I’m not sure where the idea of a cheat day originated, but I know it’s a highly popular concept in the health and fitness industry. A lot of diet programs, professional trainers, and most of the people who have ever been on a diet all advocate for it. But, there’s a good chance that having a cheat day might be doing you more harm than good.
The best strategies for sustaining weight loss long term take holistic approaches and motivate people to make change in all areas of their life: quitting smoking, addressing addiction, changing your relationship with food, exercising efficiently and enjoying life. It starts with following a program and ends with adopting a lifestyle.
The most meaningful transformation always takes place when people are given the knowledge about how food interacts with their body, how it makes them feel, and how it impacts their energy, focus, and health. This is where change starts to stick.
If I understand what gluten is doing behind the scenes, negatively impacting my brain, my immune system and my skin I’m far less likely to eat gluten than if someone simply told me to “avoid wheat to lose weight.”
Knowledge truly is power in this context. Still, even highly reputable nutritionists, trainers, and bloggers — who aren’t short on any of the knowledge about what food does to people — recommend a cheat day. And if you take their advice there’s a strong possibility that you’ll be doing yourself an injustice. At worst, you may fall off the wagon altogether.
Having a “cheat day” begs the question: have you truly bought in to your new self?
You say you’ve made a new lifestyle for yourself, that you’ve changed your relationship with food and that you are empowered to avoid the things that made your former self fat, sick, and unhappy.
And in the next breath you proclaim that you have to escape from that lifestyle once per week. That’s not the behavior of someone who has completely bought in to their new approach.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you can’t reach your health and fitness goals if you have a cheat day. What I’m saying is that the end game of getting thin and healthy and staying that way has nothing to do with your know-how (and how clever you can be) and everything to do with your state of mind. It’s psychology that matters. And a cheat day interrupts that positive state of mind.
A cheat day changes your relationship with food and can supercharge extinction bursts.
There’s a cognitive dissonance with saying, “this is the new me,” and then clarifying it with, “six days a week.” No matter what you think about a cheat day, you’re not living life as the new you on that seventh day. That’s the old you and she’s hanging around, constantly reminding you that you’re powerless over her. You’ll never win this game.
A person who has successfully changed their relationship with food is determined to make it work seven days a week. Only then can they proclaim, this is the new me!
This is especially important for anyone who has previously been metabolically broken or suffered any degree of food addiction.
When your body is completely dependent on a macronutrient or your brain is addicted to the feelings produced by consuming processed foods and sugar and you begin to break away form that, a vicious cycle begins. This is the cycle of extinction bursts.
An extinction burst is a psychological phenomenon where your brain makes continual last ditch efforts to get you to return your addiction or dependency. These extinction bursts are powerful and they come in waves. As you fight them off (by not caving in) you get more powerful over your addiction.
One reason people tend to fail when transitioning is because they’re not aware of what extinction bursts are, why they occur, or how to gain power over them.
Escaping the extinction burst cycle is difficult even when you’re 100% focused. If you’re currently in the cycle or have just escaped it, using a cheat day strategy will almost certainly doom you to failure because it feeds the extinction bursts and shifts your focus. The cheat day effectively makes you less powerful over your dependency.
For most people, this can cause the wheels to totally come off the bus. 90% of dieters fail miserably and often gain more weight back than what they started with. The road ahead is hard enough without making it harder by feeding your addiction.
Cheating with wheat can impact you negatively for up to 6 months.
By definition, you tend to not worry about quality or ingredients on a cheat day. You just eat whatever you want: dairy, sugar, chemicals, hormones and antibiotics, toxins, GMOs, and the list goes on.
Thankfully, your body is strong enough to process these things and you may escape with little more than a few hours of tummy trouble. But there’s one thing your body doesn’t truly escape from: gluten.
It can take up to 6 months for gluten to become undetectable in your system. If you’re sensitive to gluten in the least, that means you can be left suffering (sometimes with symptoms that you misattribute to something else) for up to 6 months. Research shows that 1 in 3 people are gluten intolerant and 8 in 10 are predisposed to gluten intolerance, so you may not want to take this lightly.
Yes, that’s a worst case scenario. Most people sensitive to gluten recover in a few days to a couple weeks. But what about that persistent runny nose or sinus issue? What about that slight bit of eczema? All of those little annoyances could very easily be your cheat day talking.
To enjoy life, you should follow a set of principles you don’t have to escape from.
How does the manifesto for the lifestyle you truly want, read? If it says anything about “eating real food,” then I challenge you to only do that.
If you want a “dessert”, butter up a sweet potato and pour a bunch of cinnamon on it. Spring for some 85% dark chocolate. If you feel the need to pig out once in a while (a normal urge from time to time), by all means do so…with real food.
That’s what’s great about changing our paradigm from, my diet is restrictive, to my diet is liberating. SAD food isn’t something to cheat our way back to, it’s something we want to run far away from. And our new lifestyle gives us the tools to do that forever, seven whole days a week.
Kevin Geary blogs at The Rebooted Body where he teaches you how to reprogram your mind and body for rapid weight loss, vibrant health, and peak performance.