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The Problem with Cheat Days

As a health coach, I shudder when I hear the term “cheat day.” This term has become deeply rooted in diet culture that firmly places food in "good" or "bad" camps.

Here’s why associating morality with our food choices can trigger unhealthy eating behaviours and how to ditch the cheat day and focus on more helpful, positive eating strategies.

The Problem with Black and White Thinking

Categorizing foods as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, sets us up for moral highs and lows that should never be associated with eating. Whenever I have a client who confesses to being “bad” or “cheating” on their diet (often associated with a feeling of guilt), one of the first things we work on is food neutrality. Putting all foods on a neutral playing field — that’s right, cookies and kale in the same category — can help free up a lot of the brain space used worrying about eating or not eating certain foods. It also helps take away the all-or-nothing thinking that often causes people to overeat or binge when having a meal or day deemed as “cheating.”

Bingeing and Cheat Days

Overeating or bingeing on a cheat day or meal not only results in excess calorie intake, but is often followed by feelings of guilt and shame that typically lead to another period of rigid dietary restriction.

A recent study looking at common factors in those engaging in cheat meals and those with eating disorders, such as binge eating, found precipitating factors of both behaviours to be consistent — psychological and physical food cravings. These two factors often occur after periods of strict dietary restriction, which is a symptom of binge eating disorder and normative behaviour in diet culture that is so prevalent today. Although dietary restriction and cheat days are socially acceptable behaviours in today’s society, the study associated symptomology to that of eating disorders. From my my own experience working with clients over the years, I can confidently say that if disordered eating is not already present in those with regular cheat days, it is often a gateway to more disordered eating behaviours.

Focusing on a Positive Relationship with Food

As a certified health coach and nutritionist who often works with clients on healing their relationships with food and their bodies, a common step is to eliminate the cheat day. Not only can this help you start to have a more food-neutral mindset, but it can help take away the guilt often associated with cheat days or meals and the yo-yo diet cycle that might follow.

Healthy Eating Strategies to Try

Instead of cheat meals or a cheat day, try these three strategies, which can help foster a positive relationship with food:

1. Eat your favourite treat when it makes sense.

Make it a point to enjoy a food you’d typically have only on a “cheat day” on any random day. Since many people plan cheat days on a weekend, this could be having a doughnut or a burger and fries on a Tuesday, for example. By easing into the mindset that these foods are available to you at all times, and that it’s more than OK to eat them when you choose, the power they have over you can greatly decrease. This often results in less overeating, less guilt and a naturally balanced diet.

2. Honour your cravings.

Instead of feeling like you’re “giving in” to food cravings and ruining an arbitrary diet (remember, this can cause guilt, shame and bingeing), honour them. Our bodies have a unique and specialized way of telling us what we need, we just have to be better listeners. For example, if you’re out at a restaurant and are really craving a burger, but order a salad instead, chances are it’s not going to be the most satisfying. Cue persistent thoughts about food, low-level hunger and crankiness until you eat something else. Honouring the burger craving and taking the time to eat mindfully and really savour it, can lead to much greater satisfaction after the meal and free up a good amount of brain space to think about more important things than food.

3. Think nourishment.

Nourishment is one of my favourite words to use with clients because it encompasses how we take care of ourselves both physically and emotionally. When it comes to food, this means that sometimes, the most nourishing choice we can make is to add another serving of vegetables to our plate. Other times, we just really need some ice cream. Both are OK and nourishing to the body, soul or both when we need them. What is going to be nourishing to you one day may be different the next, so being mindful and open to what you need to best take care of yourself is an invaluable tool.

The Takeaways

It’s important to cultivate a positive relationship with food that doesn’t involve guilt, and ditching cheat days is a helpful first step. Instead of incorporating cheat meals or a whole cheat day, try simple (and healthier) eating strategies such as eating your favourite foods mindfully, honouring your cravings, and prioritizing nourishment.

If you’re struggling to get out of a restrictive diet culture mindset and need support while on your weight loss journey, book your free consultation with me today. My coaching services take a “non-diet” approach and I believe that no food or food group should be off-limits. Working with me will allow you to lose weight and still eat cake!


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