Cut carbs. Avoid sugar. Only plants. Increasing pressures to keep up with the latest diets, weight loss and health food trends often make it seem like eating healthy means depriving ourselves. Who can possibly stick to such strict standards? Most people end up throwing up their hands and giving up or stuck in an endless cycle of diet fads.
In the wake of restrictive dieting, the idea of the "cheat day" has emerged. You eat really well all week, work out just as you should—and then reward yourself with an unhealthy day of skipping the gym and eating whatever you want.
With the ubiquity of eating "lifestyles" such as Paleo, Whole30, and veganism, the day of deviation feels like a sort of checks and balances system. Ideally, it helps you stay on track with your healthy diet the rest of the week while still allowing yourself some fun—a strategy that some studies have proven to be effective at helping people stick to diets and even lose weight.
Nutritionists, doctors, and psychologists all agree that taking a break is good for us. Unfortunately, some attitudes around "cheat days" are counterproductive. The very idea of "cheating" is negative—basically saying that you're just allowing yourself to do something that is still, in essence, bad. And when you take an entire day to stuff yourself to the brim, you not only end up feeling gross, it can make all your progress toward healthy living feel even more out of reach.
If you want to reap the benefits of a cheat day without the guilt or the overeating, here are a few ways to give your day off a makeover.
Start by Rebranding
The term "cheat day" automatically sounds like you are about to partake in something forbidden, which we associate with guilt and shame. Fitness Nutrition Specialist Jessica Thiefels says that practicing "cheat days" puts you in the "I should have" vs. "I shouldn't eat this" or "This is a good food" vs. "This is a bad food" mindset. By changing how you frame eating, you regain control of what you'd like your normal diet to be. "It puts you in the driver's seat because you're deciding what you want to eat and what feels good for you," Thiefels says. Try rebranding your day off as a "Human Day" that doesn't promote overeating yet also doesn't encourage deprivation.
Dr. Sam Von Reiche, a licensed clinical psychologist, says that off days should go beyond food and exercise. "[I]t should be focused on the things you never take the time to do that nourish your soul. From finally painting with the easel you bought three years ago but never used to getting a spa pedicure or spending the afternoon with your grandpa." A day of deviation from your norm should be about a positive shake-up, a time to become reinvigorated for a week of productivity ahead. It doesn't have to be food-centric.
Skip Dieting and Eat Mindfully Instead
When it comes to a cheat day, we may feel pressure to eat everything in front of us and end up sick instead of resetting for a healthy week ahead. Psychologist Dr. Deb Thompson encourages those wanting a cheat day to consider what is and isn't worth it. "It is better to savor and enjoy these less nutritious foods. It creates a more positive mentality about them," says Dr. Thompson. Eat a small scoop of ice cream a couple nights in the week as opposed to eating the whole pint on your cheat day.
Dr. Von Reiche says that a day off from healthy eating is not healthy, but dispersing "cheat meals" throughout the week is a better practice. Spreading out indulgent foods make them more enjoyable and prevents the tummy aches and discomfort that inevitably follows binging.
When you eat outside the lines, practice self-talk that is positive and uplifting: "Moderation in all things!" as opposed to "Don't worry, you'll burn off these calories in Crossfit tomorrow."
Find Alternative Ways to Move
Even on days when we aren't as strict with ourselves, it is important to continue moving. It doesn't have to be a full workout regimen, but changing it up by going on a walk, pushing a child on the swings, or dancing to some fun music is important.
"A day off from a physically challenging workout routine is very healthy. Your body is meant to rest in between periods of physical exertion," Von Reiche says.
Dr. David Greuner, co-founder of NYC Surgical Associates, says many people have misconceptions about weight loss. Dr. Greuner notes that weight loss is 80 percent diet and 20 percent working out. The two work together to make you feel at your best. Taking breaks from intensive workouts is necessary for muscle repair and won't derail your goals, especially if your off days aren't spent sitting on the couch.
Set Realistic Food and Exercise Goals
Dr. Thompson reminds us that you don’t need to be at 100 percent to be healthy and well. What if we over-commit to an unrealistic diet? "It is not really possible and it usually backfires," he says. "Most people say they are going to never have a slice of birthday cake for the rest of their life; they usually fail."
Be kind and gentle with yourself. Instead of scolding or punishing yourself for going overboard, reset your goals and try again. We all have setbacks; setbacks aren't failures. Deciding that your health isn't worth trying again is the real failure.
Dr. Thompson shares that as part of making attainable goals, practicing maintenance and including more indulgent foods is crucial to long-term success. "It helps people break the all or none mindset," Dr. Thompson says.
Cheat days can be useful, but the implication behind the words themselves are likely hurting our health goals. Redefine it, rethink what's challenging but ultimately realistic for you, and reach for that—self-reproach need not apply.
Photo Credit: Erynn Christine