Cheat Days on a Diet: Why you should change your mindset instead
This is a complete guide to dieting mindset. Learn how to think on a continuum instead of using a cheat day (or cheat meal) approach to dieting.
What are Cheat days?
A cheat day (or meal) refers to a period of time when you eat things that break your strict dieting rules.
Where did the “cheat day” idea comes from?
The belief that using a cheat day (or meal) of indulgence will help people stick to restrictive diets.
Leptin. Leptin is a hormone that acts as an appetite suppressant and maintains long term body weight. As your body fat (adipose tissue) decreases, your leptin levels decrease. Those in the pro-cheating camp say a cheat day can give your body some much-needed leptin. If you’ve been on a diet, you might have noticed that you get hungrier when you cut your calories or start to lose weight. That’s in part because you are making less leptin.
If you have been following a strict diet for a long time, the glycogen stores in your muscles are rather limited. This can lead you to fatigue and hurt your workout performance. A cheat day (or meal) can help replenish your glycogen stores. This will give you with the energy you need for a strenuous workout. But keep in mind that going overboard on your cheat day can also set you back on your weight loss goals.
When your mindset is one of “cheating” this leads you to label a food as good or bad. If you eat something that is bad you feel like a failure. You may try to make up for it by eating good food later. This is a vicious cycle that leads to guilt.
When your mindset is one of “restriction” it can lead to deprivation or binge eating. An all or nothing approach will lead to yo-yo dieting and over eating in general.
Mindsets like these do not lend themselves to a healthy relationship with food or long term weight loss.
What is Weekend-itis?
Weekend-itis is what you call it when your healthy weekday routines are kicked to the curb over the weekend.
This can happen when you stay in a strict diet mindset all week and then you let yourself have any food or drink you want over the weekend.
Weekend-itis is the close cousin to the “cheat day” mentality.
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with allowing for some leeway and guilt-free enjoyment over the weekend. However, a total free-for-all weekend, every weekend, will not serve you in reaching your goals. Two days off accounts for 33% of your weekly meals.
Instead of cheat days or weekend-itis, work towards mindfully choosing when and where you’d like to enjoy treats throughout the week.
How does mindset effect our diet?
Mindset is how we see the world around us. Our mindset orients and organizes our expectations, attributions, and goals.
Alia Crum, Stanford Mind Body Lab Director, studies the science of how mindset transforms the human experience.
In her famed ‘Milkshake study,’ both groups drank the same milkshakes. One shake label read, indulgent and caloric, the other read, healthy and nutritious. In the group that drank the indulgent shake the hunger hormone, grehlin, dropped at a 3 fold rate. Metabolism increased and they felt full. In the group who drank the nutritious shake grehlin remained flat. Metabolism did not increase and they were not satiated.
The study concluded: “Participants' satiety was consistent with what they believed they were consuming rather than the actual nutritional value of what they consumed,” Alia J Crum, William R Corbin, Kelly D Brownell, Peter Salovey.
Mind set matters. Mindset can change:
what you pay attention to
what you motivate to do
how you feel and expect to feel
what your body prepares to do
Can you change your mindset?
The good news is: YES, you can change your mindset.
Here are some TIPS on how to start:
When it comes to dieting, don’t use guilt and restriction. Instead change your mindset by making decisions on a continuum. Instead of bad vs good, think what is a little bit better?
french fries baked potato side salad
Instead of ordering french fries, have a baked potato instead. Next time you might order a salad.
With a continuum mindset we see how we can make our choices a little bit better even if we aren't perfect. Practice continuum thinking enough and you will get rid of the “cheating” and “restriction”mindsets all together.
TIP: Strive for a little bit better consistently.
Address your limiting beliefs. Limiting beliefs hold us back from reaching our goals. These are the stories we tell ourselves about why we skipped our workout or grabbed food on the way home. It takes strength to turn away from what is familiar and comfortable.
TIP: Talk back to yourself when you start rationalizing.
Face your fears. There are two types of fear. The first is physical fear. A natural reaction to an external threat. The second type of fear is irrational fear. The main causes come from making assumptions or projecting about some future event. Physical fear is rational and helpful, irrational fear abuses our bodies and minds.
TIP: Practice understanding the difference between the two.
Take a growth approach. People with growth mindsets believe that when you put in the work you will reap the benefits.
TIP: Look at challenge as an opportunity not an obstacle.
Positive self-talk. Changing your mindset is hard work. Pay attention to your language.
TIP: Plant positive language throughout your day to keep the positivity flowing.
5 Ways to Build a Better Relationship with Your Food
1) Plan ahead and prepare.
There are not a lot of absolutes in health coaching. Everyone has their individual needs across the health spectrum.
One thing is for certain: You need food for fuel.
Planning ahead for your meals helps ensure that your meals align with your goals.
It is much harder to make healthy choices when lunch time hits and take out is the only option. Or when you roll into the grocery store at 5 pm hungry.
Make a solid plan for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
2) Focus on what you ARE eating (not what you are leaving out).
Eat the micro- and macro- nutrients that you enjoy.
Here’s an example of how to arrange micro- and macro- nutrients on your plate:
3) Let go of strict rules.
Use continuum thinking with your macronutrients.
Worst choice A Little Bit Better Perfection
Protein: Hot dog Grilled Chicken or Beans
Carb: White Pasta Quinoa
Fats: Saturated Fat Plant Based Fat
4) Embrace the challenge, one small step at a time.
Making change is hard. Making change takes strength. Change doesn’t happen overnight.
Big behavior change can come from small goals.
Start by making your new habit so small that it is simple to do.
Next plug your simple habit into something you already do.
Then don't forget to celebrate your win.
Challenge: Fill half your plate with veggies.
Tiny habit: Have one vegetable on my plate.
Existing habit: Eating a meal.
Celebration: Tell yourself good job.
5) If you’re going to indulge then indulge.
Don’t let yourself feel guilt and shame when you don’t follow your plan. If you decide to indulge then let yourself indulge and then move on. The key is to not let the food have power over you. Slow down and enjoy it. As the science supports, your grehlin will do its thing.
Adhering to a restrictive diet will lead to cheating.
Instead of having a cheat day (or meal) on your diet ditch the dieting all together.
Get clear on your intention, change your mindset, and make choices that are a little bit better.
At the end of the day, working toward a healthier diet should be about making sustainable changes that meet your unique needs and tastes — there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
Consistency over time is better than perfect for a little while.