You’ve probably heard of the term “cheat day” before, and maybe even engaged in one (or several) yourself. A “cheat day” is essentially a break from your “healthy eating diet plan” where you have “permission” to eat whatever you’d like in whatever quantities you’d like. Many people who partake in diet plans involving restriction of certain food groups find this especially enticing, as intense nutrition regimens can be difficult to adhere to for long periods of time, and “cheating” gives them an excuse to satisfy their raging cravings.
As a fitness and nutrition professional, I cringe whenever I hear the words “cheat day”. Not because of the food that people are eating - believe me, I love a good donut or loaded cheese fries - but because it is a term prevalent within diet culture that encourages the perspective that certain foods are “good” and certain foods are “bad”. Labeling food in this manner often creates a moral association to our food choices, which can further support unhealthy and toxic behaviors relating to food and our bodies.
The Problem With An "All-Or-Nothing" Approach To Eating
Many diet plans involve non-negotiable restriction of certain foods or food groups, most often processed sugar or carbs. These “diet rules” lead people to subconsciously label restricted food items as “bad”, and allowed food items as “good”. Categorizing food in this way suggests that there is moral value rooted in the food choices that we make, and that we are also “good” or “bad” depending on what we eat. This can encourage feelings of guilt, shame and self-loathing following the consumption of “bad” foods. Additionally, these negative feelings often encourage one to continue to overindulge or binge eat due to one “bad” food choice, claiming that they “already messed up” and that they will be “good” tomorrow. As you fall deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of diet culture, this vicious cycle begins to repeat itself.
Strict diet → Categorization of food → Eat “bad” food item → Feelings of guilt → Binge eat → More feelings of guilt → Strict diet → Repeat
Does this order of events sound familiar? Have you, or someone you know, fallen into this pattern before? It is easy to get caught up in diet culture and the “all-or-nothing” mindset that it promotes. The media tells us that “this is the only way” to be healthy, but that is the complete opposite of the truth.
How “Cheat Days” Impact The “Binge-Restrict” Cycle
As described above, “cheat days” are essentially a “bargain deal” with your healthy eating plan, allowing you “permission” to eat outside of your diet rules for a certain period of time. Initially, it sounds like a great plan to incorporate balance into your strict diet approach, but it is a set-up for disordered eating and a toxic relationship with food.
I previously discussed how restrictive diets and diet culture tend to promote an “all-or-nothing” mindset as it relates to food, as well as support the idea that morality is strongly associated with our food choices. 'Cheat days’' add fuel to the fire by creating a further divide as to what is deemed acceptable, and what is deemed unacceptable. Either you are being “good” and eating according to your diet rules, or you are “cheating” and being “bad”; there is no in between.
When you “cheat”, you feel a moral responsibility to be “good” the next day, which, in diet-terms, typically means restricting your intake and avoiding all foods that are not allowed. Although you were justified to eat poorly (again, because it was your ‘cheat day’), you still feel a fair amount of guilt for disobeying your “diet rules”. You promise yourself that you will not, under any circumstances, eat any “bad” food until you have redeemed yourself and deserve a “cheat day”. However, this psychological deprivation works in opposition, as it now heightens your desire for “bad” food, making it nearly unbearable to control the next time you are given the opportunity to “cheat”. This leads to more exacerbated overeating, which leads to more exacerbated guilt and diet restrictions to follow.
Why An All-Inclusive Eating Approach Trumps Strict Dieting and Cheat Days
An all-inclusive eating approach places all food on the same pedestal. All food is viewed as equal, as it is all allowed within the diet to some degree. Yes, certain foods naturally contain more nutrients than others, but nothing is viewed as “off limits” or “bad”.