Everyone needs a break every once and a while. You need the weekends off work to rest, relax, enjoy hobbies, and spend time outside. You need vacations each year to go on trips and visit family. You even need to take a small break during high-intensity interval training to let your muscles rest.
Are cheat days necessary breaks, too? If you’re under heavy dietary restrictions to fuel your health and fitness journey, it can be tempting to take a cheat day. Especially if you've just started a New Year’s resolution. But is it really harmless?
Let’s take a closer look at how cheat days are affecting your health and your progress.
What’s a Cheat Day?
A cheat day is just what it sounds like. You’re following your dietary restrictions most of the time, but every week or so, you have a whole day where you can eat whatever you want. Think of it as following your diet 90% of the time, while the other 10% you can cheat.
Cheat days can seem harmless. After all, what’s the harm of eating a burger every so often or having dessert after dinner once a week? The answer is: nothing. Exploring new foods from other countries is a great way to indulge in new cultures. Plus, enjoying dessert every once in a while is a great way to spend time with family and friends.
There’s nothing wrong with eating foods you enjoy every so often. However, the “cheat day” mentality and process can be harmful to progress and can make dieting much more difficult.
Here’s how the cheat day affects progress:
How Cheat Days Affect Your Progress
There are a few ways that cheat days negatively affect your progress. Cheat days affect nutrition itself as well as your mindset and relationship with healthy food.
First, let’s look at it from a health standpoint.
Cheat Days and Nutrition
Maybe you’re trying to be healthier in general. Maybe you’re following a rigorous diet that restricts entire food groups. Maybe you’re following diets like keto or a gluten-free diet. Whatever type of dietary change you’re trying to affect, cheat days aren’t the best for your progress.
You spend days out of the week making healthy food choices for your body and giving it the nutrients it needs to thrive. Then, at the end of the week or whenever you place your “cheat day,” you totally give up any health concerns.
Nutrition isn’t measured in individual days. If you consume enough junk food in one day, it would be the same as if you consumed it throughout the week. Cheat days are especially harmful to progress if you have no restrictions over them.
If you let yourself eat all the junk food you crave that day, it would be the same as if you let yourself spread them throughout the week. This can affect physical activity, overload your body with sugar, sodium, and fat, and lead to bloating and discomfort.
Cheat Days and Your Nutrition Mindset
Cheat days also negatively impact your mindset on nutrition.
Exercising a cheat day regularly supports the following statements about health:
“This day doesn’t count for my health.”
“My nutritional choices don’t affect my body today.”
“Some foods are inherently bad, and some foods are inherently good.”
(This is especially damaging as it can create fear around certain types of foods.)
Ultimately, practicing a cheat day also supports the idea that eating foods you like and enjoy are bad while eating healthy foods is good.
Sure, it is good to eat healthy foods and make healthy choices for your body. However, it is not bad to enjoy delicious foods every once and a while. You’re allowed to enjoy foods you love with moderation and balance in mind.
Simply keep your health goals in mind and practice self-discipline. Cheat days aren’t the best practice as they don’t allow for this healthy relationship with food and nutrition.
Why Cheat Meals Are Better Than Cheat Days
Cheat days can be harmful to your health and nutrition mindsets if not practiced correctly. However, the idea of “cheat meals” can be a better way to practice “cheating.”
The reasoning is pretty solid:
Cheat days aren’t sustainable in the long term. Eating tons of junk every Friday leads to poor nutrition and guilt. Using every Saturday as a day to “Get back on track” isn’t great either. This simply isn’t viable for long-term gains.
Instead, eating cheat meals or even cheat snacks may be better. Have a snack every once in a while that you enjoy. This could be a small bag of potato chips, a candy bar, or even a side of french fries.
Instead of thinking you’re “bad” for eating it, adopt the mindset that you’re exercising moderation, balance, and mindful eating. This is much more sustainable in the long run than having full-blown cheat days.
How To Stay On Track
If you do choose to exercise a cheat meal or snack, here are some tips to help you stay on track.
Invest in a Healthy Relationship With Food
Developing a healthy relationship with food is important no matter who you are. Food is meant to be enjoyed. Food brings people together. Food lets you experience other cultures and cuisines. Food is how you fuel your body with the nutrition, antioxidants, protein, and vitamins you need to be better than you were yesterday.
Having a healthy relationship with food will help you avoid the cheat day mentality. Try to remember a few principles.
Food is your body’s fuel. There is no real way to “cheat” with nutrition. You only get one body, so be mindful of what you feed it and enjoy what you eat, too. Developing a healthy relationship with food isn’t always easy. Take time to invest in healthy eating habits and mindfulness while eating.
Mindful eating is eating while paying attention to how your body feels. When you feel full, stop eating. If you’re still hungry, continue eating. It seems simple, but it can help transform a negative relationship with food, especially around cheat days.
Intense Dietary Restrictions May Not Be Working
Many have been in the habit of practicing cheat days. They’re a popular trend in the workout and fitness world. Do you have trouble staying on track with intense dietary restrictions and find yourself wanting a cheat day often? It may be time to relax your dietary restrictions for a little while.
How does this help? Knowing that you can’t eat certain foods may be making your cravings more intense. This can be especially difficult if you’ve been in the habit of cheat days for a while. If you’re physically able to, take a break from the more intense restrictions.
Continue making healthy food choices in general. You can even learn about cooking, healthy eating, mindful eating, and pay more attention to how your body reacts to food and feels after eating nutritious foods compared to junk foods.
Then, after a few weeks or a month of relaxing your dietary restrictions, try to rethink your diet. You can continue including foods you enjoy every once and a while. And keep making healthy food choices that nourish your body.
Better Food, Better You
You are what you eat. Food is the fuel for all the activities you enjoy.
Practice self-discipline, focus on foods that nourish your body and are delicious too. Practicing cheat days can be harmful, but practicing mindful eating can transform your relationship with food for a better you.
At Olivers, we believe in striving to become the best version of ourselves. We want to engage in critical discussions about health, fitness, and wellness to nurture our whole self. A healthy relationship with food is one of the first steps.