Had a Cheat Day? Here’s How to Move Forward

Sometimes, the hardest moment in a weight loss journey is when you feel like you’ve stopped progressing and had a “cheat day.” Loosely defined as any day when you aren’t making your healthy eating and exercise goals, cheat days can feel like a way to relieve some of the stress that comes with any big change of daily habits. However, cheat days aren’t necessary parts of a healthy diet and weight loss plan, and you can definitely move forward from a cheat day with the newfound resolve to reach your goals. Here’s how.

Does the Cheat Day Strategy “Work?”

The data is mixed on whether the concept of being very intense on your diet and exercise for 9 days and then taking the 10th day to eat whatever you want works. Men’s Health reports on a study that has debunked the idea that cheat days can boost your metabolism; if you are effectively dieting on the other days, the cheat day won’t be enough to keep your body spinning in high gear as if you are eating a lot every day. Many people, however, report that cheating on their diets often leads to feelings of failure which means they just give up on the diet altogether; if this is you, then cheat days may not be the right strategy.

Strangely Enough, Food Is Not the Enemy

One of the logic flaws behind cheat days is that food is not our friend; it’s something to ignore for days until we get a chance for a “cheat day” and then eat everything we want. Food is fuel, and while there are definitely foods that aren’t great for our bodies, we need to start by figuring out why we don’t like the food we eat on our “diet days.” If you find it a chore to eat a lot of fruit, vegetables, and lean protein, it might be time to start experimenting. Even if you think you hate a food, try it again with a new recipe. The popular image of a diet plan is one where every meal is torture, and it simply doesn’t have to be that way. Devote the time you need to make all the days between the cheat days less troubling by trying new recipes, new ingredients, and new combinations. Dr. Corby Martin’s psychological research shows that a variety of foods in moderation makes it more likely for people to stick with a diet at all, as cited in MyFitnessPal’s blog.

Planning Reasonable Rewards Is Healthier Than “Cheat Days”

One of the problems with the concept of cheat days is that they are considered a form of “failure” – after all, the language of “cheating” makes it seem like they are a complete deviation from the rules of your diet. However, Ask the Diet Doctor points out that sticking with a healthy weight loss plan through diet and exercise for 90% of the time actually merits some hard-won indulgence. The key, however, is to plan it and make it reasonable. Cheat days tempt us to throw all caution to the winds, while a reasonable reward can be a different food than we typically have, but doesn’t have to be an out-of-proportion portion. We all know that physically, cheat days often feel pretty bad, given how much healthy food we’ve been giving our bodies. Treat your body to a reasonable portion of something delicious so that your body can cope with it and still feel great. Sondra Kronberg points out how building these rewards into our plans makes cheating not a source of guilt and shame, increasing enjoyment and decreasing a tendency to spiral into bad mental places.

Try This Strategy Before an Indulgence Afternoon

If you know that you’ve worked up to and are excited about taking a break from your diet plan to get a treat, try this strategy before you indulge. Pick your favorite no-frills vegetable: it can be a plain salad, steamed broccoli, or any other vegetable that isn’t cooked in oil or covered in dressing. Spend a few minutes chomping down on these; after a workout, this can be especially satisfying since vegetables have some water in them, too, and can be exactly what your body craves. Then, once you’ve had two or three cups of vegetables, have your indulgence. Your body won’t feel like a bottomless pit any more, you’ll have some great fiber for your digestive system, and your indulgence will still taste amazing.

Work Toward Food Not Being The Best Reward

While small indulgences occasionally make sense, the best form of cheat day is actually not a cheat day at all: it’s finding an indulgence that isn’t food based at all! Many of us grew up with snacks and candy being a treat for good behavior or achievement, and we can definitely train ourselves to desire other things as our rewards. If you find your current workouts fairly mundane, one great reward would be to go out dancing on a Friday night; take a salsa or West Coast Swing class and then boogie the night away. If you love a good relaxation, why not make your “cheat day” a massage or a yoga retreat? Many of us love a good bubble bath soak or a night chatting with friends: make those the plans that you look forward to most!

Hands of masseuse massaging neck and shoulders of relaxed client in spa salon

A Balanced Cheat Day Attitude

What if you are saying, “cheat days work for me! I’m losing weight, eating great nutritional food most of the time, and I feel good!” Doctors have pointed out that the psychic “out” of a cheat day works for some people, like Dr. Friedhoff in this DailyBurn article. The important things are to not associate food with guilt or failure and to listen to your body if it makes you sick to have cheat days. As long as the rest of your diet is very nutritious and your workouts are balanced, a cheat day mentality is fine. We just recommend trying our other approaches as well.

Most of us know that changing habits is hard. Need help with weight loss? Contact our medical professionals!