As a registered dietitian, I am often asked about cheat meals and cheat days. Usually, the dieter seems to be asking the question out of desperation. He or she often mentions feeling obsessed and exhausted of counting calories. "I want to have a cheat day once a week where I can eat whatever I want without worrying about my calories," they often say. "But will this cheat day hurt my weight loss?" In other cases, people eat so "clean" (i.e. perfect) on their diets that they simply can't keep up with it day in and day out. They feel that they "need" a cheat meal or day to look forward to and keep them accountable to their strict diet all the other days.
I think everyone would agree that even though it has been documented to help people lose weight, daily calorie counting is a big pain in the butt. You have to read labels, measure portions and keep track of so many details. Food selection is constantly on your mind. Focusing so much on calories makes it easy to get into the trap of trying to eat a strict diet of "good" foods, then falling off the wagon and overeating the "bad" foods you tried to avoid. Your vocabulary and thoughts are consumed with extremes: good foods vs. bad foods, cheating vs. being good, restricting vs. overindulging. It is easy to see why you'd want to "cheat" on a system like this. But is cheating on your diet really the answer?
Scientifically speaking, "cheating" has not been studied enough for me to give you a clear-cut answer on whether or not it works in the short-term or the long-term. However, the science of caloric intake, as well as the psychological implications of cutting and counting calories, has been extensively researched. So let's explore what we do know and apply it to the idea of cheat days.
"Calories in vs. calories out" is the golden rule for effective weight loss. To lose weight, a person must eat fewer calories than he or she burns. Let's assume you are cutting a total of 3,500 over the course of a week to lose 1 pound. In this example, your daily calorie intake is about 1,200-1,500 calories. Say you choose to eat right in the middle of your recommended range: 1,350 calories per day. How would an innocent "cheat" day affect your progress?
- Scenario #1: On your cheat day, you indulge in a few extra sweets or treats and take in 2,500 calories total. This brings your daily average to 1,514, which is still within your weight-loss calorie range. Therefore, you should still lose weight for the week.
- Scenario #2: On your cheat day, you eat anything and everything you've been craving: a fast food value meal, potato chips, a milkshake and some buttery popcorn. You take in 4,000 calories. This brings your daily average to 1,729, which is over your weight-loss calorie range. Therefore, you will probably maintain your current weight for the week.
Your Calorie Bank
The banking of calories works in a similar fashion as your checking account or debit card. For example, if you invite your main squeeze to dinner and a movie on Friday, you have to make sure you have the funds to cover your outing. So you save a few extra bucks Monday through Friday, therefore providing sufficient money in your account to spend on the evening out. Now, apply the same principle to calorie banking. By eating at the lower end of your recommended calorie range Monday through Friday, you can accumulate a few more calories to spend on your Saturday splurge day, while still remaining within your weekly budget when you take the average for the seven-day period. While this gives you more calories to spend on your special day, it still requires planning. This works because a single day of calories (whether low or high) won't make or break your weight loss. It's the overall trend—or weekly average—of calories that creates changes in your body.
Better than Cheating: How to Remain Faithful to an Eating Plan You Love
If you feel the desire to cheat on your diet, it may not be your fault. Your diet—or your view of how you "should" or "need to" eat to lose weight or be healthier—is the real culprit. If your diet is so restrictive, plain, boring, tedious or "perfect" that you can't stick with it forever, try these smart strategies to bring your eating habits back to normal.
- Start embracing all foods. Remember that no single food causes weight gain. Weight management is based on total calorie intake—not the restriction of certain foods, ingredients or food groups. All foods can fit into a healthy eating plan. Instead of thinking about foods as being "good" or "bad," change your food language.
- Instead of saying "This is a bad food," say "This food has a lot of calories; if I really want it, I will have it in moderation."
- Instead of saying "I cheated," say "I ate more than I wanted to, but that happens to everyone once in a while. It is normal and I won't beat myself up over it."
- Instead of saying "I was bad," say "I ate more calories than I intended, but I am in control now."
- Start to enjoy those "off-limits" foods in smaller portions. Slowly incorporate food you once considered "bad" into your eating plan. Don't be discouraged if you occasionally eat too much of a food that you once considered "off limits." If you are used to eating large quantities of a food, it may take practice to moderate your portions. To help, savor every bite and take your time eating. Make snacks last at least 15 minutes and stretch out your meals to last at least 30 minutes. Do not eat out of packages. Make food special by putting it on a real plate or bowl and using silverware. Limit distractions and enjoy your food without watching television or using the computer.
- Socialize and enjoy. Enjoy once "off-limit" foods in the company of others. This may help you avoid overindulging, which is easier to do when you are alone. When you are in a restaurant with companions, order what you want, not what you "should" eat. Savor every bite and enjoy it slowly. Stop eating when you feel the first signs of fullness. Don't feel that you must clean your plate. If you have difficulty eating certain foods in small amounts when home alone, practice eating safe portions in safe places where you are less likely to overeat.
Overcoming the Desire to Cheat
If you feel the need or desire to "cheat" on your diet, it may be worth examining your relationship with food and whether you're actually taking steps to leave dieting behind in favor of adopting a healthy eating plan that you can live with for life. The idea of "cheating" tends to reinforce the concept that certain foods are "good" in your mind while others are "bad." This idea is hard to break if you've been on and off diets throughout your life, but it's not impossible. The healthiest eating plan—and mental outlook—is to embrace all types of foods and never to feel guilt, remorse, embarrassment or discouragement about the foods you eat. Taking proactive steps to ditch the "diet" mentality can reduce your anxiety and obsession with food and help you avoid out-of-control binges that derail your weight-loss efforts.