There are two underlying presumptions within the question “should I include a cheat day in my diet?”. Firstly, consider the word cheat – it has negative connotations and means to avoid something that is undesirable. So the first underlying assumption is that certain foods are bad. The second underlying assumption is that you should be on a diet with set rules.
Challenging the cheat day assumptions
I want to challenge these assumptions, or perhaps rather, clarify them. This is because it is easy to build strict rules around diets which can have a number of negative impacts on us.
1) The negative impacts of labelling food
Cheating or eating foods we consider bad or naughty usually include foods that are packed with sugar or fat, like chocolate. Now I don’t know about you, but I find chocolate anything BUT undesirable, especially when I’m trying to stick to a certain diet. The cravings can become stronger when you tell yourself something is bad. It’s like telling a child not to play with fire.
The effects of labelling food
We are all different and some will struggle with perfectionism in diets, more than others. Everyone is different and you may have experienced one, none or all of the impacts of a strict diet and negative labelling of certain foods. Unfortunately, I’ve experienced all of these in the last 5 years:
- the body’s nutritional needs go unmet;
- guilt and shame after the smallest dietary ‘transgression’;
- Eating disorders;
- anxiety around food.
2) What about the assumption that you should be dieting?
Well dieting can be to reach certain health goals (reducing cholesterol, lossing unhealthy weight, diabetes, food allergies, etc) but for a generally healthy person, there is no need to be on a set diet, especially one that stresses you out. It needs to be a healthy lifestyle. Being overly restrictive will only make you want it more and I’m sure some of us have had days where we’ve eaten the salad at dinner with friends, and then gorged on chocolate at home in secret. This is not a healthy lifestyle. It doesn’t leave you feeling good.
Is the whole idea of a ‘cheat day’ bad?
Well acknowledging that we shouldn’t negatively label foods (or days for that matter) it depends how you define a ‘cheat day’. If a cheat day is binging on whatever the heck you want because you know you’ll get back on the diet train tomorrow, that’s not cool. You’re body isn’t getting the macro nutrients (think fibre, protein) it needs from junk food to function well during the day and it leaves your gut really confused.
However, if you have certain days where you know you’re going to be out with friends and want to enjoy life’s indulgences, then that’s ok to plan the rest of your diet around that. Remember the best diary rule is the 80/20 rule – 80% whole foods, 20% treats.
But what about when I’m on holidays & I’m out a lot?
If you’re eating out with friends try to go to places that cater for low-fructose options. Reis and I were really impressed with the Langham Melbourne’s High Tea as they offered a low fructose high tea, which they gifted to us during our stay with them recently. The pictures of the beautiful food in this post are from that experience and we would highly recommend it for your treat day!
Summary: Should I include a cheat day in my diet?
If you prefer to plan your meals and know when your treats are coming to really savour them, rename it to something positive – like treat day, rather than the negative cheat day. It’s ok to have treats occassionally and you don’t want them to become something ‘naughty’ or you’ll end up overeating in secret and not really enjoying it at all. You should be flexible with your treats but consider your portion sizes and choose a healthier alternative for that treat where possible.