In order to keep going strong in their efforts and eat healthy on other days, some people allow themselves a “cheat meal” or “cheat day.” (This can also be called a ‘free’ meal/day, or a ‘reward’ meal/day.) The general idea is that this will help you stick to a healthier diet, knowing that you will still get to eat some of your favorite foods even if they don’t comply with your new diet. (And by diet I mean healthier eating, NOT a crazy restriction of calories!)
But does this work?
I think that this can work depending on your personality type. Some people can handle a cheat day once a week and get right back on track. But for some people, that one cheat day will turn into 3 days of “cheating,” which then turns into a week, which turns into an epic fail and a lot of discouragement! So here are a few things to consider:
1. If you can have a cheat meal/day once a week and not get derailed, then do it! There is no need to feel guilty, and no reason to feel there is a ‘right’ way to make this work. It’s your life and your body, make this fit what your goals are.
2. If you know that an entire day of cheating will send you into a week of eating bad, then maybe you could have one small ‘treat’ a day? This is what I do. If I have a whole day of eating stuff I know I shouldn’t, not only do I end up feeling sick, but I find myself feeling like I’ve wasted all my exercising and healthy choices the week before, so I may as well just forget trying. But when I allow myself 5 chocolate covered almonds at the end of the day, it keeps me satisfied. Calorie-wise, 5 each day for a whole week or 35 in one day once a week still add up to be the same amount of calories. But, it is nice not to flood your body with an intense sugar rush all in one day!
3. If you can’t go off your diet at all without it being a total failure, then don’t cheat. Self-control is a muscle, and the more you use it the stronger it gets, but like any other muscle, it also gets tired! So if, after weeks of doing great, you find yourself feeling like you just can’t handle it anymore, allow yourself a healthy treat (in moderation, of course). Replenish your “self-control muscle,” so to speak, by giving in, but just a little bit. I do this with my favorite treat which is frozen vanilla yogurt, almonds and chocolate chips. Knowing I will get it at some point helps me have self control the other days–it gives me something to look forward to.
The biggest key is consistency. It’s not that you stick to a plan perfectly for 30 days or even 90 days. That is a great start, but it’s what you do day in and day out for the next few years that really matters. You may be thinking, thanks Sarah, that’s discouraging. I know it can seem like getting through the day takes enough energy on it’s own to not eat everything you love, but one day at a time will get you there. And when you start with eliminating small things, (for example trading juice for water) and you keep everything else the same, it’s not so overwhelming that you can’t make it happen. Once you are used to drinking water instead of juice, tackle another habit you wish to change!
(I personally allow myself to have some treats that I love that are not healthy. But these aren’t daily. Take pizza for example; that would not be a ‘treat’ I allow myself to have daily. My daily treat would be a few chocolate covered almonds, or something like that. But by allowing myself to have pizza once a month, I find this actually keeps me on track in different ways. Usually, when I let myself have something I am ‘dying’ for, I realize it wasn’t all that I was making it out to be in my mind. And I don’t even finish it or go as crazy on it as I even thought I would!)
So be consistent, and be honest with yourself. If sneaking an unhealthy snack is going to snowball into a failed attempt at weight-loss, don’t do it! Keep the big picture in mind, and reward yourself in other ways that don’t have to do with your diet. But if you can have a little treat here and there and not go crazy, then by all means, cheat!