A client recently asked me about cheat days. Is a scheduled day of eating whatever we want, with abandon, a helpful thing or a bad thing? So I shook those ideas around in my head awhile. My initial thought was no no no, don’t do a cheat day. And I rattled off a list to myself of reasons:
Because saying that you’re cheating makes you feel like you screwed up, even if you gave yourself permission to eat things that don’t support your nutrition goals if eaten too often or in large quantities.
Because cheat days or even cheat meals often lead to overindulgence, tummy aches, bad feelings, and may yank us right out of the calorie range we were intending to manage our weight.
Because cheat days can reinforce a restricting and binging cycle that derails progress and feels miserable.
Because when you really think about it, are there really “good” and “bad” foods? Perhaps there are less emotionally-loaded terms to describe more and less nutritious food.
Because looking at our nutrition management as something we turn on or off might rob us of an opportunity to develop a happier relationship with the food that we eat.
When we unpack these observations, we reveal complicated ideas about the psychology of eating behaviors. They show us how easy it is to feel conflicted and burdened by managing how we eat on a daily basis. In short, we ascribe way too much moral value to how we eat. And that screws with us.
Our awareness of them matters. But I think what most people really want to know is far simpler:
How do I achieve my aesthetic/performance/health goals while still getting to eat the things that might make nailing those goals more challenging?
In other words…
Is there a way to have fun and still be a lean, healthy, and sexy motherfucker?
It’s the conflict: the wanting of two things that sometimes appear incongruent.
But maybe they’re not exactly incompatible: we just have to learn to mesh them in ways that help us get where we want to be with both our health goals as well as our fun goals.
A few issues typically arise when we’re dieting:
- I’m so honnnngry.
- All the stuff I crave is the stuff that I feel like I can’t have.
- I’m tired of thinking about this and want to relax ffs.
- I don’t know how to eat just one cookie. I feel out of control unless I’m 100% “on”.
Let’s work on each of these:
I want to eat all the things. My diet sucks.
Hunger is such a drag. Yet if we’re operating in a calorie deficit to lose weight, some hunger is normal. That doesn’t make it any less irksome.
Hunger isn’t always a terrible thing: we won’t immediately implode if we feel that gnawing sensation. But if we constantly have to fight it, we’re more likely to give up on dieting as well as find ourselves overindulging when we just can’t even anymore. If you’re always hungry, make sure you’re doing a few big things:
- Get more protein, yo: packing more protein into meals and snacks curbs hunger. Fat is said to do the same thing, but personally I’ve found that higher protein meals coupled with fiber-rich carbs do the job smashingly well.
- Choosing whole foods most of the time. Yeah, processed meals are convenient. And remember, no foods are “bad”. But if they make it harder to stay full, choosing fewer highly refined, “fluffy” foods and more filling fruits, veggies, and lean proteins will make you less hangry.
- Stashing a few secret weapon snacks in your arsenal for days when you feel extra hungry. Sometimes we’re hungry because we’re bored, stressed, tired, or just need extra fuel. That doesn’t change the fact that we wanna eat. Try waiting for just a bit before you decide to eat: sometimes the feeling passes. Still need food in your belly but you know you’ve already had quite a bit of food for the day? Don’t starve yourself. Instead, start with some “low impact” foods: a few of my favorites are flavored seltzer water, egg white crepes, air-popped popcorn, fresh berries, and pickles. They also seem to satisfy cravings – fizzy, savory, sweet, or salty.
I have to get all these whole foods like veggies and lean protein into my days which leaves, like, no room for margaritas and tacos. My diet sucks.
First of all, how lean are you already? Going from healthy to shredded requires some additional skills and mindset that we’ll get to. But for most people who start out overweight, it’s easier than you’d think to make room for some “fun” stuff. And I’ll get to teaching you how in a second. But first ask yourself this:
Think about what you can add to your plates instead of what you have to take away.
When we begin to try new foods that are both fat loss friendly and actually taste good to us, it’s easier to become excited about developing healthier habits. Instead of struggling to avoid things we want, if we get lots of foods that we like yet still do a bang up job of meeting our health needs, it’s mentally easier at first. Then we want more of them, because we notice that we feel better. Soon, we find that we’re jonesing for junk food less often. This takes time. But it will happen.
On the days when I still want some of those big treats that don’t easily fit into my plan, I use a few key tactics you can snag for yourself:
- if you know you are going to have that margarita and taco, load up on mostly filling veggies and lean protein earlier in the day, eating enough to not hurl yourself into that meal already feeling ravenous. Vacations, special dinners, and other outings give you the opportunity to both relax and practice alternative strategies for having fun while still eating in a way that serve your long-term goals.
- If you really need a “mental health” day with less monitoring of your intake, you can eat a bit less on the days surrounding the event. I see it as creating balance instead of going “off program”. I’ve never had a free for all because I never felt like I needed one. No food was off limits. I didn’t feel guilty for eating cake or pizza. Sure, I might have mused that I would enjoy some more of it, but I didn’t spiral out of control because going off plan from time to time was always part of the plan.
We begin to have fun and eat in a way that helps us rock our goals. And over time, we develop habits that are neither completely focused on nutrition nor lead us to eat like a frat boy on a bender. We hang out in a mentally healthier middle ground.
When you get to a place where you’re already at a healthy body weight yet want to diet your way down to “super lean” you have a lot less wiggle room for “yolo” meals and days, depending on what timeline you have set for your goals. Figure competitors, bodybuilders, or just people who have dreams of a particular bod for themselves may encounter this issue. That’s fine. But at this point, I think it’s helpful to ask yourself if it’s worth it.
What’s your “happy” weight? Is it sustainable? Is it worth it to you to keep yourself on a tight leash in order to get dem abz?
There’s really no right answer. However, during the period in which I started leaning out hard just to see if I could do it, my mindset played a pivotal role in the choices I made. Still, there is room for moderation. I recall Sohee Lee’s piece on her own figure competition prep, when she ate a Snicker’s bar every day to prove a point: there’s no reason to completely deny yourself foods that you enjoy. You’ll end up sticking with your plans a hell of a lot longer and be less likely to binge yourself into oblivion.
I feel like gatherings are no longer about gatherings and instead I have to go in with a damn rulebook in order to just hang at dinner. And then I eat something less than spectacular while my buddies are pounding wings and chugging beers like they have not a care in the world about it. My diet sucks.
This is the reason that days of not tracking are a good thing. Coming to a place where we don’t view ourselves as being “on” or “off” is pretty damn important. We can begin to relax and yet still pay attention to how full we feel. We can eat nachos and stop when we’ve had enough. And we can eat things that nourish our bodies most of the time: we will know that on those days when we want to kick back and not think so hard, we’ll have put money in the bank towards long term weight management.
My colleagues and I gathered at The Fitness Summit last weekend. We all drank a lot more than we normally do. We ate a lot of bbq and cookies. But we all knew that on Monday morning we’d be back to the usual. And these occasions, for most of us, are not a frequent thing. As a result, they don’t matter even a little in the grand scheme of our body composition.
I do so well all week long and then I lose control.
You’re not alone. Be kind to yourself. Learning to balance food as pleasure and purpose is a skill that we have to practice.
Most often I see this occur with people who restrict themselves most severely. The people who come in with pre-conceived ideas about foods they should and shouldn’t eat seem more likely to go off the rails because they work so hard at being perfect all week long.
Maybe Sohee’s daily Snickers trial would be good for many of us – what would we experience if we took the edge off of cravings or if we took the label of “ilicit” off of a food? If we know that we can most likely fit some of it into our lives whenever we want, would we be less likely to go overboard?
For some, there will always be foods that seem to be really hard to moderate. Sometimes it’s okay to put controls on how often and how much of them you put on your path. That’s okay too. I’m looking at you, homemade coconut brown butter cookies.
So to summarize: cheating on a diet? Nah. If we see our nutrition as part of our overall lives and take away some of the power of food to dictate our worth, we don’t need to cheat. We just live our lives, with both health and pleasure as part of the big picture. Our ideal health has room for all the reasons that we sit down to a meal.
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