“Cheat Foods” Linked to Eating Disorders in Teens and Young Adults

Summary: Young people who eat “cheat foods,” or foods that disrupt their normal diet, are more likely to develop eating disorders, according to a new study.

A source: University of Toronto

A new study has been published Journal of Eating Disorders found that more than half of men, women, and transgender or gender-nonconforming participants had engaged in at least one “cheat meal”—a practice of deviating from a prescribed diet to consume foods with “forbidden” calories—over the course of a year. diet, only to later return to previous dietary practices.

Among women, engaging in binge eating in the previous 12 months was associated with all seven types of eating disorder behaviors. In men, it is associated with binge eating, compulsive exercise, and fasting.

Finally, among transgender or gender nonconforming participants, it was associated with binge eating behavior.

“Studies have not fully addressed the nutritional behaviors that are believed to increase muscle mass and leanness, such as cheat meals,” says author Kyle T. Hanson, Ph.D., MSW, is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, Factor-Inventus.

“This is especially important given the well-documented popularity of cheat meals on social media. We needed to investigate whether there is a relationship between cheat meals and eating disorder psychopathology.

Their findings also showed that cheat meals were the most common among men. Image is in the public domain

Hanson and colleagues analyzed a national sample of more than 2,700 adolescents and young adults from the 2021-2022 Canadian Adolescent Health Behavior Study.

Their findings also showed that cheat meals were the most common among men.

“Cheat foods have been conceptualized and promoted within the male muscle building and fitness communities. As a result, the men in this study may have strategically used cheat meals to catalyze muscle growth,” says Hanson.

“Also, the use of cheat meals among women may be used to prevent or reduce binge eating episodes or to reduce cravings for restricted foods.”

Although cheat meals consisted of calorie-dense foods across the sample, significant differences were found between the types of cheat meals consumed by men and women. Specifically, men consumed protein-rich foods, while women consumed dairy, salty, and sweet foods.

“Clinicians need to be aware of the prevalence of cheat meals among adolescents and young adults and the sanctioned nature of this behavior in fitness communities and social media,” says Hanson.

“Future research should continue to conceptualize these types of eating behaviors and their implications for public health.”

This is about psychology and eating disorder research news

Author: Press service
A source: University of Toronto
The connection: Press Office – University of Toronto
Photo: Image is in the public domain

See also

It shows a woman eating French fries

Original research: Closed access.
Kyle T. Hanson et al. Journal of Eating Disorders


Characterization of cheat meals in a national sample of Canadian adolescents and young adults


Cheat meals, described as brief eating episodes, represent a new and increasingly common eating behavior with particular characteristics during adolescence and young adulthood, ranging from prescribed dietary practices to restricted food consumption. However, gaps remain in knowledge regarding the frequency and characteristics of foods and calories consumed during binge eating and their association with eating disorder behavior and psychopathology. Thus, the objectives of this study were to determine food involvement in a large, national sample of Canadian adolescents and young adults.


Participants (N = 2,717) came from the Canadian Adolescent Health Behavior Study. Frequency of engaging in cheat meals and associated foods and calories consumed during the past 12 months and 30 days were determined. Associations between cheating and eating and eating disorder behaviors and psychopathology were determined using modified Poisson regression analysis.


Past 12-month cheat meal participation was highest among males (60.9%) compared to females (53.7%) and transgender/gender nonconforming (TGNC; 52.5%) participants. Cheat meals between 1,000 and 1,499 kcal were the most commonly reported meals among all participants. The average number of cheat meals in the past 12 months was > 1 per week, similar to the intake in the past 30 days. Finally, engaging in binge eating in the past 12 months and 30 days was associated with eating disorder behaviors and psychopathology, including binge eating, among all participants.


This further characterizes eating and expands knowledge about binge eating by gender, consistent with previous research showing that involvement is associated with greater psychopathology.

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