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Don’t cheat, eat! Why eating restrictions don’t work for long-term healthy habits.

Updated: Apr 28, 2023


Cruising around the website of one of the popular celebrity magazines, I came across an article about an Australian actor that talked about what he eats on his “cheat day.” As I read further, it turns out this gentleman sticks to a pretty regimented diet during the week to maintain his screen-worthy physique but one day a week he eats whatever he wants.


At first, I thought that was a fantastic idea and got wrapped up in all the thoughts around what I would have on a cheat day. I imagined a large cheeseburger on a plate surrounded by French fries. Next, there was me eating the largest bowl of cream of crab soup I’d ever seen. Finally, there was dessert, ah dessert, a sea of ice cream laid out before me. And then, I thought to myself, “Why do you have to wait for that one day a week?”


The concept of a cheat day sounds good in theory but falls apart at the seams in practice.


Why?


Because you can eat things that taste good or, may in fact have a few extra calories without doing irreparable harm to your health. As with anything, it’s all about moderation.


Waiting a whole week may work for some, but likely is very difficult to manage for most. That’s because it’s mostly caloric restriction and shear power of will holding you together until you can get to that cheat day. Once it arrives, it may be ugly! The aftermath may be even worse. If you’ve worked very hard all week to eat good healthy foods in the proper portions, all to down an extra-large pizza and half a liter of soda in one sitting, what has been gained? Likely nothing. The odds of you feeling pretty poorly mentally, physically, and emotionally are probably pretty high as well and that seesaw process may take a toll long-term.


What you are doing is playing by the rules during the week and letting your hair down on the weekends, but with food. Terrible rules by the way. That tug-of-war is very hard on the body. It’s like, “Okay, we’re feeling good. Eating well, and…what the Hell was that?” Those shocks to your body are very detrimental. Just like eating too much salt and sugar on a daily basis is bad for your body, sending it a knockout punch once a week is asking a lot of it too.


It all comes down to wanting to look and feel better.


Many people attempt to look and feel better through caloric restriction. The process of calorie restriction involves reducing food intake without causing malnutrition, usually in an effort to change one’s health or physical appearance. It’s called a diet. And, almost everyone you know, men, women and children included, have likely been on one at some time or another. It’s just the way it goes. But there are safe, healthy ways of eating in a manner that actually satisfies you and you can realize healthy benefits and weight loss or regulation.


If you watch the news or look at anything online, the benefits of intermittent fasting are highly publicized nowadays, and it works for many people. Also, there have been animal studies that have found healthy benefits in calorie restriction that include improved metabolism, longer life, and delayed onset of age-associated diseases. It’s true that our prehistoric ancestors ate infrequently because they had to walk distances to find food (built in exercise), had to catch their food (and not be eaten by it themselves), had to drag the food (more exercise) and were not sure where the next meal was coming from (intermittent fasting). Their bodies adapted to store and release calories as needed by level of effort required and by season. However, intermittent fasting is not safe for everyone, and any reduction of calories should be carefully monitored by your healthcare professional.


People on very low-calorie diets for 4 to 16 weeks report minor side effects such as fatigue, constipation, nausea, and diarrhea. This normally gets better within a few weeks and people can carry on a bit longer but sustaining a low-calorie diet long-term is just not sustainable. You're always thinking about what you can't eat. And you put your health at risk by depriving your body of the vitamins and minerals it needs to actually be healthy.


So, what’s the solution?! Eat.


Yes, eat. Eat foods that are better for you and simply make your body feel better. That could be a bowl of salad one day and bowl of pasta the next. The important thing is to listen to your body.


Does your body feel better when you eat the salad? Do you feel satisfied, lighter, healthier? Eat the salad.


Does your body feel a little bloated when you eat the pasta? Maybe a little gassy or sluggish? Maybe eat less of the pasta.


Surprised I suggested eating less of the pasta instead of not eating the pasta at all? That’s because you don’t have to limit the foods you eat unless you and your healthcare professionals have established specific foods you should not eat based on your current health status. Limiting foods or saving them for a “cheat day” puts those foods up on a pedestal and makes them more appealing, even if they actually aren’t. They are just literally “the forbidden fruit” and once you get access them to them, you may lose all self-control.


Make every effort to eat healthy foods. Organic if you can. When given the choice of a healthy option and a not-so-healthy option, try to choose the healthy option as much as you can. Small changes will make a big difference over time.


Remember a few weeks back I talked about the concept of “Crowding out?” Crowing out is simply that, adding more whole foods into your diet rather than focusing on removing certain “other” foods altogether. Again, no one is telling you to stop eating fries! Maybe just eat less of them or order a salad or veggies instead. An

d, not restricting actually reduces cravings for those foods and eventually, you will have “gently” replaced the foods that no longer serve you. More fruits, vegetables, and water will naturally lead to less caffeine, sugar, and processed food. That makes you feel better, and you may lose a few pounds in the progress.


A cheat day or restrictive diets also add another layer of complexity to our already complicated relationship with self-image. The mental and emotional struggles we have with our behaviors and bodies. If you eat too much on a cheat day, you may be particularly hard on yourself. If you don’t stick to your reduced calorie intake goal, you may become more extreme in achieving your weight lost goals. We should always be striving for balance in our approach to food.


The key is to be gentle, forgiving and kind to yourself and your body. Give your body what it needs when it needs it. Listen to your body and feed it when you need energy and stop eating when you are full or uncomfortable. If your mind tells you to eat more, examine why that is and try to find another way of filling that void short and long-term. Look in the mirror and thank your body for supporting you on this journey. Show your body the respect and grace it deserves.


When it comes to food, eat, don’t cheat. Have a small slice of cake, take a sip of a strawberry shake or a bite of chocolate. Maybe you eat it all, maybe you don’t; your body will let you know what to do. But you always get in trouble when you cheat. Shortcuts are ultimately the long way around to sabotaging our goals. (Think about that one.) Finally, if you are a parent, eating a balanced diet, with healthy foods and moderation as your guide, is another great way of modeling a healthy relationship with food for your kids. Remember, our children are always watching. Let's set them up for success.


What do you think about a “cheat day?” Leave a comment below.


Need help balancing your relationship with food or know someone who does?



Take care and be well,

Courtney




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