So you've been grinding it out every day, exercising and sticking to your diet like a champ. You're proud of what you've accomplished so far, and rightfully so--you're doing what it takes to get in shape, and it feels great. Then all of a sudden, the thought comes along that you should reward yourself for all of your hard work. You know, take the day off--a.k.a., a "cheat day"--and engage in a little bit of self-indulgence, quite possibly even snagging that doughnut you've been dreaming about for the past two weeks in order to celebrate your progress.
But wait a minute--is this a good idea? Will a cheat day provide you with a much-needed break in the action so that you can come back even stronger, or will it completely kill your momentum and sabotage your efforts going forward? Below are some points to consider to help you determine whether taking a cheat day will help or hurt your cause.
The Psychology Behind Cheat Days
Proponents of cheat days often argue that they provide a much needed psychological break that can help you gain a better perspective and reinvigorate your efforts. After all, they contend, you've been keeping your nose to the grindstone for a good while now, and nobody can do that forever; it's best to take a cheat day in order to avoid burnout. The idea is that if you just go ahead and indulge in a day of calorie-rich fare, you'll get it out of your system, which will keep you from getting too desperate for cheat foods going forward.
Sounds reasonable enough, right? Well, unfortunately, the risks associated with taking a cheat day tend to outweigh any temporary benefits that this day of indulgence may provide.
Cheat Days: A Slippery Slope
The problem with taking a cheat day is that it's difficult to account for the weaknesses of human nature, one of which is the tendency to drift towards excess. More often than not, a cheat day turns into a binge day, where we start piling on the calories, including copious amounts of fat-laden, sugar-rich treats that send our insulin levels through the roof. Yes, the party will be fun while it lasts, but when you wake up the next day, you might notice that you're hungrier than usual, and your body will often crave more fat-laden, sugar-rich treats to try and stave off those hunger pangs.
Not only that, but because you've been eating foods that are primarily simple carbohydrates, you'll burn up that energy quickly, which leads to a sugar crash that will require more of the same for you to feel normal again.
Pretty soon you're spiraling out of control, and that's when the guilt and shame begin to show up. You feel horrible for falling off the wagon, and it's hard for you to shake off those feelings of failure. You want to give yourself a clean slate and move forward, but now you're battling a barrage of negative emotions, which causes you to seek temporary comfort in--guess-what--more junk food. This turns into a vicious cycle that may take several days (or weeks) for you to correct, and as you're losing precious time, you're also losing ground in terms of reaching your fitness goals.
Practice Occasional Treats, Not Cheat Days
A better way to approach this scenario would be to allow yourself to have occasional small treats on various days throughout the week, instead of devoting one whole day to an all-out cheat day. For example, you could treat yourself to a cookie or a couple of small blocks of a dark chocolate bar after dinner maybe two or three days out of the week.
The key here is to truly make it a treat--meaning practice moderation. After a while, you might begin to notice that you don't really even need to eat large quantities of treats after all--once you have about two or three bites of a snack and have enjoyed its flavor, that's often enough to satisfy your craving without blowing your diet to smithereens.
Plus, when learning to see food differently, it's important not to associate a treat with "cheating" or "being bad." If you feel guilt and shame when you go off of your diet, you're less likely to get back on track and develop positive views of the food that fuels you.