A cheat day, free day, mental health day, refeed day, fun day, fail day—whatever you call it, you know what I’m talking about.
It’s that day when you’re eating foods so tasty your mouth waters just thinking about it. The day you look forward to all week. A true feast.
Are you imagining it? Is it full of vegetables? Or is your day mostly filled with things like burgers, wings, tacos, meat, and fries? Ice cream for dessert? Movie night with bowls of chips and M&Ms like the scenes in the movies you’re watching?
Yeah, I’m not a fan of any of those terms I just mentioned. Let’s talk about the harm of cheat days!
- What’s a cheat meal?
- What’s wrong with cheat days?
- So what’s the alternative to a cheat meal?
- Why is this difference important?
- So how do you create that balanced eating pattern?
What’s a cheat day?
The meaning of a cheat meal is when a dieter cheats on their diet.
A cheat meal or cheat day is when someone eats something that doesn’t fit their intended eating pattern to take a (psychological) break from strict dieting.
When dieters choose to eat a cheat meal, they may order a pizza for a movie night at home. They could go out for a non-tracked restaurant meal on a Saturday night. Indulge in greasy fast food after going out on Friday night.
Cheat days are full days that are usually not tracked and a dieter eats whatever they want. Depending on how much they like their usual breakfast, they could start their day as usual. Or, they could go out for a bottomless brunch. Have some cake in the afternoon. Enjoy a feast of all their favorite ‘junk’ foods while having a drink or two. Mindlessly eat chips and chocolate during movie night.
Even treats qualify as cheats for some people. They’re usually smaller (less calories) and sometimes they’re tracked, but on top of the intended meal plan. Treats are often used as a reward in exchange for good behavior.
What’s wrong with cheat days?
The term ‘cheat’ makes people feel guilty because they’re not sticking to their plan. It implies you’re doing something wrong and against the rules. Any of those other terms I mentioned above suggest that your normal days are hard, not fun, restrictive, and all-around not enjoyable.
After having a cheat meal (or day), some people feel ready and motivated to get back to their intended plan. They have had their cravings and can now get back to the grind.
But in my experience, most people feel bad. Physically because they overeat (especially on a whole cheat day) and are now nauseous, bloated, and tired. And they feel bad mentally because of the guilt and regret for not being able to stick to their meal plan. As a result, they may be craving more ‘bad’ food or give up healthy eating entirely (until the next attempt).
On top of that, if you’re looking to lose weight, a full day of cheating may ruin the entire calorie deficit you built up during the week.
So what’s the alternative for a cheat meal?
Don’t look at food as good or bad. If there’s no bad food and nothing is off-limits, you can’t cheat.
I try to avoid using ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to describe food, as well as ‘junk’ or ‘unhealthy’. Just using these words places judgment on food, and that’s unnecessary.
There is no good or bad food. Unless it’s spoiled.
Instead, think of food by its nutritional value. And you don’t have to know the calories or macros (fats, protein, carbs) to understand the difference (most of the time).
Nutritious food is food with a high nutritional value. It has many nutrients, vitamins, minerals, etc. Including these in your eating pattern brings health benefits. It’s the stuff you usually see recommended by doctors, like fruits and vegetables, nuts, lean meats, whole-wheat bread, and pasta, etc.
Less nutritious food is food with a lower nutritional value. It’s much more energy-dense—which means it has a lot of calories but not as many nutrients as you’d normally like. Think pizza, steak, salad dressing, chocolate, etc. Food with a low nutritional value won’t bring you health benefits and it won’t nourish your body like foods with a high nutritional value does, but moderate consumption nourishes your mind.
Food with a low nutritional value perfectly fits in a balanced eating pattern!
Why is that difference important?
Obviously, the way you refer to your food won’t change the nutritional value of your food. But it changes the way you look at your food.
Having a cheat meal makes you feel bad because you went off-plan. And even if you did plan it ahead of time, you may feel guilt or regret because you’re not supposed to have it.
Looking at it based on nutritional value means nothing is off-limits. If you’re having meals that have a lower nutritional value, it’s a conscious choice. There’s no guilt or regret because you’re also consistently eating nutritious foods.
Fitting in lower nutritional foods can help avoid feelings of deprivation. Of course, that does mean you have to make an effort to incorporate foods with a lower nutritional value into your eating pattern/meal plan and not just have them when you feel you can no longer go without 😉
That is what ‘balance’ means.
I know someone who fits in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s several times a week. Not as nutritious as ice cream alternatives or some yogurt with fruit and nuts, but good for the soul.
Personally, I have chocolate chip cookie dough in my freezer and I have a cookie whenever I feel like it and I can make it fit my plan. I have chips pretty much every week and somewhat regularly order a pizza. And I don’t worry when I go out for lunch or dinner (and I don’t only order salads either).
Let’s look at that definition of cheat day again: “A cheat meal or cheat day is when someone eats something that traditionally doesn’t fit their intended eating pattern to take a (psychological) break from strict dieting.”
Your eating pattern shouldn’t be so strict that you feel the need to cheat on it or take a psychological break.
So how do you create that balanced eating pattern?
One day I will write an extensive blog post about fitting all your favorite foods in your eating pattern, but here it is in short:
- Don’t restrict your favorite foods. They all fit in your eating pattern in moderation. Yes, even bigger meals. If you eat what you like every day, there’s no need to cheat!
- Don’t ‘punish’ yourself with food with a high nutritional value. Salads are delicious, not a punishment for having a donut. Try different foods in different ways to find your favorite highly nutritional meals.
- I’m not a fan of ‘healthifying’ every meal, but if your favorite pasta sauce on chickpea pasta means your meal fits your plan and you don’t feel restricted and deprived—go for it.
- Adjust your current eating pattern step by step. Don’t overhaul it all at once but start with finding a nutritious breakfast or a more nutritious alternative for your less nutritious ingredients.
- Fit in less nutritious ingredients in your nutritious meals. I have chocolate in both my favorite breakfasts and rarely crave sweets outside of that (unless I’m on my period).
- Be consistent. Ever heard of the 80/20 rule? It says 80% of your food should be ‘healthy’ (nutritious) and 20% can be less nutritious.
- Enjoy your food. Your diet should exist of mostly nutritional foods that you like, and then some less nutritious foods that you like. Don’t include meals you don’t like, however healthy they may be!
Have fun, feel good, be fit
So to summarize: Your lifestyle should be a balance between plenty of foods with a high nutritional value (traditionally ‘good’ and ‘healthy’ foods) and foods with a lower nutritional value in moderation (traditionally ‘bad’ and ‘unhealthy’ foods).
A conscious and balanced lifestyle revolves around having fun, feeling good, and being fit, not restriction and deprivation.