You exercise and watch what you eat religiously on your quest to improve your health, lose weight, or maintain your level of fitness – and by God, you deserve a cheat day.
After six days of making healthy eating choices instead of grabbing for cake and cheese, it’s natural to want to reward yourself. But is your cheat day sabotaging your fitness efforts? Or worse, setting you up for an unhealthy mental attitude toward food? Maybe. It all depends on how you approach your cheat day – as a controlled splurge or an all-day food fest of eating with wild abandon.
Why Cheat Days Work
For many people, especially those who are trying to lose weight, the promise of a cheat day helps sustain their efforts to eat healthy the other six days of the week. Knowing you can bend the rules on Saturday makes it easier to follow the rules the rest of the time. Willpower is a finite resource, and a cheat day can keep your spirits up by functioning as a steam valve that releases the pressure of watching what you eat. According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, “planned hedonic deviations” can indeed help you follow the rules the rest of the time.
Why Cheat Days Don’t Work
But for some people, cheat days aren’t so much planned as they are an opportunity to eat everything in sight. The most successful diets aren’t diets – they’re sustainable lifestyle changes. And bingeing every seventh day isn’t a very healthy lifestyle, no matter what you eat the rest of the week. Cheat days make it easy for your caveman mentality to kick in, prompting you to overeat because you know that your strict diet will return the next day.
A cheat day with three unhealthy meals can easily set you back several days on your quest for a slimmer body or healthier lifestyle. Every week you’ll take two steps forward and one step back, which will reduce the results you experience and slow your roll. This slow progress might dampen your spirits more than your cheat day is lifting them.
It’s not just the calories, either. Consider the name: cheat day. “Cheat” has negative connotations that help to instill a view of certain foods as good and certain foods as bad. Forbidden. Thinking of food as good or bad sets you up to associate eating with shame, anxiety, and guilt. Focusing on all the foods you get to eat on cheat day (instead of the nourishing, healthy foods that you usually eat) can set you up for failure down the road.
How to Make Cheat Day Work for You
- Indulge in a “cheat meal,” not a cheat day. Perfectionist? Your all-or-nothing mentality makes you prone to binging on cheat days. A cheat meal is a much better option for you.
- Plan what you will eat in advance and you'll make healthier choices, even on a cheat day.
- Change the name. Don’t think of it as a special “cheat day” – just eat what you want and get on with life.
- Eat delicious, healthy foods. If your normal diet makes you feel deprived, you’re doing it wrong. Try new recipes, take a cooking class, and learn how to create incredible dishes that just happen to be healthy.
- Enjoy the foods you want – but always eat consciously. One spoonful of ice cream eaten with awareness is more satisfying than a carton consumed mindlessly. Be present when you eat and you won’t want to binge.
- Loosen up. If your diet feels too strict and horrible, it probably is. Consult with a licensed nutritionist to help you determine a better plan.
- Reward your healthy living efforts with non-food incentives. Sure, healthy living should be its own reward - but human beings need incentives. Treat yourself for a week of healthy eating with a trip to the park, a movie with friends, or a new bottle of organic bubble bath.
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