Each new year, we scramble to find quick fixes to broken habits and food relationships. One approach I see repeatedly is the “cheat day” or “cheat meal” strategy. A cheat day is when you allow yourself to eat whatever you want for a specific timeframe. It’s traditionally thought of as cheating on your diet or giving yourself a “break” or “reward.”
I’ll be the first to admit I’ve had my fair share of Reese’s cup cheat days and donuts galore coffee dates. I’ll also say that I’ve seen regular use of “cheat days” work for some people in the short term. In my experience, the underlying food relationships, poor habits, and physiology can prevent “cheat days” from maturing into a sustainable and healthy solution.
Cheat days can be a slippery slope to an overly restrictive diet coupled with binge eating on the weekends, which has a detrimental impact on your metabolism, among other things.
FUNCTION VS PLEASURE MEALS
I want to share with you a different perspective on the cheat day mentality. Take the phrase “cheat meal” and replace it with the question “is this a function or pleasure meal?” Your nutrition falls into these two categories of eating. Functional eating is using food as fuel with the ability to change your physiology for the better, perhaps, for example, to reach an external goal. Pleasure eating is enjoying food for its taste, memories, experiences, and connections in your life. Your nutrition needs both.
Function Food example
Pleasure Food example
Store-bought Chicken wings
Sweet potato fries
Regular wine at dinner
Halo Top ice cream
Functional meals and pleasure meals are not mutually exclusive. Functional meals can bring lots of eating enjoyment even while creating meals from healthful choices. You can also reap health rewards from pleasure meals. The trick is to separate meals into two categories without referring to foods as “good” or “bad.” Then, you clarify expectations for the impact of food quality on your physiology. You are no longer cheating on your diet, but instead owning the choice you make and acknowledging consequences (both good and bad!).
How foods fall into functional vs. pleasurable categories will vary from person to person because of our bio-individuality. Typically whole food sources fall into the function category, while desserts, pastries, and restaurant meals fall into the pleasure category. There are plenty of areas for overlap, though. Spend time learning your function vs. pleasure foods. You can use trial and error, sensitivity tests, and macro tracking to start understanding which foods are in each category for you. Nutrition is a journey, not a destination.
THE DELICATE BALANCE OF FUNCTION VS PLEASURE
Function foods prioritize nutrients and diversity that’ll streamline your physical health and, in particular, your nutrition driven goals
The balance between function and pleasure meals defines your body composition, performance, and overall health. For example, functional meals improve your physique, performance, and biomarkers. Function foods prioritize nutrients and diversity that’ll streamline your physical health and, in particular, your nutrition driven goals. If you want to increase muscle mass, lose body fat, or improve your energy levels, you will need a specific emphasis on functional food meals. Pleasurable meals are still crucial for long-term sustainability, but the ratio to functional meals is low.
Pleasure meals, on the other hand, prioritize enjoyment, socialization, and culture. Pleasure foods aren’t concerned with nutrient density. They create a balanced approach to your nutrition. If you want to maintain your body composition, improve food relationships, and concentrate on emotional balance, your pleasurable meal ratio will be higher. Tracking this ratio isn’t tricky. Let’s take a deeper dive into what this ratio means for you.
WHAT'S THE RATIO OF FUNCTION TO PLEASURE MEALS?
We can display the functional and pleasurable meal ratios on a spectrum as indirect drivers of health. The spectrum illustrates the consistency and efforts required for different goals. On one end, you have primarily functional foods with very few and infrequent pleasure foods. On the other end, you have primarily pleasurable foods with few functional ones. As functional meals increase, so do your energy, performance, sleep, and mood. They are directly correlated.
Health is much more than leanness or body fat percentage, though these two metrics come up a lot in my nutrition coaching experience. Leanness doesn’t equal health. The relationship is much more complex than that. But to keep things simple, body fat percentage will be the benchmark relating to each function and pleasure tier.
Each tier of Body Fat % can then be assigned a ratio of functional to pleasurable meals. For instance, if you are a woman in the Tier 2 body fat % (25-30% body fat), you typically eat or will need to eat 3 function meals for every 1 pleasure meal to maintain this body fat percentage. This ratio equates to roughly 1 pleasure meal per day. Here's a breakdown of each tier and its associated function to pleasure meal ratio:
THE SECRET ABOUT MOVING FROM TIER TO TIER
Moving from tier to tier requires more than a linear increase in effort. The leaner you are, the harder it is to become leaner. To lower your body fat from Tier 1 to Tier 2 group, you will probably need 2x the effort from your current nutritional approach. This means 2x more functional meals than pleasure meals.
To lower your body fat from tier 2 to tier 3, you’ll probably have to put in MORE than 2x the effort. Studies show that it’s not a linear increase to 3x but actually more like 4-6x the effort from your current nutrition approach. This concept sets up aligning appropriate expectations with efforts. It also makes us ask if the effort is worth the reward?
HOW TO INCORPORATE IT INTO YOUR DAY
Whichever category you want to be in, remember it takes practice. Your nutrition journey takes months and years, not weeks. It is more than OK to make mistakes or go off track. Life happens. Be easy on yourself. Here are some tools to help you apply Functional vs. Pleasurable Meals to your daily life:
Spend time finding which foods fit in your functional and pleasurable categories; try an elimination diet first if you are unsure how to categorize your daily foods.
Plan your meals ahead of time; give yourself reminders on a whiteboard or chalkboard in your kitchen.
You may need to macro track if you are looking to maintain percentages at tiers 4 or 5; as efforts triple, precision becomes much more critical.
Functional meals will never give us the dopamine hit that ice cream does, but you can create enjoyment in some fun functional meals with new recipes. Cook's Vegetables Illustrated Cookbook does a beautiful job making vegetables taste delicious.
Your body is not meant to be constantly changing between tiers. Take breaks and spend time in your maintenance for physical and emotional stress relief.
Depending on your goals and season of life, allow the ratio of functional meals to pleasure meals to change. Just as we are not meant to be constantly changing between tiers, we are also not meant to be in the same tier for long stretches of time.
No matter which tier you choose, find satisfaction in your everyday meals. This is a mindset, not just taste practice. Spend your meals eating slowly, smelling your food, and chewing 10-15 times per bite.
Using the functional vs. pleasurable meal tiers helps align efforts with expectations and move away from “cheat days” and “diets.” It’s also empowering. With consistency, you will understand the amount of effort and the number of meals you’ll need to put in every day. It’s up to you to decide if the effort is worth the reward. Your lifestyle, goals, and confidence to increase your functional meals will feel very compelling in some cases. In other cases, you may want to keep your pleasurable meal ratio higher and maintain where you are now. Whatever you choose, stay true to yourself and your goals.