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 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a culture we seem to have arrived at a place where whatever native wisdom we may have once possessed about eating has been replaced by confusion and anxiety.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.
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.
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.
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.