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?
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 to allow themselves one cigarette a week? Of course not. 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 make it especially challenging to confine these cravings and cheat-day foods into a certain day of the week or monthly routine.
When we indulge on 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 takes 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 easily turn into a more frequent behavior that leads to increased cheat days.
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 number of calories, but because we’ve been “good.”
The flip side of the coin is when we don’t eat comfort food, it therefore subconsciously means that we’ve been “bad.” Healthy food is then assigned the function of a punishment. And you can be as strong-willed, 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 what we allow ourselves to eat or not, we are back into emotional eating behaviors. It’s only a matter of time before we get back to our old habits.
There are several efficient strategies you can use to stick to your diet without using cheat days.
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.
Instead of incorporating cheat days to your routine, introduce new, fun, healthy food in your diet. Find a recipe you never tried before, using food you are not used to taste. This will keep your diet diverse and avoid boredom and fatigue.
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 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.
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 emotions 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 a 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.