When a new client and I are discussing their goals for the first week of the program, I’ll inevitably get asked, “should I have a cheat day?” This is a reasonable question, and they’re often surprised to hear me say a resounding and clear “NO!” In saying this, I’m not trying to play hardball; quite the opposite, in fact. Rather, I don’t believe in cheat days because I don’t think they set us up for emotional (or physical) success with our goals.
In today’s post, I’ll answer the question “should I have a cheat day?” with the three reasons I do not believe in cheat days. Enjoy!
- Having a “cheat day” implies that all the other days are miserable or rigid, or that you’re doing something “bad” by eating foods you enjoy. If you’re using words like “on Saturday, I can have what I really want,” or “finally, I get the good food today!,” then I think you’re perpetuating the myth that the other days have to be full of foods you don’t enjoy.
Look, I’ll be the first one to say that ice cream almost always tastes better in the moment than raw celery. I’m not some robotic health-food-lover that abhors the taste of anything not covered in dirt.However, I am acutely aware of the fact that I don’t feel my best … in terms of my energy levels, sleep quality, digestion, performance in workouts, mood, skin, weight maintenance, hormone balance, and SO much more … when I’m eating less healthy food. So, to say that I would rather eat celery as my 3pm snack on most days than ice cream is not a lie. And on the days when I choose ice cream instead, I don’t want to think that I’m cheating, a failure, “bad,” or any other negative term. I just want to realize that I chose a food I enjoy that isn’t as nourishing as some others, and that’s fine in moderation and with intention.
I am choosing to eat the healthy foods because they make me feel best. I’m not following some rigid diet plan (ick!) that mandates exactly what I eat and when, but rather I am so in tune with my body that I’m aware of what makes it feel great, and choosing to feed it these foods most of the time. When I frame it as a choice like this, I realize that “cheating” with ice cream every day is only cheating myself of feeling great and reaching my goals! Most days, I choose to feel great, and on the days when I choose ice cream instead, more power to me, as long as I’m doing it intentionally and I’m aware that I won’t feel as great afterwards.
No food is “off limits” (unless you have an allergy or intolerance) – it’s a day-to-day choice of what makes us feel great. And when we choose to eat foods that are not the perfect definition of health, no problem – think of it as a celebration or something you’re choosing for enjoyment, rather than something you did wrong or something that deserves punishment.
- Having a “cheat day” perpetuates the black & white mentality and requires a lot more willpower. If I do feel like certain foods that I want to eat are off limits until Saturday (or whatever day you choose as your “cheat day”), I’ll likely think about those foods all throughout the week, and it will take a lot of willpower to avoid them.
I often use the example of a pan of brownies with my clients. If a parent cooks a pan of brownies and leaves it on the kitchen counter, most kids will walk up, have a piece, and go about playing through the afternoon. But if that parent cooks the brownies, puts it on the counter, and says “you CANNOT have a brownie,” what happens? The kid likely pouts, throws a temper tantrum, thinks about the brownies he can’t have all day, and doesn’t enjoy anything else in the afternoon because he’s thinking about the brownies.We’re just like that kid in many ways! When we feel we can’t have something, we’re much more likely to think about it. If we’re dedicated, we’ll avoid it, but it will require a lot of willpower to do so. If we’re using all of that willpower through the week, what do you think happens when we do allow ourselves to have that food on the “cheat day”?
We go crazy! Rather than having the one brownie (or whatever) that we wanted on Tuesday, we’ve likely felt so deprived through the week, that when we do eat the brownie on Saturday, we keep going and going and going until the whole pan is gone.
And likely, it’s not just the brownie. Because it’s our “cheat day,” we have to “make it worth it,” we’ll tell ourselves. That might mean starting the day with donuts, getting chicken fingers and fries for lunch (followed by brownies, of course), and then even though we’re feeling physically ill, ordering that pizza for dinner because we can.
This logic simply makes no sense. We’re not even really wanting the pizza; we’re just eating it because our willpower has been so drained through the week by avoiding foods, that we’re eating everything possible on the one day we allow ourselves.
- Having a cheat day is tough on your body. Honestly, the primary reasons to avoid a cheat day are the above emotional reasons, but there’s a physical component, too.
For your gut microbiome (the healthy bacteria that live in your gut), eating only unhealthy food a few days per week is equivalent to eating only unhealthy food every day of the week (as shown by this study, which was admittedly done on rats).An entire day of less healthy eating can also impair your blood sugar control significantly. This study shows that 24 hours of unhealthy consumption led to more glucose in the bloodstream, and a 28% decrease in whole-body insulin sensitivity. However, this one shows that if unhealthy eating is limited to one meal, our body does just fine in clearing it. So, it makes much more sense to spread special foods you enjoy out through the week, say, having one piece of chocolate per day (like me!), rather than having two giant chocolate bars on Saturday.
Believe it or not, “overfeeding” has actually been shown to boost metabolism. This study shows that metabolism increased by 3-10% for 24 hours after an “overfeeding episode.” This sounds nice, but in reality, 3-10% is very unlikely to make up for the excess calories we consume during the “cheat day.” So, overall, the net impact of a cheat day isn’t in your body’s best interest, providing yet another reason I choose to avoid them.
All in all, I’m not a fan of “cheat days.” I don’t believe in restricting myself from things I enjoy, and prefer to eat them in moderation throughout the week (and having my clients do so, too). Moderation is a difficult skill – it’s often easier initially to look for a black-and-white solution, but my client work is centered around finding sustainable, healthy, long-term solutions, and I don’t think “cheat days” are one of them.
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Now it’s your turn … What is your thought on “cheat days”? Have they worked for you in the past?