Cheat Days: The Good, Bad, and the Ugly

Cheat Days: The Good, Bad, and the Ugly

By Stephen Brenna, Pn1, Pn2, PPSC

Cheat Days: The Good, Bad, and the Ugly 

We've all heard someone we know say "It's a cheat meal!" as they prepare to body a BBQ double bacon cheeseburger and side of onion rings.

Now that I have your attention with the mention of onion rings, can "cheat days" or meals really be a functional component of a successful nutrition strategy? Or are they just another excuse to veer off course for the sake of a short-term reward? First let's clarify exactly what we're referring to, even if it may seem obvious at first glance.

For the sake of this discussion, we'll define "cheating" as a conscious decision to consume foods and beverages that do not positively contribute to someone's current health or fitness goals. This could vary widely on an individual basis, with the same meals or foods considered off-limits for one person, and open season for the next.

The rationale behind cheat meals or entire cheat days is the idea that we can only maintain certain levels of discipline for so long before we eventually become fatigued and "start to crack." Allowing ourselves to loosen the reins here and there serves as a pressure release valve, giving us a renewed or refreshed sense of motivation to carry on with the plan.

From a logical standpoint, this seems to make sense. Maintaining strict adherence to a diet regimen for an extended period might feel restrictive or even stressful for some individuals, especially those who are deviating from their usual habits in a big way. Chronic stress drains us over time, and could potentially lead to feelings of burnout that may end with someone abandoning their intended goals altogether.

So on one hand, allowing space in your plan for periodic cheating sounds reasonable. But what about the downsides of this approach? Is there any reason one might want to avoid deviating from their plan, even occasionally?

The first thing to consider when it comes to downsides is the wording itself. Cheating is defined as "an act of deception, fraud, trickery, imposture, or imposition." To say one is cheating implies that rules are being broken, or someone is consciously acting in an underhanded fashion.

For most people, there is often guilt or shame associated with behaving in a deceptive or fraudulent manner. While this may sound like a big to-do over stopping at the Wendy's drive-thru, many individuals do report feeling negatively about themselves following a cheat day, even if it was planned. They may have achieved some level of satisfaction initially, but it often pales in comparison to the satisfaction derived from sticking to a plan and reaching their goals. 

Aside from potential feelings of guilt, when we view something as cheating or breaking the rules, there's the possibility of creating what's known as a Forbidden Fruit Effect. It's human nature to be drawn to, and desire what is considered forbidden or off-limits. When we spend all week "being good" but are subconsciously focused on making it to an upcoming cheat day over the weekend, we only amplify our cravings for things that don't get us any closer to our goals. 

If we repeatedly prop up the cheat meal as our only beacon of satisfaction, we set ourselves up to swing beyond a reasonable guilty pleasure meal and into the realm of binging. We've  subconsciously created so much build up that by the time we reach our planned cheat meal or day, we're ravenous for that pizza.

What could have been a reasonable and satisfying couple of slices becomes an entire medium pie to the face. We eat until we're bursting at the seams, and feel physically terrible in the aftermath, on top of beating ourselves up for going overboard. What comes next for some people is called (in clinical terms) the "F**k it." moment. We've already sabotaged our progress with excessive indulgence, might as well keep riding the wave of self-loathing. 

And that folks, is how a cheat day becomes a cheat month.

What then, is the alternative? Strict diet adherence at all times, lest we risk a slippery downward spiral that puts us right back where we started?

For most, it's unrealistic to strive for absolute perfect adherence to the plan, 100% of the time. By the same token, perfect diet adherence isn't necessary for the vast majority of individuals to reach their goals. If we're making the "better" choice, most of the time, that's usually sufficient to get us where we want to be.

So first, stop calling it cheating. You aren't being sneaky or trying to fool anyone, you're an adult making a conscious decision to eat a certain food because you want to eat it. It doesn't need to be put on a pedestal any more than that.

Second, in order to make that adult decision guilt-free, without sabotaging your progress, you'll need to have built the right foundation. A helpful way to conceptualize could be referred to as the "80/20 Rule". Unlike the more well-known Pareto Principle in business, this 80/20 rule states that if we make the better diet choice 80% of the time, we should be in a good position to still reach our goals.

Make the better choice 4 out of 5 times on a consistent basis, and you literally can have your cake and eat it too. You can reach your goals AND still enjoy the foods you love, without developing a complex about it.

There you have it cheaters, a new perspective on your Dunkin' run. Do your thing!