Often, there are two underlying presumptions in the question “should I include a cheat day in my diet?”. Firstly, consider the word cheat – it has negative connotations and in this context, 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
Let’s discuss and challenge these common assumptions to make sure we aren’t building strict dietary rules that have a negative impact 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 and/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. 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; and
- anxiety around food.
Thankfully I now have a far better relationship with food and don’t experience this anymore.
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, managing IBS, food allergies, etc) but for a generally healthy person, there is no need to be on a set diet, especially if it stresses you out. It needs to be a healthy lifestyle. Being overly restrictive can often 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 and it doesn’t leave you feeling well.
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 your ‘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. Junk food doesn’t give your body the macronutrients (think fibre, protein) [or micronutrients (vitamins minerals etc) for that matter!] that it needs to function well during the day, leaving 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 it’s ok to plan your other dietary choices around that. My favourite dietary guideline 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.
Want to know what a dietitian thinks about intermittent fasting?
Dietitian Melanie McGrice, shares her opinion on intermittent fasting and how to tell if it’s right for you here.