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Cheat days?

November 15, 2008

This is an idea I’ve seen gain a lot of traction among diet bloggers and websites. The idea of a cheat day is that you take the occasional day off of your diet in order to curb cravings. Not so much an all out binge day (at least they recognize that bingeing is disordered behavior) but a day to eat your pasta with cream sauce and have a big piece of chocolate cake for dessert. It is an increasingly popular concept touted by many in the online weight loss communites.

I think it is also totally emblematic of the many many reasons I don’t feel like I fit in with the online community of dieters.

Cheat days only make sense in the context of a traditional diet. That is an eating plan where you are forbidden to eat particular foods – or at least ordered to eat them in such tiny and sparse quantities that you may as well not eat them. When eating this way, cravings often become a constant companion and are compounded both by the dieting mindset which demonizes certain foods and the fact that so many diets have people eating too few calories. For those of us who have spent time on traditional commercial diets, we can completely understand the idea of needing that one day a week or a month where we can ‘give in’ and just eat.

This is where I think the actual difference between a diet and a lifestyle change becomes apparent. I know that to a lot of people they look quite similar. I mean, you’re focusing on weight loss and restricting calories right? But really, this is like saying that what I’m doing is the same as HAES because I still listen to my hunger cues and do exercise I enjoy – it’s missing the bigger picture.

The bigger picture here is…the bigger picture. Not just whether someone wants to lose weight, but how they want to live their life. I don’t believe anyone wants to live life avoiding foods they love or feeling like allowing themselves to eat carbs can only happen on special days when they’ve given into their terrible desires for baked goods. Unfortunately, a long string of diet gurus, bad diet plans and general puritanical fear of food has created a situation where many people can’t wrap their mind around enjoying food and losing weight at the same time.

I’ve read things like “I love cheat days because I can skip that birthday cake at work if I know I’ll have some cake on Sunday.” And I can’t help but wonder how it makes sense to eat cake on Sunday instead of eating it when you want it and when it’s in celebration of someone’s birthday? I mean, the Sunday cake doesn’t have less calories, right? But, in the traditional dieting mindset, people have to completely compartmentalize their food so cake can’t happen on diet days lest the whole world implode or something.

Despite having once had the same kind of attitudes toward food and weight loss, I can’t even understand it at this point.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. November 15, 2008 11:51 pm

    At the same time, I doubt you completely fail to moderate what you eat since you are trying to lose weight, so unless the claim is that you actually never want pasta with cream sauce and a big piece of chocolate cake, I imagine there are days when you would like to have such things but don’t because they’re not “healthy” enough or you figure “I don’t really need that.” Or, and this may not be you, but I and many people eat sort of boringly during the week and then enjoy a big meal out or some drinks on the weekend. I guess it all depends on how you think of a “cheat day.” For me, and I’m not saying this is healthy and it is certainly imperfect, a “cheat day” is the kind of day where I give myself permission to eat past full. The plain truth is that I like being quite full sometimes (not to say sick, just pleasantly stuffed–YMMV), so it can be fun to go out to a restaurant and eat all I want and not feel guilty about it.

    I don’t know. I tend to think “cheat days” as a concept are one of the more sane ideas in dieting (because at least they acknowledge that nobody can permanently abstain from foods they love). I also think that people have more or less screwed-up relationships with food and sometimes general restraint in combination with a cheat day (intended or unintended) here and there is the “healthiest” point you can seem to get yourself to in an imperfect world, and yes I am speaking from experience there. But that doesn’t mean cheat days necessarily make dieting any more likely to work or that they are the perfect solution.

  2. November 16, 2008 12:16 am

    See, I think what you’re talking about in your first paragraph is sort of the opposite of how I hear most people talk about cheat days. Acknowledging that if you go to a certain restaurant, you’re going to want to eat past the point of fullness and allowing for that. Or making choices about whether or not to eat a dessert based on how much you want it vs whether or not you feel like you ‘need’ it. Those sound like the choices a lot of people make about food in the context of normal life. The way I hear cheat day defined is a set day where every meal and every food choice is the one you ‘can’t’ make on any other day.

    I’m not sure I’m explaining the difference I see between the two very well, but it’s the difference between eating cake because you want some (and maybe having that choice affect other choices the rest of the day) and eating cake because it is a ‘cheat day’ and it’s the only day you’re going to get to have cake.

    I think your second paragraph makes a great point in that we all have to make deals in terms of how to have the healthiest relationship to food that we can.

  3. November 16, 2008 2:10 am

    Yeah, I think mostly we are in agreement. I’m not sure whether I agree that having cake at a single meal (thus, a “cheat meal” if you will) is inherently any more functional than having cake plus alcohol plus steak (or whatever so-called “cheat” foods look like for you) on a designated “day,” but certainly if you can pull off the more go-with-the-flow method, it’s going to be easier to function in the real world (where your friends might want to go out for drinks on a Tuesday, or your spouse might make a nice dessert on a Thursday, or you might just randomly feel like going to Starbucks).

    I was going to say that a whole “cheat” day was less stressful for me than a “cheat” meal or whatever (I’m using these terms but I hope I don’t totally buy into them in a dieting sense… “cheat” is so legalistic and insulting, as you mentioned), but I am realizing that’s not necessarily the case anymore. My weekends tend to be more laid-back foodwise, and I still am not generally going to enjoy cake or feel it’s worth eating if the trade-off is I have to be “vigilant” the rest of the day, so I used to deal with this by doing a bona fide cheat day when I was dieting and try not to “mess up” at all for the rest of the week. But it’s not as binary as it once was. (More likely if I really want cake I’ll just have it, and not really adjust my intake other than making sure I’m not too full to enjoy it.) Interesting.

  4. Anonymous permalink
    November 16, 2008 2:18 am

    Argh I totally agree with you about this puritanical fear of food.

    I mean, I’m not trying to judge, because everyone is different.

    But MOST of the situations I’ve heard/seen are that when someone has a “day off” their diet, they cant even enjoy it, they are just trying to fit in as many forbidden foods as possible cuz tomorrow it will be gone.

    The idea that you can give up cake on someone’s birthday cuz u have a cheat day on sunday is a silly version of the more sensible that u can skip the birthday cake if u dont really feel like cake at that time, because u know that when u do really want some cake, you will give urself permission to have it. Duh. I mean what if on sunday u dont even want it that much? Well a lot of people i know will eat it anyway cuz its the cheat day and after that no cake allowed!

    Did you ever see that movie, “Trust the Man” i think, where the Julianne Moore literally chokes on her cake because it was her “last day of carbs” so she was trying to take advantage of it? Yeah, sounds like she enjoyed it.

    Anyway, i’m all for people giving themselves permission to stray from whatever food choices they try to make MOST of the time for health reasons. (I don’t think most dieters are even focused on health but i wont even get into that… the principle still holds.)

    I just don’t tihnk a specific day makes as much sense as just balancing over time, over the week or whatever. For instance, if you have high blood pressure and avoid salt, you might still have some salty popcorn at the movies (apropo your post about movie snacks) but avoid it at other times during that day. Maybe a few days later you have something that’s a little heavy on the soy. Doesn’t that make more sense then cramming all your salt into one day, whether you relaly want it or not?
    Or if you have issues of blood sugar – it’d actually be much more balanced, and enjoyable, to eat a bit more sugar than usual at certain meals (or desserts), rather than go sugar crazy all day a certain day and not at all on other days.

    Cheat days are, in many cases, just a different name for binging, in my opinion. (Just like i think dieting is in most cases just a socially accepted eating disorder.)

    But again, I know it’s different for everyone so… just my two cents.

  5. cggirl permalink
    November 16, 2008 2:18 am

    Oops i forgot to put my name in, that previous comment was me.

  6. cggirl permalink
    November 16, 2008 2:19 am

    And since i’m here, allow me to say that i like your blog, because i appreciate your honesty and the sensitive way in which you deal with these topics.

  7. November 16, 2008 3:10 am

    I think the concept of a “cheat day” is one that might come in handy for some people who are experimenting with making changes to the way they eat. So, if someone is trying to consume less sugar, but not deprive themselves of it completely, they may say, “I’m going to try to not eat any sugary things until Sunday, and then if there’s something I really want, I’ll have it then” and then if Sunday comes and they still want it, they have it. I guess I think of it as a potential tool for people if they want to use it in a supportive way for making changes, but not as a harsh, depriving rule.
    I think we all make decisions about what we want to consume and when, and decide to have something later (whether in the day or in the week). I don’t think there’s a whole lot of use of assigning any moral value to it, as in “being good” by avoiding “bad foods” on any day but the cheat day.

  8. November 16, 2008 4:30 am

    I don’t like the name but I do kind of like the concept, as long as its permission, not requirement. Have you read that “French Women Don’t Get Fat” book? (It’s less bad than you’d expect.) But one thing stuck in my head – report of a quick image:word association test.

    Cue: picture of big decadent chocolate cake
    Association – American women = guilt
    Association – French women = celebration!

    Guilt? That’s sad. But I think it’s worth noticing that a treat is only really a treat if it’s not an everyday thing. Eating your cake only occasionally, at birthday parties or special occasions, makes a lot of sense to me. Refusing it at a birthday party to save up for “official cheat day”, not so much!

  9. julie permalink
    November 16, 2008 1:47 pm

    I’m not big on the cheat days myself, it makes it seem as if the rest of the time, you’re denying yourself something, playing games that I refuse to play. All this stuff will add up to make me insane, and I’m much more cautious of my emotional state than of the food stuff. I accept that some days I will eat way more than I need to, especially in terms of weight loss. Thanksgiving is coming up, and I’m sure I’ll stuff myself, especially if stuff tastes good (I don’t like pie, nor candied sweet potatoes, or anything that’s too sweet, or half the time, even turkey). If my sexy guy wants to go out for pizza and beer, I’m happy to eat that, but I recognize that if I eat like that all the time, I will stop losing weight. If it’s just me, I’ll eat whatever I have at home, which is generally heavy on produce, and rarely tastes as good as restaurant food, so I don’t eat too much.

    For some reason it’s 80F here this weekend, and I was thinking about getting some gelato as I was walking by the La Copa Loca yesterday. It would have tasted fine, but I was ambivalent enough about it, and there was a line, so I just came home and ate watermelon. I’m sure that if I was mind-gaming myself that I can give myself permission to have gelato since it’s so hot and no other time, I would have had to eat it, but since I was mostly indifferent, I didn’t.

    I won’t play these games, they always end with a binge. Moderation in everything, even moderation!

    I’m so glad you’re here, Attrice, there are so few voices of sanity in the weight loss world.

  10. November 16, 2008 11:09 pm

    julie, I hate it when people get all freaked out about how to eat less on your birthday or a holiday or whatever. I mean, obviously, people should eat in whatever way makes them comfortable on Thanksgiving; I’m not saying anyone has to stuff herself if she doesn’t want to. But even if you buy into dieting, it is just ridiculous to pretend that anyone ever got fat from eating too much on Thanksgiving. Regardless of how much or how little anyone actually ends up eating that day, I would love so much to see nobody ever have to feel GUILTY about it again.

    Goes along with my hatred for the phrase “heart attack on a plate.” One meal never killed anyone, and if you’re going to feel that guilty about something then why even eat it in the first place? Now shut up so I can enjoy my poutine. 🙂 (Actually I’ve never had poutine, but I hope to someday, and nobody better be standing there cracking jokes about how fattening it is because I will have to hit them.)

  11. julie permalink
    November 17, 2008 12:02 am

    Spacedcowgirl, we tried poutine in Vancouver, but I’m not a gravy fan. If I liked it, I would eat it occasionally. Life is too short to feel guilty about food, I try to avoid people who freak out about what they’re eating. Not that I didn’t used to be like that myself, but now it just pisses me off. I must have been just awful, now that I think back on myself, especially as a teenager. Nor can I stand food nannies who want to comment on your choices. It’s hard to find friends these days, it’s just so entrenched.

    My mom always felt the need (and right) to comment on everything I eat, but since my dad no longer allows her to do that, she just glares at me. I ignore her, but it still is irritating.

  12. November 17, 2008 8:37 am

    cggirl,

    I think you’ve hit on the big problem I see with the concept when you say… “they cant even enjoy it, they are just trying to fit in as many forbidden foods as possible… ”

    Enjoyment is really what I see missing in a lot of discussions about ‘cheating.’

    Perhaps it has something to do with what Cath brought up in that American women especially associate those kind of ‘cheat’ foods with such guilt that pure enjoyment isn’t ever possible.

  13. November 17, 2008 8:44 am

    Wellrounded,

    I see what you’re saying and I definitely think it makes sense. Like so many things related to food and health, maybe it just comes down to people’s personal relationship with food? If you (general you) don’t categorize food into good/bad and you’re in touch with your own hunger and satiety signals, then you’re probably not likely to approach a cheat day like most dieters.

  14. November 17, 2008 10:33 am

    I don’t believe in “cheat” days because it sets up the “good food/bad food” dichotomy. But moderating food intake because it’s not good for you–right at this minute–isn’t some bad or unnatural idea, it’s life. When I see a dress or car that I can’t afford, I don’t buy it, but I don’t think it’s a “bad” dress or car, just something that doesn’t fit in with the rest of my life at this point. Same thing with a rack of ribs or a piece of pie. I am never giving up any classes of food for the rest of my life, but I try to keep my food in moderation all the time, instead of “starving” and “cheating.” It helps me stay sane.

  15. November 18, 2008 5:45 pm

    I kind of fall into a different class, in that there are foods I love and cannot have due to their effect on my body. And I am not referring to OMG may gain weight, I am referring balancing the wonderfulness of the strawberries with whipped cream and sponge cake with the fact that there is enough fructose in the strawberries to give me a massive migraine. Now, I can still eat that, I just have to block out enough time to have the migraine and recover, and the dessert REALLY has to be worth it. A lot of commercial ones…aren’t.

  16. Foodie McBody permalink
    February 6, 2009 6:44 pm

    Cheat days would be dangerous for me. I’ve tried that in the past, when I was on weight watchers and I’d have my “cheat day” be the day of my weigh-in and then I’d allegedly eat healthy the rest of the week. But often that cheat day stretched into the next day and the next and before I knew it it would be the cheat half-week and then… you get the picture.

    It might work for some people but I’d think they would be in the small minority. Not me. It goes into that sneaky “getting away with it” mindset that got me into trouble in the first place.

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