As a registered dietitian, I shudder when I hear the term “cheat day.” Not because I’m thinking of people shoving donuts and cheeseburgers in their mouths left and right, but because it’s a term rooted in diet culture that firmly places food in “good” or “bad” camps.
Here’s why associating morality with our food choices can trigger unhealthy eating behaviors and how to ditch the cheat day and focus on more helpful, positive eating strategies.
THE PROBLEM WITH BLACK-AND-WHITE THINKING
Categorizing foods as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, sets us up for moral highs and lows that should never be associated with eating. Whenever I have a client who confesses to being “bad” or “cheating” on their diet, often associated with a feeling of guilt, one of the first things we work on is food neutrality. Putting all foods on a neutral playing field — that’s right, cookies and kale in the same category — can help free up a lot of the brain space used worrying about eating or not eating certain foods. It also helps take away the all-or-nothing thinking that often causes people to overeat or binge when having a meal or day deemed as “cheating.”
BINGEING AND “CHEAT DAYS”
Overeating or bingeing on a cheat day or meal not only results in excess calorie intake, but is often followed by feelings of guilt and shame that typically lead to another period of rigid dietary restriction. A recent study looking at common factors in those engaging in cheat meals and those with eating disorders, such as binge eating, found precipitating factors of both behaviors to be consistent — psychological and physical food cravings.
These two factors often occur after periods of strict dietary restriction, which is a symptom of binge eating disorder and normative behavior in diet culture that is so prevalent today. Although dietary restricting and cheat days are socially acceptable behaviors in today’s society, the study associated symptomology to that of eating disorders. I can back this up with my own clinical experience over the years and confidently surmise that if disordered eating is not already present in those with regular cheat days, it is often a gateway to more disordered eating behaviors.
FOCUSING ON A POSITIVE RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD
As a dietitian who often works with clients on healing their relationships with food and their bodies, a common step is to eschew the cheat day. Not only can this help you start to have a more food-neutral mindset, but it can help take away the guilt often associated with cheat days or meals and the yo-yo diet cycle that might follow.
HEALTHY EATING STRATEGIES TO TRY INSTEAD OF CHEAT DAYS
Instead of cheat meals or a cheat day, try these three strategies, which can help foster a positive relationship with food:
1. EAT YOUR FAVORITE TREAT WHEN IT MAKES SENSE
Make it a point to enjoy a food you’d typically have only on a “cheat day” on any random day. Since many people plan cheat days on a weekend, this could be having a cupcake or a burger and fries on a Tuesday, for example. By easing into the mindset these foods are available to you at all times, and that it’s more than OK to eat them when you choose, the power they have over you can greatly decrease. This often results in less overeating, less guilt and a naturally balanced diet.
2. HONOR YOUR CRAVINGS
Instead of feeling like you’re “giving in” to food cravings and ruining an arbitrary diet (remember, this can cause guilt, shame and bingeing), honor them. Our bodies have a unique and specialized way of telling us what we need, we just have to be better listeners. For example, if you’re out at a restaurant and are really craving a burger, but order a salad instead, chances are it’s not going to be the most satisfying. Cue persistent thoughts about food, low-level hunger and crankiness until you eat something else. Honoring the burger craving and taking the time to eat mindfully and really savor it, can lead to much greater satisfaction after the meal and free up a good amount of brain space to think about more important things than food.
3. THINK NOURISHMENT
Nourishment is one of my favorite words to use with clients because it encompasses how we take care of ourselves both physically and emotionally. When it comes to food, this means that sometimes, the most nourishing choice we can make is to add another serving of vegetables to our plate. Other times, we just really need a cookie. Both are OK and nourishing to the body, soul or both when we need them. What is going to be nourishing to you one day may be different the next, so being mindful and open to what you need to best take care of yourself is an invaluable tool.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s important to cultivate a positive relationship with food that doesn’t involve guilt, and ditching cheat days is a helpful first step. If you’re struggling to get out of a restrictive diet culture mindset, consider working with a registered dietitian who takes a “non-diet” approach and believes no food or food group should be off-limits.
Originally published April 2015, updated February 2020
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