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Is It Okay to Have ‘Cheat Days’?

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Michael  W. Smith, MD - Blogs
By Michael W. Smith, MDBoard-certified internistDecember 24, 2018

I was recently talking to a client about her weight loss goals, and she asked, “Can I have cheat days?” I’ll admit my feathers got a bit ruffled, mainly because it’s a mindset that too often leads to failure.

But her question deserved an honest answer. Yes, you can have cheat days. But the more important question is, “Will cheat days support or sabotage your efforts?”

Cheat days can be tricky, but they do offer some benefits. When you restrict calories, your metabolism can take a hit. Cheat days may help kick start your metabolism to offset any slowdowns. Splurging also can satisfy those inevitable cravings, helping you stay on track long-term.

Or…cheat days can be the end of yet another attempt to regain your health.

Here’s why. The concept of cheating equates with being on a diet. The word “diet” has a well-deserved negative connotation. It’s all about deprivation. Your mental energy is focused on what you can’t have (as opposed to the new life you’re trying to create). No wonder the little child in us feels the need to cheat … we want what we want and we want it now!

Let’s play out what too often comes from cheating. You’re sailing along, pumped about your weight loss, feeling leaner and energetic. Time to celebrate! Enter “cheat day.” What do I want? A juicy cheeseburger with a large side of fries? A slice of rich and creamy cheesecake? As much meat-lovers pizza as I can possibly eat? It’s cheat day! I can have them all. And you do, because you can.

Then the next day rolls around and time to get back on track. The tantalizing flavors of yesterday are still with you, lingering on your taste buds. You meet the day with every intention of being “good.” But, there’s no harm in just a little more, right? And the downward spiral continues, turning a cheat day into a cheat week, which leads to frustration and giving up. So let’s get to the bottom of what’s going on.

First issue is your relationship with food. You’re categorizing foods as either “good” or “bad.” If you’re eating a bad food, you’re being bad, right? So you’re bad for eating that piece of cake? “I really must suck. I can’t do this. It’s stupid to think I could. Oh, forget it! I’ll start again tomorrow.”

Then there’s your childhood. For most of us, food was a reward – or a punishment. You did your chores. You get a cupcake! You did your homework. Chicken fingers and French fries it is! You didn’t eat your green beans? Well, no ice cream for you! How is the cheat day any different? The punishment is the “diet.”

Why then, did I tell my client that cheat days can be a good weight loss tactic?  Because done mindfully, they can support your weight loss journey. I tried a program a few years ago that involved a cheat day, and I made the best of that one day each and every week! But, here’s the catch: In order to incorporate cheat days into your weight loss plan successfully, you have to have a healthy relationship with food in the first place. You must recognize that it’s fuel for your body. Not that you can’t love it. You can, but you are in control of that piece of cheesecake, not the other way around.

The second critical component for a successful cheat day is when you’re on (i.e. being good), you have to be 100% on. I was putting lemon juice on my salad for dressing. Being vigilant about portion sizes. Not eating one little nibble of any high calorie, off-plan food the other six days of the week. You get the idea.

So is a cheat day right for you? Only, and I mean only, if you can keep guilt and negativity out of the picture, limit the cheating to just that day (not another bite of “bad” food on other days), and pick yourself right back up after a cheat day and never look back. Can you do that? If not, don’t cheat (or sabotage) yourself. Find another strategy that works for you.

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About the Author
Michael W. Smith, MD

Michael Smith, MD, CPT, is a board-certified internal medicine doctor and WebMD’s Chief Medical Editor. He is also an American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer with a passion for helping people live a healthy, active lifestyle. He appears regularly as an expert on national and local broadcast media.

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