When I am on a diet, I live for my cheat days. I fantasize every day, all day long, about the food I am going to splurge on during my next cheat day. I know if I want to reach my goal weight, I’m in for a long period of time. My cheat day allows me to feel less deprived of the food I like, and to keep going longer. At least this is what I tell myself.
Cheat days are supposed to help us stick to our diet. But for us, emotional eaters, cheat days make it harder to stick to our diet. Why? And what to do instead?
Cheat Days Reactivate our Emotional Eating
Every time we are exposed to the food we crave and have eaten for comfort for years, we dramatically increase our risk of relapse.
Would you advise a person with an alcohol problem to get a drink a month? Or a chain smoker allow themselves one cigarette a week? Why? Because you know this choice will almost certainly lead them to more drinks and more cigarettes.
The same goes for emotional eaters. Cheat days lead to more cheat days. Splurging on comfort food during cheat days makes it especially challenging to confine these cravings and cheat-day foods into a certain day of the week or monthly routine.
When we indulge in comfort food during a cheat day, we are doing what our mind is telling us to do. Not what our body needs. As emotional eaters often confuse what our body wants with what our mind wants. We are used to eating for comfort, and cheat days take us directly back to our old, unhealthy relationship with food.
A cheat day mindset consisting of “I’m only going to eat these snacks or comfort food on Sunday,” can quickly turn into a more frequent behavior that leads to increased cheat days.
Cheat Days Maintain a Transactional Relationship with Food
Allowing ourselves a cheat day as an incentive for meeting diet or weight loss goals means rewarding ourselves with food. Which is a typical emotional eating answer. Eating not because we need a certain type of nutrients or a number of calories, but because we’ve been “good”.
The flip side of the coin is when we don’t eat comfort food, it subconsciously means that we’ve been “bad”. Healthy food is then assigned the function of punishment. And you can be as strong-will, motivated, or dedicated as you want, nobody keeps on punishing themselves very long. When healthy food feels like a punishment, there is no way we can stick to it as our new lifestyle.
Using cheat days in our lifestyle is prescribing moral value to food. And this almost certainly reinforces an unhealthy relationship with food. There is no such thing as good food or bad food. Eating for health is not transactional. As soon as we find ourselves negotiating whether we allow ourselves to eat or not, and what, we are back into emotional eating behaviors. It’s only a matter of time before we get back to our old habits.
How to Avoid Cheat Days and not End Up Bored or Frustrated
There are several efficient strategies you can use to stick to your diet without using cheat days.
Retrain Your Mind
Don’t think “I can’t eat cookies” but “I don’t eat cookies”. I can’t eat cookies” is a limitation to your freedom. “I don’t eat cookies” is a choice. Your way to exercise your freedom in your eating choices. After a while, “I don’t eat cookies” will become your new truth, and when presented with one, you will have no issue refusing it.
Plan Your Meals
Instead of incorporating cheat days into your routine, introduce new, fun, healthy food into your diet. Find a recipe you never tried before, using food you are not used to tasting. This will keep your diet diverse and avoid boredom and fatigue.
Approach Food the Same Each Day
If you want to build a new lifestyle that you can stick with, it has to be pleasant and your healthy eating has to turn into a routine, not a punctual weight loss effort. Don’t wait until a special day, occasion, or weekend to enjoy your favorite healthy food. Instead, find a way to build them into your daily or weekly menu. When you are satisfied enough to not feel deprived, your cravings will not hit as bad and you will be able to control your emotional eating better.
Find Support During Your Weight Loss Journey
Emotional eating is a coping mechanism that allows us to numb uncomfortable emotions we don’t wish to feel. Once we stop eating for comfort, all the feelings we have repressed come back. The longer you used food to deal with these emotions, the less equipped you are to embrace them today. Find a friend, support group, or professional that can help you navigate these uneasy feelings.
While cheat days can be an efficient strategy for some dieters, they are a form of emotional eating and reinforce an emotional attachment to certain types of food.
If you are not sure whether you are an emotional eater or not, you can take my quiz here.
Do you include cheat days in your diet? Are they beneficial or do they make it more difficult for you? Let us know in the comments.