The Cheat Meals That Are Never Worth it, According to an Expert
Here's the truth: everyone deserves some cheat days. If you've been working hard toward your health goals and are craving some treats, that's perfectly understandable. The good news is that you don't have to feel guilty about indulging in cheat meals every now and then, even when we are trying to make changes to your diets.
But are some cheat meals better than others?
We spoke with Laura Burak, MS, RD, CDN about the dishes that are just never worth sabotaging your health progress. According to Burak, what really matters when it comes to indulging is the quality of food you are choosing to eat. With treats and "cheat foods," Burak chooses says it's best to think about the type of food and how it's made.
"Instead of categorizing foods into on and off-limits, think of whether they're worth eating," she says. "When you start to really appreciate good quality food made with better ingredients, you'd rather hold out for the version that is totally worth it."
Her mindset on cheat meals can even help you flip the idea of "cheat meal" from negative to positive.
"Instead of cheating, you are learning how to have the best of both food worlds by including any food you want, but when it's worth it," she says. With that being said, here are some of the dishes that Burak believes are never worth the sacrifice.
Frozen Pizza or Pizza from Chain Companies
There's a good chance you're going to have a pizza craving. It happens to us all! If you're wanting a cheat meal full of bread, melted cheese, and fun toppings, there is still a way to do it without altering your progress.
Burak believes that frozen pizza or pizza from chain companies is the stuff you should avoid when you are trying to change some of your eating habits. These companies include a lot of processed ingredients and preservatives in their food. Burak suggests instead going for a local pizza shop or making some at home, along with some side items so you don't have to fill up on pizza alone.
"Save your pizza cravings for the good stuff with the very few real ingredients. Then 1-2 slices usually satisfies, especially when you pair with a side of salad or veggies," she explains.
Store-Bought Baked Goods
If you're wanting a cheat meal, the store-bought, pre-packaged baked goods are another option you're going to want to skip. They're loaded with preservatives, processed sugar, and trans fats. According to Burak, trans fats are one of the worst ingredients for cardiac health.
"You can spot them in the ingredients as 'partially hydrogenated,' which means the product contains trans fats even if the label says trans-fat free," she says.
If you're craving something warm and sweet, it's a good idea to try something homemade or locally made instead.
"You will always remember that croissant on the street in Paris but never the one from the plastic package," says Burak.
Pasta tastes amazing, which is why it's fairly easy to always go back for seconds or thirds. But when it comes to choosing a dish that's worth being your cheat meal, pasta doesn't really have many benefits to it, especially if you happen to be ordering a heavy pasta dish from a restaurant. Burak doesn't choose to indulge in pasta very often because of its lack of nutritional value, unless you're an at-home chef making your own noodles from scratch! The heavy carbs and cheese overload that tends to happen will leave you feeling hungrier sooner, too.
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Processed Ramen Noodles
Ramen is probably one of the most delicious comfort dishes to pick on cheat days. If you go to a restaurant for some fresh, handmade ramen noodles, it can actually be a pretty healthy meal. You can get tons of nutrients in fresh bone broth that most restaurants make their ramen with. Processed, packaged ramen noodles, however, are not the same situation. Buying ramen in a package is cheap, but it's highly processed and packed with sodium.
Packaged Mac and Cheese
Mac and cheese is always a crowd favorite because who doesn't like pasta and cheese together? If you're craving this delicious combination, maybe try making some yourself at home with real milk and cheese, says Burak. But it may be a good option for maintaining your health goals if you opt-out of the powdered mac and cheese that comes in a box. Yes, it may be cheaper, but it's entirely processed and doesn't taste as good as the real stuff anyway!
Chinese takeout is a great, affordable option for a low-key dinner cheat night. Unfortunately, you can run into similar issues with Chinese takeout as with pizza from chain companies that we mentioned earlier. When you order takeout from "fast-food" restaurants, you are eating food that is made to be quick and cheap, which usually means the meals are packed with calories, sodium, processed sugar, and preservatives.
Chocolate may be one of the most satisfying items to indulge in on a cheat day. But according to Burak, there is a way to eat chocolate while staying on track with our health plan. She usually suggests to her clients to "choose chocolate bars that are at least 70% cacao or higher," as dark chocolate contains antioxidants that you can't get with milk chocolate. She says that most milk chocolate is actually considered "candy" because it contains such little cacao and such high amounts of sugar. No thanks!
Burak points out that certain breads are meant to last for weeks on end without going bad, so it's always packed with processed sugars, preservatives, and extra calories. When Burak is thinking about what type of bread she would want to indulge in, she reminds herself that store-bought processed white bread is never going to taste as good as a warm slide of bread fresh out of the oven!
Canned French Onion Soups or Bisques
Like most of the foods on our list, the processed versions are just never worth the cheat points. Burak chooses to leave processed canned soups out of her cheat list because "frozen and canned brands not only contain more ingredients and preservatives, but they're not nearly as yummy as a bubbly French Onion crock straight out of the broiler at a bistro!"
Donuts, in general, are deep-fried, sugar-coated delights, so when you use these for your cheat dishes, you are definitely racking up the calories. But if you are going to enjoy some donuts every now and then, go for one from a local donut shop, or even try making your own at home!