 20 per cent buffer to eat more calorie-dense meals.

“The healthy way to cheat is to do it when you feel like you have made some progress and are happy with it,” she says. “If you indulge because you feel like you are not making progress, then that will lead to a vicious cycle of guilt. When you have made progress and then you have a cheat meal, that develops a positive relationship with food and then prevents overeating. Eating junk on a day you don’t feel good fuels the addiction of being an emotional eater.”

On the flip side, Abu Dhabi athletes Kim Jeffrey and her husband Simon Pepper disagree with the concept of cheat meals.

“It works for a lot of people as they can’t stand being completely limited to what they eat,” notes Jeffrey. “But I would rather see people eat completely clean and healthy all the time than binge in one sitting. It is about having a healthy relationship with food.”

Jeffrey admits to eating clean 99 per cent of the time. “When I go out, I might be a bit lenient but I would never have doughnuts.”

Pepper, who also follows a similar diet, says he used to have cheat meals but it quickly turned into an unhealthy habit. “It turned from one day to a few days of cheat meals and then cheat weekends,” he says, adding that he now avoids all processed foods and sugar, and doesn’t having cravings.

“I thought I would be craving it all the time when I first started, but I don’t. And I’ve found sweet alternatives that taste as good.”

Perhaps, like most things, the answers lie in the middle ground. For those looking to cheat a little when it comes to meals but fear going ­overboard, Chowdhary suggests having black coffee just ­before eating. “It increases your ­gastric emptying time and food gets digested faster, with the gut having less time to absorb unwanted calories.”

She also asks her clients to follow with a lime shot to avoid acidity. “The combination of lime and ­water acts as a bile thinner which helps with fat metabolism.”