You're out at a party, and you see your friend from work -- an avid CrossFitter and an advocate of the grain-free Paleo diet -- go in for a slice of pizza, a handful of pretzels, and a cold beer. Curious, you ask her if she's still following her strict dietary protocol.
"Oh, absolutely," she says. "Today's my cheat day."
Chances are, you've heard someone justifying some kind of food indulgence using cheat days as an excuse. By prescribing a particular window of time where all foods are permissible, many dieters allow themselves to enjoy menu items that are off limits during other parts of the week.
But what's the thinking behind cheating on your diet, and will it ruin what you've already established in the way of healthy eating? Let's investigate.
The Concept of the Cheat Day
Cheat days are undoubtedly associated with the dieting mentality. After all, it's normal for those who follow stricter diets, especially ones that forgo entire groups or types of food, to allow themselves a day off to enjoy the foods they love. But this brings up another question: Is dieting the best way to promote healthy eating?
A better approach might be to reject the idea of following diets and instead work on developing healthful eating patterns. Rather than going on a diet for a particular period of time, focusing on eating balanced meals and snacks that incorporate a variety of foods is a more sustainable option that more successfully promotes long-term health.
The Value vs. the Impact
If you're dead set on following a particular diet, a cheat day might be a helpful mental reprieve from the constant, day-to-day willpower it takes to abstain from certain foods. But these free-for-alls come at a cost.
First, let's quantify what a cheat day is. Is it a single cheat meal, one particular off-diet item, or an entire day of indulgence? The distinction is important, because the calories add up fast. For example:
- A cheat item might be a large order of french fries from McDonald's, which provides 510 calories.
- A cheat meal could be a large order of fries, a Quarter Pounder Deluxe, and a large Coca-Cola, totaling 1,390 calories
- What if a cheat day consists of three cheat meals? If they were all as calorically dense as the example above, that would come to a whopping 4,170 calories.
According to the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the average, moderately active adult needs between 1,800 and 2,800 daily calories, depending on their age, height, and gender.
Now, compare those numbers to our examples of a cheat day, meal, and item. A cheat item would be much less of a burden on the body than a full cheat day, in terms of both the amount of calories it provides and the way you'll feel after. Choosing a single cheat food item as opposed to indulging for an entire 24-hour period is clearly the best option if weight loss and overall wellness are your goals.
Focusing on Mindfulness
But is it really necessary to divide your life into clean eating days and cheat days? A better way to include indulgences in your diet is to eat them mindfully.
Eat the rich, calorie-dense foods you enjoy occasionally and slowly, continually asking yourself if you're satisfied during the experience. This way, you'll know intuitively if you're eating an appropriate portion of these less healthy foods. You'll also be able to include them in a way that is healthy and fulfilling for both your mind and body, without having to associate them with the stigma of a forbidden food.
While the idea of cheat days may be flawed, it's absolutely possible to include indulgent foods in your eating patterns -- for some of us, it may be necessary for long-term sustainability. It's best to splurge on single food items every once in a while and enjoy them deeply in a mindful, controlled manner, all in the context of a healthy, balanced diet. By taking this approach, you're affirming that emotional and physical well-being go hand in hand.