As a registered dietitian, I don’t believe in diet “cheat” days or meals. Well, I don’t really believe in diets either, but since many people are on some diet or other, they’re still worth discussing. If you are on a diet—or just trying your hand at healthy eating in general—and you’re indulging in cheat days or cheat meals, let me explain why I can’t get on board.
Eating seems to have devolved into the territory of the morality police: good versus bad. Dirty versus clean. Cheating versus staying loyal to your eating plan. But food is just that—food—and making it into a moral issue is unfortunately becoming the new standard.
Before we dive in, it’s worth noting that as with any diet or plan, cheat days may work for some people. A piece of 2016 research in Journal of Consumer Psychology found that “cheating” on a diet can actually help you lose weight because it wards off feelings of deprivation.
But for many people, it’s not that simple. Here’s why.
Cheat days can set you up for a restrict-binge cycle.
My primary concern with cheat days is the emotional implications of morally categorizing your eating habits. Sure, you can go overboard on a cheat day and eat a ton of crap and feel physically sick from it, but I think the emotional consequences can almost be more damaging.
Meaning, if you cheat, then overcompensate out of guilt by restricting your diet for the days following the indulgence, then overeat because you’re restricting, it can become a soul-sucking binge cycle. The rapid influx of sugar, fat, and refined carbohydrates that make up many cheat meals often exacerbate this, leading to an extended binge either due to guilt, that “last chance” feeling, or through the actual composition of those foods. Obviously this defeats the purpose of the cheating concept, but it can also lead to feelings of failure.
This diet merry-go-round is a common reason why diets (or cheat days/meals on diets) don’t work for most people.
Treating some foods as “forbidden fruit” may just make them more tempting.
Restricting food for a particular day can create tension around eating and cause you to crave, then overeat, the very foods that you’re trying to avoid. As anyone who has ever been on a diet knows, that forbidden-fruit feeling can be very real. Obsessing about the “bad” foods you’re going to take a swan dive into once your cheat day arrives is distracting and unhealthy, not to mention often a precursor to going overboard.
Cheat days can muddy your sense of intuitive eating.
If you feel like you’re eating “good” foods out of obligation so you can get to the cheat days, eating becomes merely a means to an end, which is pretty much the opposite of what it should be. Finding pleasure in food and nourishing your body and soul is a healthier, more satisfying way to view food. Instead of choking down a salad and then dreaming about the many cupcakes you’re going to eat on your cheat day, wouldn’t it be better to eat healthy food you actually enjoy (it doesn’t have to be salad!), have a cupcake whenever you want it, and move past the whole good/bad thing?
There’s a better way to approach cheat meals.
I work from a perspective of normalizing all foods. That means that even though some foods are healthier than others, it’s not a big deal to have an indulgent amount of a less-healthy food every day, then just get over it. Treating yourself often enough can defuse the attractiveness of those “forbidden” foods.
My clients find that eating this way is not only easier and more enjoyable, it also has no bad repercussions on their weight. On the contrary, it makes eating an overall healthy diet simpler because they’re stepping away from the obsessive “can’t have this” mindset. No foods are off-limits and only allowed when you’re cheating, aka being “bad.” Think of it as the 80/20 or 90/10 rule. I’m all for it.
If cheat days work for you and are helping you get closer to your health and fitness goals, that’s great, and by all means you should continue with them! But if you feel that method isn’t working for you, try a different approach. The best diet is one that you can live with for the long term.
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