I've never been one for breaking up my diet into “good” days and “cheat” days. To me, food - yes, even the sweet, salty, fatty food - is one of life's greatest pleasures. Knocking back a bacon cheeseburger is my favorite way to spend a date night, and I have no shame about stealing all the Twix bars from my kids' Halloween candy haul.
Generally, “cheating” doesn't enter my vernacular around food because my food philosophy is to focus on an overall pattern of nourishing choices.
Occasionally, however, my religious practice requires (or at least gently suggests) that I make some temporary changes to what and when I eat. One such occasion is the season of Lent. This year, for a mindful sacrifice during the 40 days before Easter, I committed to cutting back on sweets and alcohol.
As a faithful Catholic, I follow the “rule” that because Sundays are considered feast days, they're not technically part of Lenten observance. Translation: I have a built-in cheat day sitting at the top of each week.
I've had no problem with this routine in the past, but in the last 12 months, I've become more in tune with my physical cues around hunger, fullness, and cravings. So this year, as I reached for the cookies and chardonnay on a Sunday, something unexpected happened.
These “cheat day” Sundays were messing with my normally mindful eating
Even though I might not have actually wanted a cookie or a glass of wine, I knew Sundays were my chance to have it. I thought I'd better pack in all my indulgences at once or forever hold my peace. (OK, maybe not forever, but at least for the next seven days.)
Compelled by something like a sense of duty, I proceeded to down cake, chocolates, and cocktails every Sunday - and ended up regretting it.
Rather than condemn ourselves for “cheating” by eating a piece of pie, then, perhaps the better approach is to celebrate our enjoyment of it.
The whole experience got me thinking. Though I don't use them myself, cheat days had seemed rather harmless when I'd advised others on issues of weight.
We're all human, right? Aren't we allowed to shake off the confines of a difficult-to-follow diet and enjoy our favorite goodies? Besides, doesn't giving in to cravings one day a week “prevent” a more serious lapse later on?
The more I considered cheat days within an intuitive eating framework, the less sure I was that they could be part of it. Here's why:
Cheat days interfere with how we can enjoy eating
As I experienced firsthand, a cheat day imposes its own rules on eating. On a cheat day, we may grab a doughnut out of a sense of urgency, rather than doing so simply because a combo of fluffy cake and creamy glaze sounds amazing,
If the fleeting window of time to enjoy treats is rapidly closing, it can spur a now-or-never mentality. The cheat day can drive us to eat much more than we actually desire or to choose foods we don't genuinely want.
Worse, it can trigger our brain's sense of appetite (interest in food as a result of seeing it or knowing it's available) and potentially override actual hunger (the physical need for food). This can send us down a path of disordered eating.
“The concept of cheat days sets people up for a cycle of restricting and bingeing, rigidity, guilt, and shame around their eating,” says registered dietitian Annie Goldsmith, RDN, LDN, who specializes in treating eating disorders. “It sets up an external rule system that dictates when, what, and how much we are allowed to eat - the very opposite of intuitive eating.”
They give us the sense that enjoying food is bad
Ever notice the language people use around cheat days? After an indulgence, we tend to make statements of moral judgement about our eating. Confessions like “I was naughty” or “I fell off the wagon” promote a belief that enjoying food is a bad thing.
But food enjoyment is one of the hallmarks of mindful and intuitive eating. Many experts believe that savoring tasty flavors and pleasant textures actually helps us consume the right amount - not too little and not too much.
Rather than condemn ourselves for “cheating” by eating a piece of pie, then, perhaps the better approach is to celebrate our enjoyment of it. That doesn't give us license to scarf down an entire 9-inch lemon meringue pie. It simply allows us to honor our true feelings of delighting in something delicious.
From there, we can move on with our day's eating without the weight of guilt.
They make regular eating days seem like a burden
The subtext around “cheating” implies that the way we eat on “regular” days is a burden and that we find more joy when we deviate from it. But eating well doesn't have to be all misery - and relying on cheat days this way probably isn't helpful.
“I utilize the evidence-based Intuitive Eating model as a foundation of my practice philosophy,” says Goldsmith. “This means I help clients cultivate permission to eat all foods whenever they want without labeling them as healthy or unhealthy.”
Instead of couching beliefs about food in terms of drudgery versus liberty, an intuitive eating approach gives you the freedom to make your own choices at all times.
Though it may sound counterintuitive, Goldsmith says this level of self-determination typically helps people make dietary choices that they can feel good about and that ultimately benefit their health.
But what if having certain days set aside works for you?
Of course, certain people may find cheat days to be a helpful relief. Some research even supports the idea that planned cheat days could lead to better self-regulation and longer-term success with weight loss.
If you're the type of person who operates well with rules and you feel having a day “off” keeps you on track, do what works for you.
It may be helpful, though, to give some thought to the language you use around your indulgence. You might try reframing it as a celebration of food rather than an instance of breaking the rules. And remember that what looks like “cheating” for you might be a normal day for someone else - we're all on our own journeys of food and health.
Or take an intuitive approach
If, on the other hand, cheat days seem to do your psyche (and your eating habits) more harm than good, try shifting to a more generous intuitive eating approach.
This 10-principle philosophy encourages clueing in to your body's needs and desires as they arise, allowing physical cues to determine what and when you eat.
“We can notice what our needs are at any given moment - physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual - and simply ask ourselves without judgement what might best nourish us,” says Goldsmith. “Our bodies have the wisdom to guide us towards what we truly need and cultivate health holistically.”
Sarah Garone is a nutritionist, freelance writer, and food blogger. Find her sharing down-to-earth nutrition info at A Love Letter to Food or follow her on Twitter.