Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Shame, Cheat Meals and That New Weight Loss Solution

Why dieting is flawed and healing is only the way to manage cravings.

Over the last several years, nearly every new diet on the scene has addressed cravings by suggesting “cheat meals.” Usually the hack formula goes something like this:

All the other diets you have tried have been wrong because they didn’t pay attention to the problem with food X. Food X and those like it are a major problem. You need to stop eating them. Here is a plan to do that and some recipes to show you that eating without food X is possible and even enjoyable. This is not a diet; it’s a way of life. Here are a bunch of people who have successfully lost weight on this plan. Oh and by the way, because the cravings will be intense, you should give yourself a break and cheat every once in a while. In a previous post, I explained that a major problem with these diets is that they don’t adequately address the more important issue: craving. In fact, research shows that dieting actually increases cravings.

However, another even more important reason these diets fail is that they never really address what is really core to the weight gain, dieting, weight loss cycle: shame. Shame drives the cravings bus. Shame is why you gain the weight back every time. Shame is what tricks you into thinking you “deserve” that piece of chocolate cake. Shame tells you that deserve to cheat every once in a while. For most people on the roller-coaster of dieting and weight gain, the diet they are really on is the shame diet. And they are bingeing and purging shame in a vicious cycle that no diet will ever adequately address.

Rather than a cheat meal, want to know what you really deserve? (Hint: it’s not some deep awareness about the toxic effects of gluten). It’s self-love, acceptance, peace, a sense of purpose, and connectedness. Shame destroys all of these basic human needs by tricking you into thinking that you deserve something that actually hurts you. Just think about it: does it really make sense that either cheating or dieting could be a solution for shame? Leaving aside the issue of dieting…could it ever make sense that a new way of eating could solve the shame problem? And if you’re doing the cheating, who exactly is being cheated?

You’re only cheating yourself

Let’s say you’re making good progress in your new way of eating, but all of a sudden, late on a Sunday evening, you are craving ice cream. You’ve made so much progress, and perhaps you are almost at your goal weight. What could be the harm in a single scoop of ice cream? After all, you haven’t had one in over 3 months. You deserve this. Can you cheat? Is this a good idea?

Some diets will suggest that you not cheat, and others will tell you that you can, or even that you must. What’s the truth? The reality is that any diet that tells you what to do about your eating off-plan is wrong. The only way to know what will happen when you eat sugar (to use this example) is to honestly look at what happens when you do. Some people can eat a scoop of ice cream without downing the entire pint (or half-gallon), and some people simply cannot. In Craving, I suggest that only an honest inventory and assessment of your behaviors can guide how you should handle such situations, and never a diet book. Furthermore, if you can successfully eat an occasional off-plan meal without problems then it isn’t really cheating…its eating satisfying foods. And if you can’t successfully eat these foods, then it isn’t cheating either: it’s just lying to yourself. And dishonesty can never solve the shame problem.

“Fine, I’ll deal with shame: once I look great, I’ll love myself.”

This will never, ever work. Of course, it’s easy to understand why you think it will. After all, when did you feel the greatest in your life? Wasn’t it when you were in great shape and really liked the way you looked? So naturally it follows that getting back to that will really make you feel great about yourself and love yourself, and then the shame issue will be resolved, right? Wrong. Of course, it’s nice to look nice, and perfectly appropriate to want to look great and feel great. The problem isn’t what you remember feeling like when you were in the best shape of your life. The problem is that your love for yourself is conditional. It’s an “I’ll love you when” and an “I’ll love you if.” The idea that you are loveable only when you achieve certain goals is precisely what fuels the shame cycle. No diet or eating plan will ever solve it.

Does it ever make sense that food could solve shame?

No amount of food will ever solve the shame problem

Practice a genuine, unconditional self-acceptance

Of course, I’m not suggesting that healthy eating isn’t important. In fact, the path to addressing shame is to take care of yourself at the highest possible level. How would you treat a child, or someone you love? Wouldn’t you want them to be healthy and nourished? Why then wouldn’t you treat yourself that way? (Even altruism is an important part of self-care). So of course, healing shame involves self-care, and yes, healthy eating.

What exactly should you eat? Well, that’s always a work in progress. For many people it’s a highly varied, nutrient-dense, whole food diet that is minimally processed, and relatively calorie controlled to help keep your weight under control with adequate protein, healthy fat and plenty of multicolored vegetables. (There you go, now you don’t need a diet book). If you inventory what you eat and your cravings, you’ll quickly learn what’s right for you if you are honest with yourself.

But rather than simply telling yourself that you accept yourself (self-affirmation), the approach that has been most successful for the people I’ve helped is to practice a genuine-unconditional self-acceptance. Practice means work, and it means action. In other words, if you want self-esteem, take “esteemable” actions. Meet all of your needs (physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual) in a healthy way. Only then will you be free of the shame that drives the diet cycle.

These are just a few suggestions that can make a long-term difference in your cravings, and in upcoming posts I’ll cover exactly how you can meet your needs in a healthy way and use love to neutralize shame and tame your cravings.

Omar Manejwala, M.D. is an addiction psychiatrist and author of Craving: Why We Can’t Seem to Get Enough (Hazelden Publishing 2013).

More from Omar Manejwala M.D.
More from Psychology Today