As kids, we were always taught that cheating was bad. Cheat on a test and you’re in the afterhours detention room. Cheat on a diet, and you’re facing probation time by the calorie police. Right?
As Kerri Landis explains, a “cheat day” is one during which she doesn’t have to worry. Landis, who has lost a total of 30 pounds between March and October of last year, is maintaining her current weight and plans to lose 10 to 15 more pounds in the near future.
“Cheating is a day where I don't pay too much attention, if any, to counting calories. I may or may not work out that day,” Landis said. “But overall, I act as if I'm not really dieting.”
For Landis, cheating is when she orders out at a restaurant or splurges on favorite guilty foods not eaten on a regular basis, like bacon, a glass of wine or French fries. Still, keep in mind that a cheat day does not incur frying up slab upon slab of bacon -- it’s a day to enjoy a slice or two, instead.
Like most dietitians and nutritionists, Shari Goldsmith, M.S., R.D., president of the Northern District Virginia Dietetic Association and Assistant Professor of Nutrition at the Northern Virginia Community College, shudders at the terminology of “diet” and “cheat day.”
“One should be eating healthfully all the time, not just for an artificial time frame called a 'diet'. Then an occasional treat becomes just that -- an occasional treat -- which accents an overall healthy array of food choices,” said Goldsmith.
But no matter how you define a weight loss plan or general, healthy eating, most nutritionally conscious eaters will agree on all ends that treating oneself to those guilty pleasures is important.
“Knowing I have a cheat day to look forward to makes the other days a lot easier to get through. Plus, it's nice to have a day where I don't have to stress too much about meal planning and calorie counting,” Landis said.
Goldsmith warns that, in today’s society, we tend to have an all-or-nothing view toward food. For instance, allowing oneself to enjoy a breakfast when out too often includes ordering that Grand-Slam-Home-Run-Double-Play dish at the local diner. While a pancake would have easily sufficed, we’ve conditioned ourselves that ordering a stack of five is just as acceptable.
Still, Goldsmith stated, “An occasional treat is important. Food is one of the most enjoyable human experiences, and taking pleasure in and appreciating all kinds of food in moderation is really celebrating what good food is all about. I personally wouldn't call it a ‘cheat day’ as that connotes going completely overboard and losing control; but everyone is different, so if a defined day works for you, then put it on your calendar."
According to Landis, cheating (hey, it’s what she calls it!) has helped her to stay on the right track in developing an overall, healthy relationship with food. Before lowering her caloric intake to account for weight loss, Landis ate whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. She also admitted to eating bigger portions and paying little attention to how much she was eating.
Now, she is apt to limit her caloric intake, knowing that there’s a reward at the end of each week.
“This has helped me feel less like I'm depriving myself of anything and more like I'm living a healthy lifestyle. I try to stay within my calorie range five to six days a week, and then let myself live a little during the other one to two days,” she said.
If a friend’s birthday is coming up, for example, ordering a grilled chicken salad may not always be an ideal, pleasant celebration while friends are otherwise cheers-ing with glasses of wine over devil’s food cake. If Landis is going out to eat one day at a joint with tempting foods (again, back to those French fries), she’ll eat less the previous days.
“This way, I don't feel like I'm going too overboard when I go over my calories for that particular cheat day. So, sometimes a cheat day is good motivation to do really well that week with my healthy eating habits. A cheat day really feels like a reward for a job well done that week,” she stated.
Goldsmith additionally highlights that establishing a positive relationship with food is crucial to ensure that we not only live longer, but increase the value of the years lived.
“We are, indeed, what we eat -- also, we are a product of other health-related behaviors as well," Goldsmith said. "We should be asking ourselves the tough questions -- and answering them honestly. Do I treat my body well by nourishing it properly? Do I exercise enough? Do I get enough sleep? What about alcohol and tobacco use?”
For those amidst dietary changes, transition tools are key. Likewise, think of a cheat day as one where you don’t have to feel guilty about eating a small slice of cheesecake, for instance.
“I cannot emphasize enough how a cheat day keeps you motivated to stay with a healthy eating plan,” Landis said. “You're never fully deprived of something that may be your favorite food. While I believe in living a healthy lifestyle, I firmly believe that life is too short to cut out foods that you love.”
So, folks, cheat a little, treat yourself -- all verbiage aside -- remember that it’s simply OK to cut yourself some slack now and then.