Winter Quarter – University of MN – 1995 – Freshman Year.
Required classes for Liberal Arts were held in massive lecture halls that were more like stadiums.
It was the final exam. Biology 101. I was very interested in Biology. I always did better in the classes that truly engaged me. Not this time. I found this class extremely challenging, even for an intro class. As with many final exams, this test held a great deal of gravity for the percentage of my final grade.
Doing well in school was always a point of pride for me. But for the first time in my academic career, I was struggling with the fact that in this class I was a “C” average. Only if I got an “A” on this test was it possible to bring my grade up to a “B.” I remember being nervous and almost defeated as I walked through the doors. I swam upstream through the crowd and found my way to a creaky brown theater seat.
The TA’s started passing the test and the Scantron sheet up and down the aisles, like hot dog venders at a baseball game. I felt shifty, jittery, and unsettled. The thickness of the blinding white test was intimidating. The test was made up of 2 parts: Multiple Choice and Essay. I took a breath and dove in. What? The very first question? I had no idea, not even a guess. The second question the same. The whole first page! There were a few I knew, but for the most part it seemed like a foreign language. Was I in the right room? This was not looking good, and the clock was ticking. I skipped to the end and focused my efforts on the essay. This was the one question I could answer.
Once finished, I looked at the clock. I literally had 15 minutes left. I was getting increasingly nervous as the room was becoming empty. Feeling helpless, I looked to the girl in front of me. She reeked smartness. She was writing her essay, and her Scantron sheet was placed to the left side of her mini-desk. Even though it was quite a distance from me, I could see the whole thing. Would it be possible to copy the pattern of #2 bubbles?
Deciding I had no other option, I took the chance. I did my best to keep my head down and pretended to be working intently. I could feel my face getting guilty red. I was convinced that some type of undergrad academic police would catch me.
Then it dawned on me. In large lectures, it is common to create several different versions of the test so you won’t have the same answers as the people next to you. This makes it harder for criminals…. like me! Crap. I couldn’t turn in a “Test A” Scantron with a “Test C” essay. I would surely be busted then. I made a swift decision. I put my essay in the basket on the right and secretly slipped the Scantron sheet into my backpack.
I left the room as fast as possible, in a sweaty panic, still convinced that I would be hauled away in handcuffs. But days went by, and nothing ever happened. The funny thing was I managed to still pull off a “C” without ½ the test. (Thank God for “the bell curve.”)
Cheating on this test made a significant impact on me. I still remember how horrible and paranoid I felt. The feeling of guilt, inadequacy and failure of that decision to cheat hasn’t left me twenty years later.
Great story, Eve. But what’s your point?
Let’s consider the definition of cheating: To act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage.
Have you ever cheated? How did it make you feel?
Now let’s talk about cheating as it relates to a healthy diet.
Some people employ a diet strategy called a “cheat day” or “cheat meal.” If you have been on point with your diet and nutrition, you reward yourself with a meal of your choice once a week. And often it is something big, beautiful, decadent and delicious. We are talking Instagram worthy.
I am not necessarily for or against this reward system. What I don’t like is that something that is supposed to be a reward is called “cheating.” Calling it cheating puts a negative story on a food or a meal. Cheating, as if you are doing something bad or wrong, may bring feelings of fear, anxiety, dishonesty and failure to the surface. Much like my freshman year Final Exam.
Reasons why you may adopt this strategy into your plan….
Rewards keep you sane. Ok, I respect that. Strict dieting can be emotionally tough, drain your willpower bank, be boring, bland, and no fun at all. If you need something to look forward to, to keep positive forward momentum, and to help you continue to make healthy choices throughout the week, I support you. But, only if this truly works well for you. And, it may. It may get you to your target weight if you are in competition prep, for example.
But, can this lifestyle be sustainable? If you feel like you are only living for one day a week, how could that be good for mental health in the long run? How does this affect your relationship with food? Why would you want to live six days a week in misery for the rest of your life? Perhaps after you reach your goals, or step on the competition stage, you can begin to eat in a more balanced way throughout the week. This could include the foods you enjoy but without the one day binge.
Reward meals prevent starvation mode. If you are an average gym-goer and dieter, chances are you are not in enough of a caloric deficit, or do not have low enough body fat, to be concerned with metabolic damage from your meal plan.
Reward meals help with cravings. If you are craving a certain food, having the peace of mind that you will be able to indulge soon enough will blanket the initial impulse. If this is you, awesome. If it were me, I would be anticipating the treat feverishly. Come Saturday you would find me with a jar of peanut butter, crying at the bottom of the shower in the fetal position. Today’s “cheat” would turn into stronger cravings and a larger binge next weekend. This is why I no longer highly restrict my diet. It doesn’t work for me. And one more thought. If you have serious cravings, your body could be giving you some real clues to the nutrients that you could be missing.
Does this diet strategy work? It can work amazingly well for some people when done appropriately. I watched my dear friend, Tim, morph from a beefy bouncer at a Nashville Honky-Tonk, into a legit Greek God before my eyes. Facebook posts of his mounds of chocolate-chip pancakes proved it worked for him. But, I have also seen the other side to this. There are people who restrict themselves so much that their idea of a “cheat” was putting real butter on their extra serving of broccoli.
If not in the proper mindset, and you use “cheating” as a tool, you may feel inclined to fast the next day, or kill yourself at the gym, to make up for it.
My wish for you is to enjoy yourself and have a healthy relationship with food. If you are the one who feels supported by this strategy, go for it! I do, however, encourage you to find more nutritious choices for your meal. You don’t want your reward leaving you feeling sick and bloated. That would take all the fun out of it! And, if you are someone who may not be as successful with a “Cheat Meal”, take comfort in knowing that it doesn’t work for everyone. There are other ways of eating that will help you get to your goals.
Whichever camp you are in, I would refrain from calling any food “good’ or’ bad” and relinquish any guilt. Find what works for you, relax, trust, and continue the journey like only you can!