Years ago, when I was a slave to frequent feeding and calorie counting, I had a regularly scheduled Cheat Day.
Sunday-Friday I consumed 1500 calories, broken down into six meals, with a 1:1 protein to carb ratio. I never strayed outside those parameters. Never. Except on Saturday, that sweet, sweet Cheat Day.
Aaaah, Saturday. It was delicious. I would indulge in all of my favorite things: bread, wine, cookies, pizza, brownies—you name it. Then, on Sunday morning, it was back to business as usual. This worked for a time; for about 6 months I maintained my lean physique and avoided binges or rebounds.
But what happened if there was a party or get together and it wasn't on my cheat day? Well, I'd either skip it, or go and be miserable. Sounds pretty amazing, right?
And then one Saturday, Cheat Day turned into Cheat Weekend. Sunday morning saw donuts with my kiddo, and Sunday night we ordered Chinese. Wine drinking found its way into Friday evening. Before I knew it, I was going on a Friday night-Sunday night binge, just about every week. The worst part?
On Sunday night, I'd find myself looking for something naughty to eat—even when I wasn't hungry—simply because I knew I had to start my diet again, come Monday morning.
On Monday, I'd feel bloated and corpulent, and by Friday I'd be lean again. It was an awful cycle. I was pretty much cray-cray.
Eventually, I had enough. I chose to break free from that cycle, quit counting calories and macronutrients, and started eating more intuitively. I experimented with intermitting fasting, food eliminations, Whole 30 challenges and so on. I have run the gamut of nutritional mayhem in my time, trust me. But the one thing I discovered, no matter how I was eating, was this:
Let's be clear—I'm not saying calorie counting and macronutrient portioning don't work. This stuff works, and in fact, it is integral in your nutritional journey as it teaches you what to eat and how much of it is right for you. I'm not saying cheat days don't work, and I'm not saying you should eat like me. The truth is, that for those of you just starting out, the idea of a planned cheat day could be very helpful. It will teach you to appreciate your "treats" and show you how differently you feel when you do eat less than optimally.
However, at this stage in my journey, I have found that given my lifestyle, cheat days are detrimental. I often get asked f I have "cheat days" or if I ever "cheat on my diet" and the truth is, no, I don't.
Do I eat things that won't propel me towards my physique goals? Of course I do. Do I even eat things that blatantly undermine my goals? Absolutely. But it's not all the time, and it's not scheduled. Instead, I eat pretty much on-point with my goals approximately 80% of the time, although that number could certainly be considered arbitrary. The rest of the time, I relax. It's usually when there is a special event to attend or when I'm traveling.
Staying within sensible nutritional parameters the majority of the time allows me to celebrate when it's time to celebrate—without guilt, binging, or rebounding. I still watch my portions by eating intuitively and mindfully.
I make sure I get my veggies and my protein, and I only drink alcohol when the occasion calls for it, or if my body feels it really wants a glass of wine. If I go to a restaurant where the bread is fabulous (I make my fiancé try it first!), then I have some. If I'm at Chelsea market, I'll have a Fat Witch caramel brownie or a raspberry vanilla cupcake from Eleni's, because they are a few of my favorite things. Every once in awhile, I eat french toast.
But I never binge. I never cheat. I have let go of all food related guilt. Instead, I listen to my body. I do my best to nourish it and give it both, what it needs and what it wants. I consistently eat in a way that pleases my palate and my physique, but sometimes I don't—and that's okay too.
Am I as lean as I used to be, when I was a slave to my food scale? No, not really. I used to maintain 12% body fat and was perpetually bikini ready. These days, I am far more aware of the fact that I am not a physique competitor, and there is no reason for me to drastically alter my lifestyle in order to be shredded 100% of the time. I stay pretty lean, although my weight fluctuates, and I always feel fabulous in my clothes. I am confident in a bikini, even if I am not ripped out of my mind. The most important thing to note is that I'm happy—and mostly sane—without cheat days.
Cheat days made me feel as though I had a window of time to consume all of the things of which I was deprived the rest of the week. They fueled guilt, over-eating, and disordered eating. They simply didn't work for me after the first few months.
While there are certainly some scientific factors that make cheat days effective for fat loss, including boosting leptin levels and having what is called a "re-feed," it really comes down to you and your lifestyle. There are countless ways to simultaneously lose fat and enjoy life. I encourage you to choose the path that cultivates and enriches your life, rather than one that forces you into calorie counting and cheat day mayhem.
Ask yourself: Do you really want that cheat day?
Do you want a day on the calendar to tell you what you're allowed to eat, to dictate your mood and your eating behaviors? Do you want the discomfort, bloating and guilt that usually accompany a cheat day? Or, do you want to eat joyfully and mindfully, fueling your body and your taste buds?
For some women, the choice to have cheat days or not is clear. They know what approach is right for them, and in which circumstances. For others, not so much. They need more guidance and more help navigating these tricky situations.
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