Are Having Cheat Days Really Healthy?
For many people following a strict diet, “cheat days” are practically a weekly ritual. But are the merits of these food frenzies worth the potential consequences? In health and fitness culture, “cheating” is a colloquial term that typically refers to eating whatever foods you want in any quantities. These intermittent episodes usually revolve around high-calorie and sugar-laden foods that many people naturally crave (e.g. pizza, ice cream,cookies, etc…)
It’s no surprise, really, that people who stick rigidly to a healthy diet every week would want a periodic break from eating the same select foods over and over again. But is “cheating” the answer? Let’s take a look at this particular fashion of dieting and whether or not it’s a healthy approach.
WHAT MAKES US HEALTHY?
Before we discuss cheating in the context of health, let’s consider what it means to be actually be healthy. In biological terms, health is defined as the prospect of our survival. Essentially, for something to be healthy, it would have to be conducive to extending our lifespan.
Intuitively then, things like carcinogens and noxious chemicals are unhealthy, particularly in large enough quantities, and should be avoided/limited. In regards to diet, “healthy” food is simply a nourishment that helps sustain us physically and mentally; we cannot discount the fact the food serves more of a purpose than just making us look a certain way (we will touch more on this later).
Back on the topic of health, bear in mind that we’re all unique genetically and a variety of factors influence how our bodies handle nutrients. Thus, a “healthy” diet is quite relative based on every individual’s needs. This is to say that many foods can be healthy inappropriate quantities. Even a slice of pizza can be completely conducive to bettering someone’s health if that individual is regularly active and is controlling their overall calorie intake.
CHEATING ISN’T FOR EVERYONE
The point being made here is that cheating might not be the healthy approach for everyone, especially when many people could stand to benefit from having a more modest approach to their diet that isn’t so (unnecessarily) restrictive.
Moreover, cheating, for many individuals, is not psychologically healthy. Repeatedly putting yourself through yo-yo cycles of eating solely select foods that you label as being “healthy” while viewing all other foods as off-limits (until the next cheat day) tends to give rise to eating disorders, such as binge eating. Individuals who can’t handle this kind of psychological stress when it comes to food typically respond much better to a more flexible diet approach. Even one small treat here and there throughout the week can have major psychological benefits for people looking to keep on a healthy, sustainable diet.
THE BEST DIET IS THE ONE YOU STICK TO
Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about -sustainability. Very few things in life are healthy if you only do them for a short period of time. Think about it, how healthy would going for run be if you were to only do it once for the rest of your life? Probably not that healthy. On the contrary, going for a run a few times per week, every week, would be quite a bit healthier in the long-term (and that’s very sustainable for most people).
When many people first start out on a new exercise regimen and want to improve their eating habits, they tend to follow the prototypical diets you’d find in most contemporary fitness magazines. Unbeknownst to these individuals, these diets are not nearly as healthy, or sustainable, as they may seem. Let’s take a look at an example such a “clean” diet:
• Meal 1—Egg whites and cooked oats
• Meal 2—Tuna, rice, and broccoli
• Meal 3—Repeat meal 2
• Meal 4—Whey protein shake
• Meal 5—Repeat Meal 2
• Meal 6—Casein protein shake
It’s no surprise at all that people feel the desire to cheat on their diet when that’s their food selection. It’s saddening to think that so many gym goers and health enthusiasts would look at that diet and proclaim it’s very healthy; reality is that it’s far from it, especially for the average individual just looking to get in better shape and lead a healthier lifestyle.
When you really analyze that diet, the first things that come to mind should be monotony and plainness. It really shouldn’t need much elaboration as to why following a diet like that would rapidly lead most people into turmoil psychologically,because there’s not much to look forward to when you eat the same five to six foods over and over again.
HOW DO WE FIX THIS ISSUE?
Let’s reconstruct the above diet to make it not only more sustainable, but also healthier. We’ve omitted quantities of foods as those are determined by your specific goals and energetic needs:
• Meal 1—Egg omelet, oatmeal, sliced strawberries with Greek yogurt
• Meal 2—Roasted turkey breast, baked sweet potato with almond butter
• Meal 3—Baked chicken breast, whole-wheat spaghetti with tomato sauce and mushrooms
• Meal 4—Whey protein smoothie made with banana, unsweetened coconut flakes, and milk
• Meal 5—Tacos made with lean ground beef along with a side of black beans and grilled asparagus
• Meal 6—Small serving of ice cream and fruit of choice
Notice how much more variety this sample diet has compared to the previous one. Also note the inclusion of small treat at the end of the day so as to avoid the need for any sort of “cheating” on this diet. Remember, the best diet for you is the one you can stick to while reaching your health goals.
Rather than looking at your diet as a short-term fix or a means to an end, start looking at it from a more holistic point-of-view. Do you want to live the rest of your days going through cycles of eating self-labeled “healthy” foods only to have it all crescendo every few days into a binge session with “junk” foods? Or would you prefer a more sustainable approach that keeps you satisfied while bettering your health? You’ll likely find that the latter is where you flourish.