Cheat days. Should you or shouldn’t you. What is a cheat day?
Cheat day – Most often preceded by several weeks of intense diet. It is a day where all bets are off in regards to your diet and you indulge in whatever you want.
Who isn’t a fan of cheat days? Who wouldn’t want that? Pop, ice cream, pizza, cookies, it’s all there for the taking, it sounds fantastic, it sounds like heaven until you overdo it.
Why would you use a cheat day? It’s used to let yourself have those things on your cravings list, things you want but know they have little to no nutritional value. It’s often seen as a reward for being true to your diet. It’s a way to keep your sanity while on a diet by occasionally dipping your toe in the pool of indulgence.That all sounds well and good and very logical, but it’s a very slippery slope if you are not prepared beforehand to look at that demon food you had been avoiding for months and suddenly are enjoying. This is unique to almost any other old habit you are trying to change. Think about it:
You quit smoking for a month and decide to reward yourself by sharing a smoke with a friend.
You’re a habitual cusser, have worked extremely hard to change the way you express yourself and decide to reward yourself by spending a day telling everything and everyone to go fuck themselves.
I could even use my own old habit here. I haven’t had a drink in about 12 years. I then decide I’ve been so good for so long, I deserve a drink.
I hope these sound less and less logical to you. They all try to reward oneself with the very thing they were trying to change. It can start off good. It can start off in control but unfortunately that usually doesn’t last.
Let’s break down what can happen and let me preface this by stating what I am going to illustrate is not based on client encounters, this is something I have done myself. I am not trying to pick on anyone. I want this to be a learning experience and not a shameful one. Here we go:
You start your program. Your motivation is sky-high. You want to make nothing but good, healthy decisions. You want everything to be perfect and to a large degree they are. Four weeks go by and changes are starting. You’re down 10 lbs and your energy is up.Seemingly nothing can stop you. Time for a reward.
Internal conversation – “I’ve been on this program a month and never have felt better. I’m treating myself to an indulgence day, but I won’t go super crazy.”
(Insert cheat day) A first instinct may be to grab that pint of Ben and Jerry’s you’ve been trying to kick since you started. You take a bite or two or three or more. You may go well above twice your normal calories, quite easily actually. And it’s not just simply calories. If you’ve been restricting calories for a while and mostly reducing carbohydrates, you will get bloated when you have a large carb meal. That bloat is water and we all know how heavy water is. It’s a lot of water weight, but when you wake up and the scale is 5 lbs heavier, seemingly overnight, people will go into panic mode.
But you’re strong. You have your indulgence and move on. The next day you start working out again. Another week goes by:
“Well, I haven’t lost any more weight, but I haven’t gained any either so I’m having a little cheat snack. I have proven that I can have what I want and not gain weight.”
You may have gone way overboard on your cheat day and did not even realize it. It may take you a few days to burn off the extra carb intake you consumed so you’re left with actually half a week of fat burning instead of your usual full week when you were on your plan. This is perfectly fine, just be aware of what is going on. However, you see the scale not moving and you begin to get worried. You take an extra couple days off to re-evaluate things. Again, self-awareness is so huge and it is a lot harder than you thought. It takes a ton of practice and everyone can improve on it, we’re all human and will never get it perfect.
This extra time off can easily turn into procrastination. Are you really looking for answers or just looking for a way to add extra time between you and that next workout?
Three weeks go by and you feel ready to workout again. You do half of what you were doing to ease back into it. You complete a mostly full week of your reduced exercise goal. Maybe something came up at work or with your family that has added stress at this time as well. You believe you have earned a reward.
“I worked out for a week, I earned this day of eating whatever I want.”
No, you have taken a great step in the right direction but you need to keep going. This is not a straight path to where you want, you need to allow yourself to make mistakes and learn to make adjustments. Don’t give up on yourself yet.
You look at the calendar and you’re not as far as you’d like to be. You notice its been two months and no change. You become frustrated and want comfort.
“I haven’t been on-track with my meal plan but today I was good all day, so I am getting myself some ice-cream.”
I can’t speak for everyone, but when I was at this point I basically felt so worthless and ashamed that I did not have the willpower to continue to move forward that I began to sabotage my efforts.
If I went back to where I was it was adding confirmation that I couldn’t get to where I wanted to be in terms of health. I could then convince myself there was no point in trying.
From here you may find yourself doing less and less in terms of fueling yourself adequately and working out and adding more and more of the “reward” food you had been trying to reduce in the first place.
It’s human nature to not want something so indulgent once you receive it over and over. You overdo it and give yourself easy access. Now it’s not forbidden to you anymore, it loses its exotic nature and becomes commonplace. You think to yourself, “Why did I want this to begin with?”
Am I saying go nuts and indulge in everything you know that’s bad for you? Absolutely not.
I believe the reason this bombardment of pleasure does not work is because by the time you get to the point where you are actually sick of whatever food item of your choosing you’ve already established a deep pattern of turning to this item when you are in need of comfort. People will turn to comfort food when they are happy, sad, upset, angry, lonely and everything in between. It can provide an instant change in mood, but that quickly passes and when it does that space is usually filled with guilt and shame.
So what can you do?
*After 30 days on a diet and exercise program begin incorporating 1 cheat meal per week. Nothing more.
*Choose this cheat meal carefully. What have you been craving? What sort of modification can you make to this cheat meal to reduce calories or change the calorie makeup? Example – Add sliced almonds to ice cream instead of adding brownie bits.
*Allow yourself to have this meal. Do not feel guilty! You worked hard for it!
*Watch the portion size and walk away. One serving not two servings or three.
*Immediately do something active afterwards. Go for a walk or a bike ride. Feel good about what you have accomplished during the week in terms of your fitness goals.
You can have your cake and eat it too. Just be mindful of your actions.