When it comes to diet and exercise, it’s easy to fall into the all-or-nothing trap. But there are a few ways to actually stay on track without riding this pendulum of extremes. A few options: 1) Moderation. But that’s easier said than done. 2) Extrinsic motivation. Sign up for a race or physical event to keep your fitness and your routine on track. 3) Cheat days. Eat the foods you love (with abandon) but only on certain days or at certain times while sticking to a healthy diet the rest of the time.
This last solution is not only difficult to achieve, but highly contested in the fitness industry. Are cheat days/meals worth it? What’s the benefit? And how do you navigate a sea of chocolate cake and nachos while still reaching your fitness goals? Let us break it down for you.
Are Cheat Meals Worth It?
That’s a personal question. No, really. We’re not trying to avoid the answer, it’s just that you have to find a system that works for you. For instance, if you’re totally content eating chicken and broccoli with no end in sight, then cheat meals probably aren’t necessary. But personally, we’d go crazy if we had to stay within such strict limitations. So if you’re looking to give your mind and taste buds a break, cheat meals are definitely worth it. All you have to do is plan accordingly.
What’s the Benefit?
Ask 10 different fitness experts and dietitians their opinion about cheat meals and you’ll get as many answers. However, they can pretty much all agree that cheat meals are good for three reasons: Your mindset, your motivation and your sanity. If having a brownie once a week makes eating vegetables that much easier — do it! If planning for three drinks a week (not in one night), rather than cutting out alcohol altogether, seems like an achievable goal, great! There is no quick fix to losing weight or getting stronger, so if building in a cheat meal helps you stay consistent in the long run, we’re here for it! Use these eight tips to help you get the most out of your cheat day without derailing your progress.
Managing the Cheat
Opt for a cheat meal, not a whole day
Of course one meal won’t ruin your progress, just like one healthy meal won’t make you lose weight, but since when is it easy to stop after just one meal? Often times what starts as “just one treat” turns into an all-day affair, possibly longer. That’s why we are big advocates of the cheat meal versus the cheat day. There’s definitely a window of indulgence and there’s less of a chance that your extra cookie or serving of pasta will turn into an eat-everything-in-sight binge.
Have a pre- and post-cheat game plan to jump right back into your healthy lifestyle without delay. Plus, having a specific snack to look forward to can help you avoid temptation and stay on track the rest of the week. For example, you say to yourself, "I'll pass on those store-bought cookies in the breakroom because I know I have a football game with the guys on Sunday." And we all know game day grub isn’t the healthiest — unless you follow our Super Bowl snack guide.
If you’re anything like us, we prefer our indulgences carby, cheesy, salty and meaty. (It’s pizza. We’re thinking about pizza. We want all the pizza.) Minimize the effects of a pepperoni pie by drinking extra water the day after a cheat. This will help flush out the toxins and extra water (from the sodium) you may be holding onto today, and restores your body to it’s pre-cheat condition.
Break the indulgence cycle by planning a feel-good, taste-good meal for the day after. And no, we don’t mean a sad desk salad. Try a buddha bowl, for example, stuffed with quinoa, greens, roasted veggies and a protein of your choice. Jazz it up with a drizzle of tahini, sriracha or squeeze of fresh lime. Pro tip: go for multiples. Plan for leftovers or stock up from your favorite clean, to-go restaurant. Either way, having several healthy, satisfying options ready on hand takes the guesswork out of cooking and sets you up for another week of success.
Use the Energy You Have
When possible, plan your cheat meal around a big workout. Treat yourself to a big brunch after a 10K or a long bike ride. Or hit the gym the next morning to see what’s possible. Go for a run if you feel totally energized the whole time. Or head to the gym and go for a new personal record in reps or weight. Calories are fuel, right? Whatever your activity of choice, simply get moving!
Know Your Triggers
Follow Plato’s advice and “know thyself.” That is, know how you are with food and then figure out a way to eat what offers freedom without falling off the wagon. Some people can eat small snacks without losing control, need one big meal per day, or can't even be around desserts without turning into Cookie Monster. Find your sweet spot and apply as you see fit. Maybe that means small indulgences every day or one big meal on a weekly basis. You do you.
Satisfy Your Cravings
One of life’s most basic pleasures is craving a food and being able to eat exactly what you want. This can be your reality. Cheat meals are the opposite of going cold turkey on your favorite foods. It’s allowing your body (and mind!) to have exactly what it wants in a controlled environment. Denying yourself that thing will lead to either obsessing over it until you binge or continuing to seek out other replacement foods that will never fully satisfy you. Either way leads to overeating.
Find a New Reward System
From a very young age, we’re taught to use foods to soothe emotions. And this continues into adulthood where we use food as a coping mechanism and a celebration technique — both of which could sabotage your weight loss goals. Rather than using consumable treats to acknowledge your hard work, try to identify another reward that will help further motivate your progress. New running shoes. A new playlist on Spotify. A massage. The options are endless, but choose something that resonates with you.
The Bottom Line
Long-term weight loss is a marathon, not a sprint, and a journey that requires a good deal of mental fortitude. The benefits of a planned cheat day or meal are much more psychological than physical. Indulging — either daily or weekly — keeps you sane and gives you the reprieve you need to stick to your long-term goals just as long as it doesn’t turn into a full-scale binge.
What’s your philosophy on cheat meals? Do you partake? Let us know in the comments below. There’s no one-size-fits-all method to achieving a healthy lifestyle, so we want to hear what works for you!