Is “Cheat Days” okay to have, or should I stay away from it?

We are halfway through January already! Christmas and New Years are truly behind us. We are slowly making our way back to reality. No more friends and family over for a scrumptious lunch or dinner with a few bubbles. I understand that big celebrations like these can challenge our determination and perseverance when we are in our weight loss journey or our journey to a healthier life.


Trust me. I’m no Grinch. I celebrate and love Christmas. I remember when I was a kid, mum always cook up a big Christmas dinner which involves a leg of ham, a big turkey and plates of side dishes, salads and whatnot. This tradition is still going strong in my household but now, since I’m married, I’m doing this twice because I now also spend another fantastic day of eating (more or less similar yummy food) with my in-laws?. Yes, it was tough. Yes, it was hard to resist the urge to have seconds. It was extremely hard to not have an extra spoonful of that delicious trifle. However, life is all about the choices we make. We have more control over our lives than most of us think. In fact, I couldn’t think of anything in life that’s out of our control besides a natural disaster or anything which involves the input from others. The problem is not about lacking in choices; in fact, we are surrounded by an abundance of them. But what I see is that most people are afraid to make them instead.


A great tip I challenge all of you to do in 2020 is trying to find a healthy alternative. Yes, swap out that fatty piece of pork with some lean chicken breast meat. Yes, you don’t have to stay completely away from that mash potatoes, just have less of it. There are no obligations to have seconds, maybe save room for a little bit of that fat-free ice cream or a couple of pieces of the dark chocolate that you enjoy instead.


My friend, make 2020 be the year about making good choices for your health. Always remember, you are in control of that bowl of chips, not the other way around!


Anyway, to continue on the note of eating, a patient of mine asked me last week whether it is okay to have cheat days during their diet? I have to perfectly honest; every time I hear about cheat days from patients, it gives me goosebumps because I know from experience that it is a mindset that could set people on their weight loss journey to failure.


For those of you who don’t know what a cheat day is. It is pretty much a day where you could eat whatever you desire; otherwise, you couldn’t on days where you are on your diet. Now cheat day is like walking on thin ice. Unless you have fantastic balancing skills, most people are bound to fall through the thin ice and plunge into the cold ocean.


An honest answer to his question is yes; you can have cheat days. But I think a more important question to ask is: will cheat days sabotage my effort to remain faithful to my diet?


If you are starting on your diet, I would strongly recommend not to go into cheat days until you’ve paid off most of your debt. I always use the credit card analogy to describe people’s weight loss journeys. The reason your health deteriorates and your weight goes up are because you have overused your “body credit card.” Every time you eat unhealthily, you’ve swiped your “body credit card.” You are in a weight loss journey is because you have reached your “body credit card” limits and need to start paying off some of your debts.


Unless you’ve achieved your weight loss goal and have entered the maintenance phase, I think having a “cheat meal” rather than “cheat day” would be a much better option for most people. Scientifically, a cheat meal or day may be beneficial to people who are on calorie deficit diet and their metabolism has hit a wall. Splurging for a meal or meals in a day can help spike your metabolism so that you can continue on your weight loss journey. Having cheat meals or days can also keep you physiologically sane to satisfy any cravings you may have and, if done properly, can even help you stay on track in the long run.


The catch is, most people don’t do cheat days properly and this can lead to yet another attempt to stay healthy.


The word “diet” has a negative connotation attached to it. Most people would automatically relate it to deprivation and restraint. What is the natural response when someone is being restrained? Of course, is to resist. It’s no different to when people are on a diet, the majority of the people would rest their focus on what they can’t eat and hence make them feel the urge to cheat.


Cheat day usually gives people the feeling similar to finally seeing your partner the first time in years from a long-distance relationship. It’s either all or nothing. You’ll most likely opt for a large double cheeseburger with a loaded fries on the side and to finish off with a big slice of banoffee pie. This mindset of eating is like trying to make the most of your time with your loved one before they set sail again. Most people do this because it’s cheat day! You do it because you can.


The real problem usually starts the next day after your cheat day. The tantalizing flavours of your cheat day still lingering in your mouth and igniting your taste buds. You start strong but towards the end of the day, the intention of being good is diminishing and the next minute you know it, you are munching on the left-over slice of banoffee pie from last night. A little more won’t hurt aye? Is the only voice you could hear in your mind. Your determination crippled and you’ve finally turned rogue. A cheat day eventually turns into a cheat week. Need I say more?


Some of you may ask me – how do we escape this downward spiral of infinity?


First of all, you need to re-establish a healthy relationship with food. For most of us, ever since we were a child, we ‘ve been planted by society and our parents an idea that food was either a reward or a punishment. You did your homework; you get to munch on some potato chips. You clean your room. You get a double chocolate cookie. You didn’t eat your greens, so no jelly tip for you!


When we adopt a healthier lifestyle, our “cheat day” automatically becomes our reward, and our diet is the punishment. This relationship with food is like walking on thin ice. You are ultimately motivated to stay on a diet because of the food that you could indulge or binge on when your cheat day is up. How ridiculous does this sound to you? The reason you are living a healthier life is that you can be ridiculously unhealthy on your cheat day. That just defeats the purpose of your initial intention. Might as well not commit to the journey in the first place, right? Look, I’m not saying cheat day is bad. In fact, the opposite because if done correctly, they can help you stay on track. I get my cheat day every now and then and I make the most of it. The reason why I can stay on track rather skew off track is that even though I love food so much, I recognise and understand that is mainly for fuelling my body. Indulgence is fine only when you are in control of that packet of potato chips and not the other way around.


Secondly, for a weight loss plan with a cheat day incorporated to be successful, you must be very straight with what you eat, and the portion size must be followed closely for the rest of the “diet” days. Resist the temptation of switching that olive oil and balsamic dressing to a high-calorie Cesar salad dressing is the least expected from your determination and will power. If you cannot do that and be straight with your daily diet plan, then don’t expect “cheat day” can support your weight loss journey. In fact, it can sabotage and undo all the hard work you’ve put in so far.


So, the bottom line is that only cheat if you have already established a good relationship with food. This means that you can pick yourself up with ease the very next day after your cheat day and allowing “cheating” behaviour only to your that day. If you can do that with minimal disturbance to your determination and will power, then congratulation cheat day might work in your favour. Otherwise, don’t cheat and find another strategy that better suit you.


To your health and dreams,