A Dietitian Explains Why "Cheat Days" Are Not A Real Thing

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Oh, how we love the days we give ourselves permission to stray from our healthy eating plans. But why are they called "cheat" days? The belief that cheating is necessary to maintain a healthy lifestyle reflects a deeper belief that balanced eating is just not enough. Cheating implies that eating a balanced diet is not 100 percent satisfying and involves sacrifices that somehow need to be made up for. It also implies that balanced living is an impossible task at which we can't succeed without sneaking around the system.

What does it really mean to have a balanced diet?

My observation is that the word "balanced" has become inherently restrictive and insufficient. Admittedly, I may be biased, as I really do love healthy food and am totally inspired and excited by all the things to do with vegetables and fruits. I get that not everybody is as veggie-crazy as I am, but I don't think that's a prerequisite for balanced eating. And having made one disclosure, here's a second: I really love (and eat) plenty of unhealthy foods, too—and I'd still consider myself a balanced eater.

The definition of "balanced eating" is not eating only healthy, nutrient-dense foods. In fact, I'd say eating only healthy, nutrient-dense foods is not balanced at all, especially if it means not letting yourself eat foods that you truly love. Balance is a mix of healthy and unhealthy, nutrition and pleasure, function and fun. It's a mix of eating nutritious foods you enjoy and not-so-nutritious foods you enjoy—because most of us need both to be satisfied.

Cheat days don't exist in a healthy diet.

I'm here to tell you that there's no such thing as a cheat day in a balanced, healthy approach to eating. You can enjoy any food you want on any given day as long as you own it, are intentional about your choices, and are honest with yourself about the pros and cons. Balanced eating is a fluid concept—it's different for everyone and it's about doing what's best for your individual body. But like many things in life, balanced eating is easier said than done. We all have different emotional connections to food, and most of us have what I like to call "food baggage."

The good news, though, is that it's possible to change this. It just takes a lot of patience and practice to alter your mindset. It's a skill you build over time by staying open to possibility, testing your assumptions, and experimenting.

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Start your inner dialogue.

So, what can you do? I suggest starting a friendly dialogue with yourself. Without realizing it, you may have been stuck in monologue mode for years, allowing one voice to rule you. The best way to open a dialogue is to start asking yourself these questions:

1. What do I really want?

  • I don't want to have to think about how much I eat or drink at the party.
  • I really want to feel successful the next day rather than regretful.
  • Analyze: Which do I want more? Is there a compromise that gives me a little bit of both?

2. How will doing (or not doing) this make me feel?

  • I'll feel liberated!
  • I'll feel a little overwhelmed.
  • I'll feel helpless or like a failure.
  • Analyze: Why will it make me feel this way?
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3. Am I making any assumptions?

  • I will feel deprived if I limit my alcohol and food choices.
  • The party won't be as fun if I set boundaries around my choices.
  • I will feel great and enjoy myself more if I let loose.
  • Analyze: Are my assumptions actually true?

4. Can I change my thinking?

  • I think I would feel deprived if I don't let myself have any treats but maybe not if I just set a limit on how many.
  • I might feel more empowered by setting limits and knowing I'm not undoing my successes from the week.
  • I might feel out of control and disappointed if I let loose.

It's important to consider both the present moment and the big picture when answering these questions, as sometimes the responses are different depending on the context. Remember, having an honest dialogue with ourselves (and not the actual decision) is where we really win. Balanced eating and living is not about a predetermined right or wrong; it's about making conscious choices with your best interests and true self-care in mind.

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