Jan 27, 2022

Are Cheat Days a Bad Idea?

You're keeping yourself hydrated. You're watching your carb intake. You're working out regularly. You're committed to making this year the year you get fit and healthy with a nutritious diet and sufficient exercise.

But you find yourself wondering....how bad would it really be if I took a day off from eating healthy? Can I have a day of indulging in my favorite fried food and sweets?

Thanks to mainstream diet culture on social media, "cheat days" and "cheat meals" have become extremely popular. Even A-list celebrities, like The Rock, are showing off what they like to treat themselves with on their off days. 

So, is a cheat day the best idea? The answer isn't as simple as you may think. 

What exactly is a cheat day?

A cheat day is a break in a diet. 

The idea is you stick to a strict diet for six days of the week. However, you allow yourself one day to eat whatever you want. 

To cheat, or not to cheat: That is the question

There's no one-size-fits-all when it comes to cheat days. The benefits and disadvantages of having a cheat day vary from person to person. 

If you came here looking for a straightforward yes or no answer, we are sorry to disappoint you, but it doesn't exist. 

Don't call it cheating 

Deciding whether or not a cheat day is right for you starts with getting rid of the word "cheat"! 

Why? Cheat has a negative connotation attached to it. Think about it. When you hear the word cheat, do you think of anything positive? Most likely not! Words like guilt and shame probably come to mind. So why connect food to those feelings?

Instead, shift your thinking. Approach this hiatus from your regular diet as a free day or free meal. Or, maybe it’s just included as another part of your diet. 

What effects can a free day have on the body?

Occasionally mixing in a day off has shown to help dieters stay on track. However, it can also set you back if done incorrectly.

Overeating = lower levels of activity

One study found that individuals who were "obesity-prone" and ate more than their estimated calorie needs had a decrease in movement than those who were less prone or resistant to obesity

Lack of movement, especially on your off days, could put you at risk of gaining weight and damage your health overall. Therefore, if possible, plan to take your hiatus on days when you can increase physical activity. 

Binge eating 

Those who use food as a coping mechanism or have an all-or-nothing mindset are often susceptible to binge eating. Binge eating is defined as eating a large amount of food in a short amount of time and having no control over what or how much you are eating. 

When it comes to taking a day or even a meal off from your diet, some strategies can prevent you from overeating:

  • Understanding your body. Think about why you desire certain foods over others. Can you identify any triggers for overindulging?  Pinpoint how much you need to eat vs how much you are actually eating.

  • Follow your hunger and satisfied cues. Try not to have the mindset that you can eat as much as you want because it's your free day. Rather, listen to cures from your body to stop eating when your hunger is satiated. 

  • Keeping everything in moderation will help you be consistent and help you stay on track with your health goals. 

Experts say binge eating at least once a week for three months might be a sign of a binge eating disorder. If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms or signs of this disorder, please reach out to your doctor or the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)

Bloating or stomach ache

For our bodies to process high-sugar meals, the pancreas creates more insulin, leading to stomach bloating and pain.   

Food also takes longer to digest if you're overeating, which could mean those free-day meals will sit in your stomach longer, potentially causing gas and stomach aches.

Tips for making a free day part of your diet 

Incorporate the healthy parts 

Even if it's your day to eat cheeseburgers, pizza, and french fries, you don't need to throw your whole diet out the window. 

Need some ideas on how? 

Don't feel pressured

Just because you haven't felt the itch to take a day off from your diet doesn't mean you have to. Don't splurge just to go nuts on your diet. 

Mindful eating 

Mindful eating is paying attention to cues from your body regarding food, from preparing it and eating when you are hungry to stopping when you feel full or satisfied. The concept of mindful eating also encourages slowing down while eating to enjoy and savor your dining experience.

Some research suggests that mindful eating can decrease tendencies of eating based on emotions and indulging in certain foods. 

Adopt the 80/20 rule 

Many dieticians and nutritionists recommend the 80/20 rule; eating healthy 80% of the time and indulging/satisfying cravings the other 20%. 

Take into consideration your health conditions

People with certain health conditions, such as diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure should always talk to their doctor before changing diet or exercise. 

Even minor deviations from your diet can significantly impact your body and potentially have unhealthy effects. 

Final thoughts

If you want to have free days more frequently than not, it might be time to revisit your current diet. Is it really working for you? Many diets are too strict and unrealistic to sustain long-term.

One of the most important things you can do for your overall well-being is to develop a healthy relationship with food. Never use food to reward, punish or comfort yourself. 

Healthily losing weight is a long-term process. Don't dwell or feel guilty about indulging. Instead, remember: everything in moderation. 

Always consult with your doctor before making any changes in your diet. 

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