Cheat meals: in the fitness world, they’re touted as the stuff of legend. From Youtubers smashing entire Maccas menus to The Rock’s infamous weekend feast days. If you’ve gone anywhere near a bench press or talked to just about anyone about building muscle then you’ve probably heard (and eaten) your fair share.
While the average cheat meal is far more tame than what we see online (for good reason), what starts as a way to relax and top the body up becomes, for some, a slippery slope. Because what and how we’re eating is so much more than just the body; it’s about the mind as well.
So settle in and put that plate down because in this week’s MH Mind Matters we delve into what a ‘binge’ actually is, and why the distinction is key for our muscle of mind.
Definition wise there’s debate over what a “cheat meal” actually entails, but generally we’re talking about a high carbohydrate and/or fat meal that’s actively scheduled during heavy training weeks to support muscle growth and metabolism. It comes with it’s fair share of myth and bro-science (which we won’t go into today), but it’s what a ‘cheat’ isn’t that’s important here.
Because a binge meal, on the other hand, is something very different. Medically, a ‘binge’ episode is diagnostically classed as a period of significant food intake in a space of time that’s far above an individuals’ usual. There’s a mental layer and impact that takes a darker turn too, and it turns out it’s a big red flag for your physical and (especially) mental health. Binge Eating Disorder (a new diagnostic illness within psychiatry) is now the most common eating disorder among us men.
The line between a ‘cheat’ meal and a binge episode can be fine, but whether you’re Dwayne ‘The Rock’ or not there are some clear cut signs to watch out for.
A clear sign we’re skating into binge territory is when a sense of control over it becomes more grey. Classic to binge eating is a sense of not being able to resist or stop eating even if full, and the result is often eating far more and for far longer than intended.
With binge eating, the anticipation for that ‘cheat’ takes a clear step up and there’s a sense of massive craving that builds in the days and hours before. Fantasising over what, how and where we’ll get the right food-fix is really common, taking up a lot of mental space and time.
A hallmark of a binge eating episode is a sense of shame and guilt. During and especially after the feed people often report feeling ashamed, guilty or like they’ve ruined their body or gains. For these reasons binging is usually done in secret and hidden from others at all costs.
While a ‘cheat’ often has a clear end point, a binge doesn’t come with boundaries. A key feature to a binge eating episode is eating far more food than someone (or others in a similar situation) normally would. The result is often feeling uncomfortably full, physically affected and even pained or sick afterwards.
Naughty or Nice
Typically (but not always) a binge episode throws the ‘naughty’ list out the window. When restrictive diets and categorising of food as ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ takes over, it’s easy for high sugar, carbohydrate or fatty foods to feature heavily. Binge episodes thus often include a sense of panicked free-for-all with foods someone might ‘not be allowed’ at other times.
So, what now?
It’s important to know that we’re definitely NOT saying to treat a night on the couch or a bit of a top up meal as necessarily a binge. But if reading the signs above is hitting close to home then it’s important to take a step back.
Binging is often a sign that physically and especially mentally our relationship with food has become overly restrictive and refereed. Easing things slightly and making gradual planned change away from food being on or off limits can thus actually help lower the urge to binge.
In some cases things are hard to shift on their own though, and for many people binge eating can be a sign of something deeper and a way to channel or calm strong emotion, anxiety or change. There’s zero shame in needing help in this department and it’s actually fairly common so reaching out to let your doctor or psychologist is key.