Cheat meals have a negative connotation. Let's not look at it this way.

For most, labeling foods as “off-limits” or  “bad” is not a sustainable eating pattern to maintain a weight and live a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Nutrition Expert Kimberly Mugler shows us that by staying mindful in our everyday lives, we can indeed have our cake and eat it too!

There is a cringe-worthy connotation to the term “cheat meals”. To refer to a meal as “cheating” implies that one consumes a diet or eating pattern so restrictive that they must reward themselves to a meal consisting of the foods they are “not allowed” to have. In fact, consuming a restrictive diet sets you up for failure, and leads to negative connotations about the role of food in our life.

So what’s a more practical way to think about those meals that we love to indulge in?

Remove the labels.

Instead of writing off certain foods as “good” or “bad,” adapting an 80/20 perception on your daily intake is what will promote health maintenance in the long run. If you put the right foods in your body 80% of the time, exercise regularly, and keep a mindful mentality on your health, then that 20% of the time when you are not consuming your most optimal nutrition should be without guilt.

Know why foods nourish you.

It’s not always about what or what not to eat; it’s also about understanding the effects that different foods have on our bodies. Healthy eating should promote consuming foods that mitigate inflammation, prevent chronic disease, and optimize brain function and memory. When we focus on food as fuel, we understand that the food we put into our body has a direct correlation with the way we are going to feel, perform, think, and act subsequently. By having a better understanding of how food nourishes you, it becomes less about cheating and more about choosing foods that will promote our health, mood, and energy.

Understand there’s a crash…

There’s a science behind that “crashed” feeling after consuming some of the typically “bad” foods. Particularly those composed of refined carbohydrates. All carbohydrates turn to sugar when digested into our bloodstream. Our pancreas releases insulin which signals our cells to take sugar out of our blood and store it for later. This process promotes stable blood sugars stable energy levels. The problem occurs when we consume foods composed of refined carbohydrates (i.e., cakes, white pasta, white bread, crackers, cookies). They have a more simple structure than complex carbohydrates. This means that they digest more easily, leading to faster rises in blood sugar and faster secretion of insulin from the pancreas that result in negative health effects.

…And how to counteract the crash.

It becomes problematic when we consume carbohydrates in excess, causing blood sugar levels to become too high, creating insulin sensitivity. What’s important to remember is that when consuming carbohydrates, be sure to consume a dietary source of fiber or protein. It aids in digestion and decreases spikes in blood sugar. If you’re indulging something sweet like cookies, grab a handful of nuts or a glass of milk for protein. It slows down blood sugar spikes which will leave you feeling irritable and tired. Furthermore, try to go for a run or walk afterwards. Those carbohydrates can be fuel for your workout.

Listen to what your body needs.

A key element to healthy eating is the concept of mindful eating. Listen to your body and understand what it needs. Whether that means waiting 20 minutes after a meal to feel full. Or avoiding deprivation and having the burger when you want the burger. Remember what a balanced meal can look like; for example: ¼ protein, ¼ carbohydrates, ½ fruits and vegetables, with a serving of dairy. A typical rule of thumb: if at least 3 of these food groups are included, you have a nourishing meal.

If you can’t live without cheesesteaks, then have the cheesesteak. But put it on a whole grain roll. Recognize that half of that cheesesteak is a serving size, and be sure not to make it a daily habit. By staying more mindful of what you are putting into your body, it becomes less about “treating yourself” to the cheesesteak and more about working towards incorporating foods with powerful nutrients to optimize your health and energy levels.


Kimberly Mugler, RDN, LDN is a Philadelphia-based dietitian who is on a mission to spread health and wellness to individuals of all ages and backgrounds through a health eating philosophy of balance, variety, and moderation along with an active lifestyle. By focusing on mindfulness, Kimberly helps others develop a positive relationship with food by understanding that healthy eating is about discovering foods that fuel their bodies, not eliminating certain foods to maintain a what they perceive to be a healthy lifestyle.