Scientists Link “Cheat Meals” to Eating Disorders

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The study also found that over 50% of people engaged in at least one cheat meal.

The practice of briefly straying from one’s diet to consume calorie-dense meals was most popular among males and connected with binge eating, compulsive exercise, and fasting behaviors.

Over half of men, women, and transgender or gender non-conforming participants engaged in at least one “cheat meal,” which is the practice of deviating from one’s established dietary practices to consume “prohibited” calorie-dense meals only to later return to previous dietary practices, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders.

Cheating on meals during the past 12 months was linked to all seven categories of eating disorder behaviors in women. It was linked to behaviors including binge eating, compulsive exercise, and fasting in men. Finally, among transgender or gender non-conforming individuals, it was connected with overeating and binge-eating habits.

“Research hasn’t fully explored eating behaviors purported to increase muscularity and leanness, such as cheat meals,” says lead author Kyle T. Ganson, Ph.D., MSW, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. “This is particularly important given the popularity of cheat meals that is well documented on social media. We needed to explore whether there are associations between cheat meals and eating disorder psychopathology.”

Ganson and his colleagues examined data from the 2021-2022 Canadian Study of Adolescent Health Behaviours, which involved approximately 2,700 adolescents and young adults.

Furthermore, their research showed that males were more likely than women to engage in cheat meals.

“Cheat meals have been conceptualized and promoted within men’s muscle-building and fitness communities. As a result, men in this study may be strategically using cheat meals to catalyze muscle growth,” says Ganson. “Similarly, among women, the use of cheat meals may be used to prevent or curtail binge-eating episodes or alleviate cravings for restricted foods.”

While all cheat meals included calorie-dense items, there were substantial disparities in the sorts of cheat meals enjoyed by men and women. Men reported eating more protein-rich meals, while women ate more dairy, salty, and sweet items.

“Clinical professionals should be aware of the common occurrence of cheat meals among adolescents and young adults and the sanctioned nature of these behaviors in fitness communities and on social media,” says Ganson. “Future research should continue to conceptualize these types of eating behaviors and their implications for public health.”

Reference: “Characterizing cheat meals among a national sample of Canadian adolescents and young adults” by Kyle T. Ganson, Mitchell L. Cunningham, Eva Pila, Rachel F. Rodgers, Stuart B. Murray and Jason M. Nagata, 6 August 2022, Journal of Eating Disorders.
DOI: 10.1186/s40337-022-00642-6

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