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Why Cheat Days Aren't Working Like You Think They Are

by Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN - April 27, 2020

While the idea of “cheat days” is nothing new and may seem like an "innocent" way of sticking to your diet, they can prove harmful in more ways than one. The execution of cheat days may vary from person to person, including how often they are allowed, whether it’s a cheat meal or full day and what foods are designated. However, the basic notion is that they allow one to eat many of the foods that he or she usually deems “off limits” or that don’t fit into their routine eating plan.

The word “cheat” in and of itself carries along negative connotations, implying that you did something wrong or broke a rule. Because of this, engaging in cheat days typically leads to feelings of shame or guilt, followed by a strong will to hop back on the diet train with even more restrictions until the next “cheat day” occurs. This endless cycle plays a destructive role on psychological health and well-being.

Cheat Days Create Moralization of Foods

One question I always ask clients is, “Why is this food okay on a ‘cheat day’ but not in your regular eating routine?” As a registered dietitian, the last thing I want to do is categorize foods as “good” or “bad.” Creating a moral hierarchy of foods is dangerous.

Feelings of shame or guilt around food, typically associated with “breaking a rule” or “cheating,” propagate an unhealthy relationship with food that usually leads to a binge/restrict repetitive cycle and a fear of certain foods.

cheat days dont work

Cheat Days Can Lead to Overeating and Bingeing

Research published in the journal, Appetite, acknowledges that cheat meals may have properties similar to binge episodes and lead to disordered eating habits.

The all-or-nothing mentality is associated with overeating or bingeing. If you’ve already broken a few diet rules, what’s breaking a few more?

Let’s say you’re “eating clean” throughout the week. Then, Saturday comes along, which is your designated “cheat day.” You’ve allowed yourself to indulge, even though you’re starting to feel physically full and don’t really want more food. You eat until you have a stomachache because you won’t allow yourself to eat these foods once Monday comes around. You feel guilty and shameful for eating so much, which immediately plays into your mental state of mind, ruining the rest of your weekend while emphasizing the “bad” foods that you ate.  

Monday comes around and you’re back on your “clean eating,” but this time, it’s stricter than the previous week. This restrict/overeat cycle continues and gets more and more dangerous, physically and mentally, especially as one continues to further restrict or make up for “cheat day” choices.  

This black and white thinking takes a person out of the present, and rather than making food choices based on intuition, a person is choosing foods only because it’s the one day to do so.

So, how else could or should we approach food?

Put All Foods on a Neutral Playing Field

Seeing all foods as neutral is a great start. In the book Intuitive Eating, authors Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch acknowledge that there are foods that have more nutritional properties than other foods. That doesn’t make them morally superior. It just means they have different nutritional properties.

Try allowing yourself to eat foods you like and enjoy, when you want to eat them. Intuitive eating is fluid and adapts to your personal situation, rather than having you live within strict rules.

Allow These Foods to Become Normal So They’re Less Exciting

When we take the black-and-white thinking out of food, we take away the “good” and “bad” adjectives, and in turn, normalize our food decisions, rather than sensationalize them. Therefore, if we allow all foods into our “normal” diets, there is less excitement and build up when we eat those foods. As we become more habituated to them, our excitement response decreases, and we may eventually decide we don’t want those foods as much as we used to.

Furthermore, this typically limits the amount of time or “brain space” people spend thinking about food. If you’re spending a great amount of brain space worrying about food and its nutritious properties, it may be time to examine your relationship with food.

couple eating together

Think About the Values You Hold Around Food

Are you someone who really enjoys the social aspect of food? Are you someone who really enjoys certain “indulgent” foods, and making memories and enjoying experiences around food? If so, it doesn’t seem likely that cheat days and restrictive eating would be aligned with your values.

Some questions to ask yourself include:

  • What else could you be devoting precious brain space to?
  • How is worrying about food affecting other areas of your life, like your relationships, your hobbies and activities, or your children?
  • What would life be like if you could eat your favorite food whenever you wanted?

It’s a process that will take time. But when you’re ready to start changing your mindset, you’ll reap the rewards.