Ah, the coveted cheat day: that one day a week when your diet relinquishes control of your eating and you can consume all the foods you’ve been dreaming about the rest of the week. Many people incorporate cheat days into their diets as a way of feeling like there are fewer restrictions on their eating overall. (You might not be able to have it today, but just wait until Saturday.) Basically, it’s a way to feel like you don’t totally have to abandon the foods that you love by going on a diet. The argument, largely, is that these breaks from dieting can actually help you lose weight over time. but the reality of the matter might be a little different. In fact, the mentality surrounding cheat days, as well as the extremes they often reach, can end up being detrimental to both the body and mind.
According to dieting and body image researcher Linda Bacon, Ph.D., and nutrition coach Ryan Andrews, RD, reward-and-punishment or binge-and-restrict ways of thinking about food do a lot more harm than they do good, and cheat days can be especially responsible for fostering that kind of mentality. This is because cheat days tend to increase the desirability of certain restricted foods by making them feel off-limits during a particular period – Sunday through Monday, let’s say – but then permissible during only a short window of time – i.e. Saturday. And then what often comes as a result of that is a tendency to go a little too hard on the food when you finally get around to eating it on your cheat day. “If someone says ‘I can only have potato chips on my cheat day,’ that might just fuel the idea of overeating the chips because they know they can’t eat them for another six days,” Andrews says. In other words, the negative results of this mindset are twofold: a very negative view of food and self-punishment can develop, and this attitude can facilitate gross overeating on cheat days that cancel out progress. Plus, since some of the more common foods that you’re likely to overindulge in on cheat days – those sugary and salty foods – tend to be pretty addictive, you’ll only end up craving them more once you start to eat them.
Disrupting a carefully-constructed diet once a week can also prevent some of its intended effects from taking hold. For example, the hormones in your body will not fully adjust to a ketogenic or paleo diet if you disrupt it regularly, thus diminishing its weight loss potential or its overall health payoffs. The other side of that is that if you keep reintroducing things like trans fats and bleached flour into your body once a week, it will take longer and longer for them to completely leave your system.
Of course, this isn’t to say that you need to completely abandon all of your favorite foods at once. On the contrary: we say that, so long as certain foods don’t go directly against your diet plan (again, a paleo diet might be a little less flexible than a more general attempt to maintain a healthier diet), you should go ahead and eat them any day. The idea is that rather than having full cheat days, you should try using moderation or reduced portions to ration out your favorite foods throughout the week. This way you won’t feel restricted, but you likely won’t overeat, either.