• 5 Reasons to Ditch Cheat Days

    Cheat days are a ubiquitous concept in the “healthy eating” world…

    …and I wish they’d die forever. Right now.

    Apparently, the overseeing body (?) that doles out random National Days decided that January 26 was National Cheat Day. You can probably imagine the look on my face when I found out. In case you can’t, it was kinda like this…

    A quick spin around the Google machine not only confirmed it, but showed the depth of this twisted mindset. It included countless junk food memes and two national news anchors reveling that they could go off their diets – just this once – and tucking into a cake while explaining how they trick themselves into thinking each slice has fewer calories.

    It didn’t take long for me to realize that I had to address the “cheat day” because this dysfunctional thinking is still more than alive and well. This trope is the canary in the coal mine of a much deeper problem that hasn’t remotely begun to heal in our collective food story.

    In fact, the live video coaching session I made about this topic is one of the most viewed in my private online community.

    In this post, I’m dismantling the idea of “cheat days” and presenting five reasons why it’s time to get rid of them from your vocabulary and eating practices for good.

    How Did We Get Here?

    Short answer…it’s complicated.

    It’s 2018, and one thing is clear: Toxic diet culture is alive and kicking. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Black Mirror lately, but I can’t help but think that we’re royally screwed. Over hyperconnected yet ever-disconnected world and social media comparison seem to be stoking the fire.

    I’ve observed a lot in my coaching work over the last 7 years, and women are struggling. (I work mostly with women, though this issue isn’t confined to any one gender identifier.) Many of my clients aren’t trying to eat a vegetable or stop drinking soda for the first time ever. It’s the exact opposite.

    They’re confined to a prison of diet rules and analyze everything that passes their lips. They’re worried, anxious, and shameful when they don’t eat perfectly. It’s not a judgment but rather an observation that in “clean eating” communities – paleo included – there’s a quiet subculture of people still dealing with dietary demons…and in some cases, it’s making their torment worse.

    Perhaps Michael Pollan said it best in his 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals:

    “As a culture we seem to have arrived at a place where whatever native wisdom we may have once possessed about eating has been replaced by confusion and anxiety. Somehow this most elemental of activities – figuring out what to eat – has come to require a remarkable amount of expert help.”

    And that’s on page freaking one. Not much has changed, has it?

    This is a serious topic. I don’t even for a second pretend to have all the answers for the big picture concerns like navigating our industrial food system, addressing skyrocketing orthorexia and other ED, balancing sustainability with optimal and personalized nutrition, etc. I don’t think anyone does, really.

    But I will be following up on this post in the future with ideas for disentangling yourself from this complex web of food rules, dogma, and fear. For now, let’s consider…

    Five Reasons to Ditch Cheat Days

    1) Cheat days suck your willpower dry. 

    Let’s say you set aside Sunday each week as your “cheat day,” your day to eat whatever you want. On the surface, it probably sounds like a decent strategy…walk the straight and narrow “clean eating” path all week, then let your hair down for 24 hours.

    So, you indulge on Sunday and eat all the things. And you wake up Monday morning resolving to stay on the wagon for the whole week ahead.

    Congratulations. You’ve just entered the willpower ring, and you’re about to get punched in the head for the next six days. Taking the occasional willpower punch is easy. But after a whole week, how are you going to feel? If you’re extremely lucky, you’ll get to Saturday night still standing on two feet.

    You see, every single day you wake up and your willpower is tested and drained away, sometimes in tiny increments and sometimes in big chunks. Boss being a dick? Kids screaming at each other? Person cut you off in traffic? Dudebro pays you a backhanded compliment at the gym?

    You start the day strong – remember, you promised to be “good” starting on Monday – but as the hours go by, you find yourself locked in a mental tug of war. By the time you get home, exhausted and drained, it’s all you can do to cook yourself a healthy dinner…and that takes every last bit of resolve you have left. You eat your steamed broccoli and chicken breast robotically and with precisely zero enjoyment. But hey, you stuck to the rules.

    Rinse and repeat five more times.

    If you’re like most people, you may not even make it to Sunday without a “slip up” or eating “non-compliant” food. Cue the guilt-shame narrative and beating yourself up all over again. It’s okay, there’s always next Monday.

    2) Cheat days are disempowering.

    “Thank you for giving me permission to…” is one of the most common sighs of relief I hear from my tribe when it comes to food.

    This frame of mind, the inability to see that you’ve had the permission the whole time, is the direct result of loss of personal power. When you feel powerless, you look to external sources for validation, permission, and directives. This is not uncommon, and I’d wager to guess that you’ve felt this powerlessness at some point in your life. (I have. That’s why trusted allies are so key.)

    But let’s think about this for a second.

    If you have cheat days, it’s because you crave the freedom to eat anything you want on one day.

    So the other six days, you put yourself in the willpower ring and get punched in the head, engage in moral self-judgments, and walk around with more cravings and food thoughts than ever.

    Freedom, you say?

    Handing your personal power over to society, a set of arbitrary diet rules, or your own thoughts of “I can’t eat XYZ” is debilitating. You lose autonomy and the ability to listen to your body. Intuition and self-trust vanish.

    Often times in conversations with clients and my community, the term “control” comes up with regard to cheat days. “It’s how I keep myself under control,” or, “I’m afraid I’ll lose control if I don’t do it,” are common justifications given to cheat days. What I hear just below the surface is a lack of self-trust manifesting itself as tight control, perfect eating, and guilt/shame around food.

    Let’s just remember that you can, in every practical sense, eat whatever you want, whenever you want it.

    And that inner power, autonomy, and trust usually mean that when the thought of the cookies crosses your mind, you think, “Nah, I just ate this nourishing, filling, and satisfying lunch. I’m all good,” or, “You know what? Yes, I choose the cookie because I’m a damn adult and I can do what I want when I want.”

    Maybe you eat the cookie (and accept any consequences), savor it, and move on to the next meal. Or maybe you pass it up and move on with your day. In many cases, you’ll find you don’t actually want the thing you’ve been trying so hard to avoid.

    These feelings cut deep, and working yourself out of the tight, rigid control of counting/logging food, obsessing over calories or macros, and generally feeling like you can’t trust yourself around food takes time, patience, awareness, and work. I don’t have a quick solution for you if you’re at this place, but my follow up to this piece will attempt to disentangle some of it.

    Suffice to say, it’s possible to heal from the anxiety, stress, and need to control around food. Sometimes you can do it on your own. And sometimes you need professional help. That’s okay.

    Donuts on a table for a massive cheat day.

    3) Cheat days intensify cravings and thoughts of “off-limit” foods. 

    “I can’t eat chocolate.”

    “I won’t have cookies.”

    “I can’t eat a single crystal of sugar.”

    Ever find yourself saying – or thinking – these things, then walking about absolutely tormented by thoughts of those exact foods that you’re trying to avoid? Ever dream about “off-limits” food? It’s not just you.

    You can thank your subconscious brain for that because it doesn’t get the negative modifiers – the can’ts, won’ts, and not allowed to’s – in your proclamations. So it’s hearing, “Chocolate! Cookies! Dirty nachos! Sugar! Greasy pizza!”

    This further degrades willpower and creates stress. And stress is one of the most common non-food drivers of cravings.

    4) Cheat days mix morality with food.

    “Cheating.”

    “Clean food.”

    “Good food.”

    Dear Zeus, when did we confuse food with a moral dilemma?

    Think about the words you use, their connotations, and implications. Language matters.

    “Bad food” used to be, in the not-so-distant past, relegated to the likes of Cool Ranch Doritos, Mike & Ikes, and Doctor Pepper. In the paleo camp, it’s potatoes and white rice. And now, with animal foods of any kind coming under fire because of films like What the Health, there’s a growing zeitgeist that puts eggs, meat, and dairy in the “dirty” food pile. The only way to be virtuous is to eat something that involved no animal death. Oh wait…all food production involves animal (and plant) death…

    Food is not a moral choice, and it’s one of the reasons I don’t label my recipes “clean” or use the hashtag #cleaneating anymore on social media.

    The extension, naturally, is that eating bad foods makes you bad. And shame has no place at the dinner table.

    5) Cheat days make you feel worse.

    So often, saving it all up for one cheat day means that when the time arrives, your willpower is so degraded – remember, you’ve been getting mentally punched in the head all week – what started off as a piece of cake or a couple cookies turns into an out-of-control, day-long bender.

    This “save it all up then binge” behavior is not healthy in the slightest. Remember, I’m not here to diagnose you with anything, but really think through whether this approach to managing your nutrition sounds reasonable, sustainable, or remotely okay.

    It usually means you eat a shit ton of sugar, refined carbs, salt, alcohol, and crappy seed oils. And that means water retention, puffiness, inflammation, mental fuzziness, and GI distress.

    So you wake up Monday with a food hangover, clothes a bit snug, scale weight up, and you VOW to do better this week.

    The remorse/guilt/shame spiral continues.

    In Summary

    Remember, cheat days are problematic for many reasons:

    • They suck your willpower dry.
    • They are inherently disempowering.
    • They intensify cravings and preoccupation with food.
    • They equate food with morality.
    • They make your body (and mind) feel worse.

    I hope I’ve given you some things to chew on (yes, pun intended) when it comes to cheat days and why they may not be the best mindset for managing your nutrition. These issues are complex and multilayered, sometimes requiring professional help to resolve.

    Intuitive eating without the guilt and shame is possible, and future posts will explore that process.

    Come to my webinar to learn more about the ways you may be sabotaging your health without knowing it.

    Let me know your thoughts about cheat days in the comments below!!

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    24 thoughts on “5 Reasons to Ditch Cheat Days

    1. Hi, Steph. I loved this article, and I sincerely appreciate the encouragement and guidance it offers. While I agree with all of these points wholeheartedly, I am reaching out about the statement that “[f]ood is not a moral choice…” Within the context of the discussion about cheat days, I find this statement to be true, but aside from this discussion, I question its validity (at least in my own life). Apart from the discussion of being an herbivore, omnivore, whatever-vore, I believe that there is a link between food and morality, especially when you consider the availability of food on a global scale, the fight against deforestation, the support of fair working conditions, etc. I fully realize that the consequences of my food choices are such a tiny blip, they don’t even register in the grand scheme of things, but I cannot deny that there is a relationship in my own life between food and morality. For what it is worth, I largely lead a “paleo”-lifestyle, and I am the first to admit that I do not always make the best choices about my food/purchases when compared with my own morals. What are your thoughts on this?

      1. I totally know what you mean which is why I mentioned the complexity of the issues including sustainability, fair trade goods, food insecurity and the disparity between socioeconomic groups, ethically raised animals, etc. When I was talking about food as not being moral, I was specifically referring to the nutritional value and other tighter definitions like, “I ate a cookie, therefore I’m a weak/bad person.”

        As individuals, choosing to vote with our dollars, support local farmers, buy fair trade, etc is a step toward aligning our purchases with our ethics…for sure. And that can feel really good because we are able to DO something. For the individual consumer to shift an entire industry or political system, there’s a lot less “direct” influence other than voting.

        These issues are extremely complex and it’s hard to discuss any single one in isolation.

    2. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Way back, I used to have “cheat days”. But then I started noticing lots of the things you pointed out… how I would go all-out and eat everything in sight on a cheat day, only to feel awful and guilty about it. How my then-boyfriend would say “well, you can’t eat that unless it’s a cheat day” and I would get super annoyed because damnit, I eat what I want! – but then I had to take a really good look at my eating habits and recognize that even though I claimed I was eating “whatever I wanted”, I was actually being extremely restrictive and then binging on certain days. I was afraid to eat certain things unless it was on one of those days.
      It’s thanks to influencers like you that I was able to realize that this whole cheat day thing was destructive. I wholly appreciate you talking about this stuff! <3

    3. Steph,
      Thank you so much for saying what nobody wants to admit. I’ve always felt like a failure when every single “cheat day” turned into a cheat year. Somehow, I’ve been able to trick myself into believing that “just once” won’t cause the damage you note in your summary above. You lifted a huge burden off my shoulders, and I feel like less of a food failure after reading your fantastic article.

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    4. I could not agree with this article more. For better or worse, I am actually on weight watchers. And I’ve been doing great. However… I’m kind of at a plateau. So, my plan has been to eat all of my extra weekly points on Sunday. Of course, as my cheat day. Usually the 1 pound I lost in the week prior comes back on Monday morning. And I’m discouraged. I’m beginning to believe a cheat day it’s just not a good thing.

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      1. That’s a really powerful observation, Shawn. How might it be different if you used your points up daily instead of saving them up? Would you be open to trying it?

    5. I completely agree! This world is so saturated with “do what feels good”. There is so much more to our lives and intelligence than that. I feel that most of the information put out there is assuming people are too stupid to do the right thing when it comes to health or anything for that matter. Discipline is a good thing and there is no room for “cheating”. Thank you for your great articles, Steph. Your blog is one of the few a busy mom of 5 will take the time to read!

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      1. So true Jami! There’s a fine line, right? And I’ve experienced that “too stupid to do the right thing” even with my own doctor. It was really frustrating. Thanks for being here and for you kind words <3

    6. Scanning the article….I never do cheat days. I never recommend cheat days. Only cheat meals. But quite honestly, my “cheat meal” just means I don’t measure or track it. I track every single day and sometimes I need a break. So rather than measuring out and logging my sweet taters, I’ll get a side of sweet tater fries with my (very likely) turkey wrap.

      I couldn’t eat a donut if I tried because a) I don’t really even like them and b) it doesn’t make me feel very good.

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      1. Thanks for your thoughts, Michelle. I’ve heard from others who use this sort of strategy for taking a mental break…love the concept. If you use “cheat meal” to describe it, maybe it’s worth a re-wording?

    7. Interesting. The only part of this article that resonated with me is that if you want a cookie, you could decide to have a cookie, because you’re an adult, and it’s not “cheating,” it’s just eating. I don’t think that it should be a big deal to decide to have a cookie, but I recognize that a lot of people have made their careers in the past several years by making it seem like a big deal for their clients/readers/etc.

    8. Really interesting perspective that I hadn’t considered before. Thank you!

      I wanted to add something to point #1 about willpower (I could be missing the mark, and if so, please let me know): this mindset/meal plan can cause the cheat day to become the goal. Stay strong through the week with the unpleasant tasting veggies, calorie counting, and refraining from sweets or alcohol, and THEN you can reward yourself with all you can eat yummy food. It doesn’t instill good habits and it doesn’t help people find satisfaction with a new lifestyle.

    9. This article actually made me think, not just about my thoughts about food but other things in life too. It was a nice reminder that you can, in fact, eat or do whatever you want. There is freedom. We have a choice. We can choose to indulge in thoughts, behaviors or whatever we want or not. Why waste time trying to avoid them, when it’s not what we really want anyway? Realize that we have the power and if we don’t want that thought or behavior in our life, just choose something better instead. There are so many better things to choose from. Why let those bad things steal from our realm of possibilities?

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    10. I am in the willpower ring 7 days a week anyway. Really. I have spent my life eating carbs. I’m a milk-a-holic. I drink it almost exclusively and unless on a hot day, if I force water, it makes me feel like I am drowning. (I know this is something that can change over time) But, you are right. It’s going to take lots of willpower and commitment.

      If, by being able to look forward to one of 7 days and say, “I can eat that then”, helps me to get by during 6 others, even if it is a trick, or crutch, or well, you call it what you like, then I tell you it is golden and not to be shunned. It is not a healthy habit, but it might work for some, so your blog, when it comes right down to it, is only an opinion, just like mine. I refuse to consider it cheating. I, for now, must consider this a part of my way of eating. . .

      1. If you have a system that works for you, Kathy, then you don’t need my permission…I always leave it up to the reader to decide how to (if at all) apply my point of view to their own lives. Some things may resonate, some may not…and that’s fine. And if you don’t call or consider it cheating, that’s okay too. But a lot of people do and it’s totally detrimental to their mental/emotional health. Remember at the end of the day that each person is different.

        But truthfully it makes me a little sad inside to hear that you’re fighting so much with willpower. My heart goes out to you and I hope in time that things will change for you.

    11. Wow! My entire mentality just got challenged; and I’m so glad it did! Thank you! I’ve been doing this very thing with cheat days. I’ve struggled with anxiety, guilt, and shame around food. I eat so great during the week, and then lose it over the weekend. I gain back the 2 lbs I lost during the week, and feel like a failure because it’s taken me over a year and a half to lose 35 lbs. And I’ve been toggling between the same 5 lbs for the last several months, when I still have 60 more pounds to lose. I’ve been logging my food endlessly and anxiously, weighing twice a week, and doing everything I can to stay away from “bad” foods. It’s exhausting! Thank you for this eye opening article!

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      1. Hi Racheal…I’m so glad you’ve paused to think/question things. At the very least, that self-awareness is a really important step. Cheering for you…you got this!

    12. Thank you so much for this!

      I want to create a diet plan that will not enslave me, but make me happy. I have a plethora of medical issues that require from me to ditch concentrated sugars, keep sodium to the minimum and forget about the red meats.

      However, the first thing I said was – OK, but when I’m PMSing and I want salted popcorn and some chocolate – I’m eating that guilt-free!

      You know what happened over time? I stopped craving it.

      I had a bag of 5 gram tiny black chocolates when I freak out, take one and that does it. Now, I rarely ever reach for those anymore.

      The truth is – I’m getting there. I’m not saying I’m doing it perfectly well, but you know what? I cut down sodium at least 5x, my sugar intake is only a percentage of what it was before. I eat 4x more veggies than I used to do. Haven’t craved for red meats. NOT ONCE.

      I celebrate those victories. I don’t have a designated cheat day. I trust myself that I’ll reach the point in which I eat in the healthiest possible way without feeling crappy. That should be enough.

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