Warmer days are upon us, and hot girl summer is on its way. With the mini skirts and strapless bathing suits that come this time of year, unhealthy habits can start to arise with the pressure about our bodies, like falling into the cycle of restrictive eating and cheat days (or using the weekend to “cheat” with food) as a means of eating 100% “healthy” for the rest of the time. Moralizing our food and rewarding ourselves on one specific day by loading our bodies with foods we’ve been restricting has become normalized in mainstream diet culture and caused quite the disconnect between our minds and our bodies.
Trust me: Whether you want to lose weight, develop a healthier relationship with food, heal symptoms, or get out of the vicious cycle of eating healthy all week just to load up on “junk” food all weekend, you can achieve any goal by appreciating your body and stopping with the restrictions and binges. In other words, you can achieve the lifestyle you want without cheat days. If you’re constantly asking yourself, “Will this chocolate chip cookie set me back?” or you’re always saying, “I’m craving a Big Mac, but I’ll just save it for my cheat day,” keep reading to find out why experts recommend stopping with the cheat days and what to do instead.
Why do cheat days do more harm than good?
What seems like one day or weekend taking a simple “no rules” approach can actually be a detriment to your overall well-being. “In the short term, cheat days can cause physical discomfort, digestive upset, lethargy, and negative feelings of shame and guilt,” explained Miranda Galati, MHSc, RD. “In the long term, cheat days can disconnect us from our body’s signals of hunger and fullness and make it more difficult for us to eat the right amount for our unique body.” Personally, the idea of a cheat day has never sat well with me. Holding out for a certain day of the week where I can indulge in anything puts all of the power into what I’m consuming and how it will make me feel versus me claiming my own power to make choices for myself that make me feel good.
Plus, putting food in categories of what you “should” eat and what you’re only allowed to eat when you’re “cheating” not only takes the joy out of eating, but it can also instill guilt and shame as well as binges and cravings. “‘Planned binges’ lead us to eat way more of the food we’ve been avoiding all week than if we just allowed and normalized them on a regular basis,” agreed Alana Van Der Sluys, a certified intuitive eating counselor.
What to do instead of cheat days:
We can get so consumed in what foods are healthy and unhealthy that we completely dismiss what it truly means to be healthy. The relationships that you foster—including the one you have with food—play a huge role in your overall health. It’s important to consider your health in its entirety when considering your goals. With that being said, here are a few things to keep in mind that can help with ditching cheat days completely.
Prioritize moderation over perfection
“Our health habits are not determined by one choice or even by one day—it is about patterns,” explained Johna Burdeos, a registered dietician. We’ve heard it time and time again, but the saying “moderation is key” really is true. Of course, there are foods that are more nutritious than others, but the goal is to develop a lifestyle that can be maintained rather than forming an unhealthy relationship with food. Before swearing off any one item or food group, ask yourself, Do I really see myself never eating [insert your favorite junk food here] ever again? Odds are, you’ll find it’s not sustainable to give up any one thing, so instead, think about how you can enjoy it in moderation (rather than expecting complete perfection). “When we aim for perfection, we are setting ourselves up for burnout, guilt, depression, and disordered eating,” Burdeos said.
Opt for nutrient-dense foods
Even what was traditionally deemed your “cheat day” foods can be nutritious! Instead of focusing your attention on what you need to eliminate when you’re trying to be “healthy,” prioritize how any snack or meal can be more nutritious. “If your favorite food is mac and cheese, maybe choose higher-quality ingredients like organic, grass-fed cheddar cheese, unsweetened non-dairy milk, or pureed steamed cauliflower, and add in some greens and fiber like chopped-up broccoli or green peas,” suggested Tara Bassi, MSc, CNS, LDN. Opting for more nutrient-dense foods can ensure you’re satisfying your cravings, fully enjoying your meals, and fitting in the nutrients that make your body feel good.
Eating can feel so mindless when you’re doing it in front of the TV, while you’re on your phone, or sitting at your desk. Galati suggested enjoying what you’re eating without any distractions so that you can fully enjoy it and are able to stop eating once you’re satisfied.
Adapt a food freedom mentality
Shift from an “all-or-nothing” cheat-day mindset to a food freedom mentality. “A food freedom mentality is where all foods are allowed any day of the week,” explained Kaleigh McMordie, MCN, RDN, LD. “It takes practice, but once your mind has shifted, eating a balanced diet with occasional treats becomes effortless and is much healthier in the long run.” More importantly, being in a position where you can choose what to eat, how much to eat, and when to eat is a privilege. Eating is not meant to be a punishment or a chore; it’s meant to be pleasant and satisfying.
Take the pressure off
What you eat is only one component of looking and feeling good—exercise, stress, sleep, and overall well-being are important factors to keep in mind that dictate your well-being just as much (if not more!) than what you eat. Speaking to yourself with compassion and approaching your health goals with gratitude for all your body can do for you works wonders for a sustainable healthy lifestyle.