A popular topic in the nutrition and fitness world is cheat days/cheat meals. And in a moment, I’m going to reveal the dark side of cheat days.
But before we go further, I want to say I strongly dislike the terms “cheat meals” and “reward meals” that you find promoted in things like “The Skinny Rules“, but I’m going to use those terms in this article since that’s what most people are familiar with.
The idea behind cheat meals/days is that you schedule a specific meal(s) or day during the week when you basically eat anything you want; primarily foods that are “off limits” at other times during the week. You eat according to certain guidelines during the week (low carb, Paleo, carb cycling, “eating clean”, or whatever nutrition method you follow) and then for your scheduled meal(s) you’re allowed to eat whatever you want.
For some people, this works; having scheduled cheat days/meals keeps them on track because they know that they can enjoy their favorite (or even “forbidden” foods). They just have to wait for that meal or day to come around. By having cheat days scheduled, they’re more likely to stay on track and be consistent with eating smart.
However, this method of scheduling cheat meals/day isn’t ideal for some people. After all, there isn’t one thing that works for everyone.
The Potential Dark Side of Cheat Days
No one thing works for everyone, and scheduling cheat meals/days is absolutely no exception.
For some individuals (myself included), scheduling cheat meals can have negative consequences. For starters, when some people have “forbidden foods” that are off limits, except for certain times as is the case of cheat meals, they tend to think about those foods all the time; they even obsess about those foods. Because these foods are restricted, some people crave them like crazy, even if they never really wanted them prior to “cheat meals”.
As an example, I’ve spoken with individuals who tried the whole “cheat day” thing. During the week when they followed the “plan” all they could think about were the foods that were “off limits” except for during the cheat day. “I never used to crave these foods before, so why do I want them so bad now?”
Simply … because they think they can’t have them now.
Knowing something is “forbidden” or “off limits” makes those foods more desirable for many people.
There can be a few different outcomes in this scenario:
- 1) They resist the temptation and wait until it’s time for the scheduled cheat meal/day, and then they enjoy the food.
- 2) They resist the temptation and wait until it’s time for the scheduled cheat meal/day, and then completely overeat that food, and many others.
- 3) They give in to the temptation, eat the food even though it’s not during the scheduled time, and then they feel guilty and continue to overeat because “they already messed up, so why not keep eating whatever they want.”
- 4) They give in to the temptation, eat the food even though it’s not during the scheduled time, and then they feel guilty but stop eating.
There are other possible outcomes as well, but those are most common and are the main reasons why I suggest most people avoid “cheat days” as discussed in Sane and Simple Nutrition.
Here are some other problems I’ve seen people experience with scheduled cheat days:
- Overeating a ton of junk during the scheduled cheat day/meal since it’s the only day they can eat whatever they want.
- Overeating foods they don’t truly want or don’t necessarily enjoy simply because it’s “off limits” every other day.
- Can lead to intense cravings during the week because they know certain foods are “off limits” until the scheduled cheat day, and because they can’t have them right then, they crave them.
Ditch Cheat Meals – Try This
For people who find scheduling cheat meals/days too stressful, they should try the alternative. Eat the foods you want, when you truly want them, and only if you’re hungry, a la the Sane and Simple method. If it’s Tuesday and you really want a few cookies, eat the cookies and then move on with your life. Don’t think about how many calories you just consumed, don’t act like your world is coming to an end. Eat them, enjoy them, and then move on.
Related Article: Damage Control – What to do When You Overindulge
This is the method that works best for me. Now if I’m craving cookies, I’ll eat them no matter what day it is. However, I only eat them if I really, truly want them, and I’ll only eat a few. And I make sure that when I do enjoy these awesome, not-super-healthy foods that they’re the things I truly like.
This may mean I eat cookies once a week, twice a week, or once every few weeks.
The main point is that I don’t view certain foods as “forbidden” or “off limits”, and so now I don’t even think about them that much anymore.
When I stopped doing scheduled cheat meals/days and just told myself I would eat previous “forbidden” foods when I truly craved them, I actually didn’t crave those foods often at all. I would actually go weeks without eating sweets.
For me this is all purely psychological – knowing I can have whatever I want, when I truly want it allows me to stop putting certain foods on some sort of a pedestal. Whenever I scheduled cheat meals/days I would think about the foods I couldn’t have all during the week, and then I would go completely crazy when I was finally “allowed” to enjoy them. This just added to obsessive eating habits I was trying to escape.
Related Article: 20 Tips to Break Free from Binge Eating
This way of enjoying certain foods much easier than scheduling cheat meals/days. For instance, it’s much easier and less stressful when going to parties or a family get together. What if you go to a family get together and you end up eating a piece of cake even though it’s not your scheduled cheat day? Do you just eat that piece of cake and not worry about it, or do you feel guilty and then completely overeat?
No one wants to be left out of family fun like birthday parties. Do you really want to turn down a delicious homemade cake just because it’s not a “scheduled cheat”? I say forget about scheduled cheats all together and eat the “not-so-good-for-you-foods” when you truly want them, or on special occasions like birthdays.
If you find that scheduling cheat meals/days makes things more stressful for you, then try doing what I suggest above and eat the foods you want when you truly crave them. Having a lean, strong, healthy body and mind does not, and should not, be overly complicated and stressful. Have some simple guidelines to follow and then toss out the rest of the rules.
Once again it all comes down to this – discover and do what works best for YOU. Whether you prefer to schedule cheat meals/days or you do what I do and wait for special occasions or eat certain foods when you truly crave them, it does not matter. Do whatever makes your life simpler and less stressful.
For more information on how to simplify nutrition, check out these articles:
- Life is too Short to Diet
- The Nutrition Survival Guide (Don’t Become a Diet Zombie)
- Nutrition is Complicated. You Can’t Trust Your Body or Figure It Out on Your Own. Or So You’ve Been Told.
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