By Karen Azeez
“Cheat days” have become very popular for health-conscious eaters, fitness enthusiasts and dieters.
The idea of the “cheat day” is to suffer for six days on a boring, restrictive diet and then go wild on the seventh day.
Proponents claim that this method will up your odds for success whether your goal is to stick to a new eating plan, lose weight or build muscles because it will change your metabolism and prevent ditching the diet if you binge or eat a “forbidden” food. The theory is, rather than turning a minor slip-up into a major back-slide, cheaters not only accept what they eat but see it as part of the plan. They then continue on with their merry-little-diet-way.
But unfortunately, this rarely works.
Over the years, while addressing my own eating and helping clients lose and maintain their weight, I have found that “cheat days” usually set you up for failure. Here’s three important reasons why “cheat days” don’t work (and what to do instead).
1. The Math Doesn’t Add Up
One of the pro-cheating claims is that, after days of restricted calories, the extra food you eat on cheat days boosts metabolism. While some studies do support this claim, others suggest that overeating only ups metabolism between 3-10% for no more than 24 hours, which doesn’t make up for the hundreds – or thousands – of extra calories that “cheaters” tend to indulge in on their days off.
Think about it: If you are trying to lose a pound a week, you need to consume a net deficit of 3,500 calories a week, or 500 fewer calories each day. If your cheat day includes a juicy burger, fries and a milkshake (and that’s only dinner!), chances are you’ve gone about 1,000 calories or more over your daily requirement – that erases at least 2 days of dieting. Over time, your progress will be slowed and that’s when you’ll throw in the towel and abandon your plan.
2. It’s A Slippery Slope
One of the amazing aspects of healthy eating is that, over time, your taste buds get used to the delicious and natural flavors of healthy foods. Conversely, foods like greasy nachos, gooey cakes and gut-busting ribs no longer look attractive or taste good. And, after avoiding “cheat” foods for weeks or months, you might feel sick after eating them. That goes a long way towards ensuring sustainable weight loss.
But this doesn’t happen for cheaters. Cheating so frequently maintains your taste for junk food – and having that 7th day cupcake might re-ignite dormant sugar cravings, making it nearly impossible to restrain yourself the next day. Even worse, if you suffer no cravings, no digestive issues and no weight gain, you might think, ”what’s the harm of a second cheat day?” And off you go (what diet?).
3. Cheating Damages Your Self-Esteem
What’s the first thing you think of when I say cheat? A sneaky husband (or wife) having a lurid affair behind the back of their innocent spouse? Your junior high friend who stole half the bank in Monopoly? Those corporate weasels who find loopholes to avoid taxes? Whatever your definition, cheaters are certainly not anybody you’d want to aspire to, right?
One of the goals of a healthy, sustainable diet is to help you feel good about yourself, not to make you feel dirty or dishonest. Cheat days mean you’re cheating on yourself. That kind of behavior only reinforces the poor self-image that so many women – and men – suffer with. And it is negative feelings like this that lead you to overeat or engage in other forms of self-destructive behavior. And the cycle only continues.
The good news is that there are simple ways to enjoy healthy eating without feeling deprived and maintain or even lose weight!
1. Learn To Love The Foods You Eat
A successful, long-term diet will focus on abundant, healthy whole foods that you actually want to eat and that won’t leave you hungry or wanting to “cheat.” This means choosing or cooking foods with lots of flavor (see my recent post on spices) and healthy fats and fiber to fill you up. If you’re just starting out, you may not believe that you will truly desire roasted vegetables with cashew cream sauce, but you will. Explore farmers markets and health-food restaurants, swap recipes with like-minded friends, take natural cooking classes and soon your taste-buds will change.
2. Swap “Cheat Days” For “Special Occasions”
Even the healthiest eaters will indulge on special occasions. It’s perfectly normal to eat a slice of cake on your birthday or at a wedding, share turkey and the yummy sides on Thanksgiving, or bite into some juicy fried chicken at your company’s annual picnic. Back in our grandparents’ day, desserts and rich banquet-like foods were reserved for rare, special occasions because they required expensive ingredients and hours of hard labor – and they were healthier for it.
So, go ahead and indulge consciously in tasty treats during important celebrations. You will savor them even more because they are rare. You might even find that you’re really not that interested anymore and a few bites will be all you’ll need.
3. Re-Invent Your Favorite Indulgences
If you love pizza (like I do!) and just can’t imagine life without it, then make a healthier version yourself like this and you can have it whenever you desire. The internet is flooded with more nutritious/less caloric makeovers of all your comfort food favorites like: chili, mac n’ cheese, eggplant parmesan and chicken pot pie. Once you discover foods like whole wheat pasta, brown rice and plain greek yogurt, you probably won’t miss their old counterparts.
Most importantly, remember that it’s all a process and you will learn as you go. Just be kind to yourself and open to new ideas!
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