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How I manage the “cheat meal”

Do's and don't of cheat meals

Shashank Mehta
5 min read • 
20 May 2023

Editor’s Note: Hello there! In previous issues of this newsletter, I have shared a fundamental principle of my food philosophy: the 80-20 rule, which advocates consuming 80% of calories from nutritious sources and allowing 20% for less nutritious options. Today, let’s focus on that 20% and delve into the art of mindful indulgence.

Shashank Mehta, founder of The Whole Truth, is the writer of this piece, with valuable insights and practical tips on approaching conscious enjoyment of those occasional treats. 

– Samarth

I met a group of friends whom I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade over dinner. We had drinks. We got updated. We had dinner. And then finally, we got to desserts. That’s the bit I decided to skip. And right on cue, as I’ve been asked a thousand times by a thousand people, my friends asked: “Don’t you ever cheat?”

“I don’t have that much willpower — how do you do it?”

“I can do anything else, but I can’t skip dessert after dinner.”

“But I was in Delhi/ Hyderabad/ Kolkata. How could I not have the butter chicken/ biryani/ oil posing as gravy?”

These, and many other such, are the claims that precede this question: How do you not cheat? Are you even human?

First up. As much as I’d love to retain that superhuman image of me in your head, allow me to admit: I cheat. A lot.

See the image below. 


That’s me. On many evenings when I sit down to write. 

Caught. Red-Handed.

The irony of sitting next to a piece of cake while urging people to eat healthy doesn’t escape me. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So let’s begin with the basics.

What is a “cheat meal”?

It’s when you eat something you know you shouldn’t. You shouldn’t — as per your diet plan or your calorie quota. 

If you don’t know your calorie quota, there is no way you know when you cheated. (And chances are, you’re cheating a lot more than you think.)

Now that’s too stringent!

Yes, the calorie math is harsh. But thankfully, there are some very simple, practical ways to manage cheating and feel happy about it. In fact, the cheat meal can be a great ally in your fitness journey.

How? Here are my top hacks to cheat the cheat!

1. Don’t be famished

The most important trick to managing a cheat meal is not being ravenously hungry. Our brain plays games with us when we restrict calories. 

If you’re like me, your ability to make good (or any) decisions is severely depleted when you’re starving. Even more importantly, it’s scientifically proven that there is a lag between eating the food and your brain registering that you’re full (read our other piece on this to know more). 

Combine these facts, and chances are you’ll stuff yourself silly with that pizza before you realise that even half of it would’ve been enough. And by then, you would’ve woefully overshot your quota.

2. Give in but on your terms

To help you with point one, here’s a tip. If that pizza or burger or samosa is calling out to you, you should shout back: “I’m coming, lover. Just give me a minute.”

This does two things. 

First, it tells your brain — actually, your tongue that’s getting wet with joy — that you won’t resist. That it’ll soon get what it wants. So the brain (tongue) won’t up the ante to make you crave even more.

Second, in the minute you’ve bought yourself, go and find something healthy to fill you up with. A small salad (some cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots — nothing fancy) is great. Or coffee. Anything that’ll semi-fill up your empty tummy with something useful.

After that, go for the cheat. It’ll make stopping at half a lot easier.

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3. Compensate

Go back to that photo I shared up top of my laptop and cake. Notice two things.

1. There is only half a piece of cake on the plate. I got them to pack the other half as I ordered, so I could never see it.

2. The coffee is black. Usually, I’d have a cappuccino. Removing the milk reduced about 100 calories.

So I saved some calories by eating only half of the cake, and saved some more by not having the milk — and got my sugar kick. Not a bad deal.

Let me give you more. When I have a sandwich, I remove the top bread piece and make it open-faced. When I have butter chicken (I’m Punjabi), I have it with roomali roti (half) and not butter-naans. When I drink, I never add any sugary mixer.

The point is, know what you’re really craving for. And then cut the riff-raff around it.

4. Cheat on an active day

Not because you’ll be able to burn as much as you cheat. That will never happen. Running 10 km at 10 km per hour burns 500 calories. So you see, your cheat meal will always outrun your run. 

But still, cheat on an active day. Your metabolism on such a day is heightened, so your body will try to utilise this extra energy to keep you energetic, not sluggish.

Ever noticed how bingeing on a lazy day leads to more bingeing — well, that won’t happen if you do it on an active day. And secondly, the memory of the effort you just put into the gym will keep you from bingeing.

5. Cheat only for the (really) good stuff

I don’t cheat for Mumbai “panipuri”. I cheat for Delhi “gol-gappa”.

I don’t cheat for Starbucks cookies. I cheat for Kitchen Garden.

I don’t cheat for any kebabs in Mumbai. I only cheat for Kakori House Galawti Kebabs.

I don’t cheat for drinking with strangers. I cheat for drinking with friends. 

You get the drift. If you’re going to spend that hard-earned deficit, you might as well do it for only the best.

6. Use it as a reward (or for social occasions)

I try to be a good boy on weekdays. Then I cheat on Saturday. 

Saturday, because I know I will kill it in the gym in the evening. And Saturday because that’s when I sit down to write, and the sugar rush brings clarity that nothing else does.

So I cheat and feel good about the food, about the writing, and about the fact that I’ll kill it in the evening. So much joy it’s almost orgasmic.

Sometimes, when a big occasion — wife’s birthday bash, colleague’s farewell, travel to Delhi — is coming up, I plan my cheats for those days. And sometimes, I cheat when I’m happy with myself. Given how critical we are of ourselves, such rarities deserve celebration.

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7. Leptin. Or ‘Carb-Shocks’

As you’d have learnt from your school exams, a little cheating can be good. Do too much of it, though, and you get caught. 

Here is why occasionally cheating on meals is actually good for you. When you cut calories, you usually cut carbs. And when you cut carbs, the production of Leptin hormone reduces.

Leptin is the one that’s responsible for telling the brain that you’re hungry. But when you consistently give your body fewer calories than it needs, Leptin gets suppressed and slows down your metabolism.

It’s the body’s way of preserving itself. It figures that you, its owner, have gone mad. So it must fend for itself. And it does so by slowing down your metabolism to conserve more energy rather than spend it. And that is detrimental to your goal of using up your stored fat.

A small cheat meal — say once a week — confuses Leptin. Suddenly it’s like: “Okay, so we are not starving. We might still be getting carbs now and then. Okay, then, body, go on, use up those fat stores. Master hasn’t gone crazy after all.”

You might hear this referred to as ‘carb-shocks’. They are effective, but only when used intelligently. And in moderation.

8. Willpower

Let’s end with one more bonus point in favour of cheat meals.

Willpower is a limited resource. And you dip into this resource pool for all sorts of stuff. Staying up all night to make that PPT, stopping yourself from eating a whole piece from a friend’s birthday cake, sacrificing meeting friends to get that blog somehow out. Everything worth doing requires willpower. 

Meals? No wonder that willpower gets depleted — try resisting that piece of cake after putting in a whole night of work on that PPT. 

But here is the thing about willpower. When you give it a break, it gets replenished. When, once in a while, you’re kind to yourself and say: “Okay, you were good all week; you deserve this!” 

It doesn’t make you weak. In fact, it makes you stronger. 

Because you know what you did to get here and acknowledge what you must do afterwards to deserve this again.

So go on, be kind and give your willpower a break occasionally. Cheat, but do it intelligently. Intentionally.

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