We’ve made it past the holidays, but we’re not out of the woods yet! The time of year that we become inundated with opportunities to overindulge on sweets at work, at office parties, and family gatherings continues into this month – especially with the Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day and even Mardi Gras. It’s easy to justify why you can eat and drink whatever and however much you want. You think to yourself that you have committed to eating healthy, you work out hard, and that you deserve a day off— “cheat days”, if you will. Not so fast. Here are a few reasons why cheat days are a bad idea.
What are “cheat days”?
The thought behind a cheat day is that you schedule a specific meal or meals during the week when you basically eat anything you want, mainly foods that have been deemed “off limits” other times. You eat according to certain guidelines or a designated eating plan during the week, but when it comes time for your scheduled “cheat” meal (or day), all of that goes out the window.
Some may argue that giving yourself days of indulgence is giving yourself a needed break from your diet. That these cheat days provide relief from your weekly routine, and help you stick to healthier foods in the long run. It’s a way to reward your constraint and to satisfy your cravings.
Are these “cheat days” actually a good idea, though? Do these designated days of indulgence actually help you reach your health goals, or do they just keep you spinning your wheels?
What’s in a name?
The phrase “cheat day” itself suggests that what you are doing is something that is not allowed. When you designate foods as either “good” or “bad”, you are setting yourself up for feeling guilt and even overindulgence. When a food is deemed off-limits, you may actually think about and crave that particular food even more up until the day you are allowed to eat it. By that point, when that food is front of you, it’s very easy to lose control and overeat.
Categorizing foods as “good” or “healthy” can also have negative consequences. When you think something is healthy, you may not concern yourself with portion control, whether it’s a “normal” day or a “cheat” day. Remember, there actually can be too much of a good thing.
It’s more difficult to bounce back.
If you allow yourself one designated cheat day, it is easy for this to spill over to the next day, especially if it’s on the weekend. For example, let’s say you go out with your friends for lunch on a Saturday and end up eating pizza. You may feel that because of this you have already ruined your diet for that day and decide to indulge in an unhealthy meal for dinner as well. To make matters worse, you may even feel as though you ruined your diet for the whole weekend, so Sunday becomes an unhealthy eating day, thus allowing you to justify that you will just start again on Monday.
You shouldn’t use food as a reward.
Using cheat meals as a reward for sticking to your diet and eating healthy all week can be a slippery slope. Using unhealthy foods as a reward can lead to or perpetuate unhealthy food habits. You shouldn’t only be allowed these foods at certain times. You can still be healthy and eat these types of foods during the week, as long as you’re not having them every single day or bingeing on them.
How then do you stay on track without any cheat days? Here are 3 easy ways to eat healthy anyway:
1) Listen to your body and appetite.
By paying attention to your body’s hunger cues and eating what you want, you will more than likely end up eating a more sensible amount of it. Intuitive eating has shown to have a positive effect on weight and wellbeing.
2) Indulge in treats once in a while.
Including a properly portioned treat into your daily eating routine can break up the monotony, as well as continue to motivate you to stay on course and enjoy your meal time. These small indulgences can help ensure you don’t feel the need to go overboard.
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3) Savor every bite.
Once you take a bite of any food item, take a moment to actually taste, smell, and experience that food as a whole. When you consciously take the time to be mindful about the food you are eating (more on how to eat mindfully here), it becomes much easier to tap into your satiety cues.
The Bottom Line
There really is no need in designating a cheat day to reward yourself. Denying yourself most of the week and then overindulging on one specific day “off” just promotes feelings of guilt, anxiety and shame around eating, and in turn can sabotage the goals that you are trying to achieve.
Instead, stay in tune with your body and make everyday a great day by listening to your appetite, periodically adding in some of your favorite foods in small portions, and savoring each and every bite of everything you eat. This sustainable approach will help you think of all of your eating as enjoyable, and that’s what will ultimately help you stay on track to reach your goals, as well as live a healthy lifestyle. Do you have tricks to stay on track without cheat days? Let us know in the comments!
Post written by FFC Registered Dietitian Mark LeVine.