As a dietitian/nutritionist, I am often asked if I recommend having a cheat day. (A “cheat day,” cheat meal,” or “cheat food” — is a mini-break from a calorie-restricted diet for weight loss.) My answer is that it all depends on how you define cheat. If a cheat day is a feeding frenzy that packs in lots of extra calories, then I’m against it. But if it means making room for high-calorie favorite treats, then I’m all for it. No diet should be so restricted that it doesn’t make room for favorite foods.
Normal variations in day-to-day calorie intake may be in the best interests of health. Studies of intermittent fasting schedules in animals suggest that an intake pattern of highs and lows enhances the body’s ability to cope with biological stress and, maybe, to resist disease.* Variation is the natural course of events and evolution seems to make it work to an advantage.
Consider that healthy eaters who maintain steady weights don’t usually eat the same amount of food every day.
- They expect day-to-day variation and they use regular exercise to balance extra calories.
- They eat more or fewer calories largely depending on the social situation.
- They give themselves permission to eat favorite foods (within reason) as if it’s no big deal.
- They may choose to eat more at a special dinner or not.
Either way, they don’t look for excuses to overindulge. Since maintenance has no endpoint, every eating style must make personal sense. Daily diets are to be enjoyed, not simply endured.
When granting yourself permission to indulge, don’t use the word cheat.
“Cheating suggests dishonesty and getting away with something you know is wrong,” says Diane Petrella, MSW, spiritual weight release counselor.** “By labeling a tasty food as something wrong, the food is automatically coupled, unconsciously, with negative emotions, guilt and shame. Even if you don’t feel it on a conscious level, the word cheat erodes your integrity for empowered change. Words have power. Change the word cheat into treat.
Everybody, regardless of size, enjoys the right to enjoy a few treats without shame. The trick is to figure out which foods you most adore — and to be discriminating about everything you choose to eat. But, do make a decision, stand behind it, and enjoy your treat to the hilt. Eat it slowly, savoring the taste and aroma, with all of your senses. As for all things that you truly love, give them your full attention.
*Varady, K. A. and Hellerstein, M. K., Alternate-day fasting and chronic disease prevention: a review of human and animal trials. Am J Clin Nutr July 2023 vol. 86 no. 1, pp. 7-13
**Diane Petrella: http://dianepetrella.com/