Cheat Days – Yay or Nay

Cheat days – one of those topics that pop up constantly and cause flare-ups almost every single time. As much as all nutrition-related topics tend to cause strangely disproportional emotional outbursts, some matters stand out even more, and this is one of them.

Every time someone asks for a guidance or offers an opinion, you are likely to see one of these:

– Yess! We live only once, why torture ourselves over an occasional guilty pleasure!

– Absolutely – cheat days hep me stay the course. Without them I’d be more likely to fall of a wagon.

– Who are you cheating on but yourself? It’s your health at stake, why would you do this to yourself?

Add occasional timid “I do it now and then but I feel guilty about it,” and you have most of the typical reactions. Sure enough, each of these invite stern responses and equally strong support, and then opposite camps have at it.

When you observe these flame wars, you almost invariably see that many opinions are being offered in all-encompassing manner, as if we all were uniformly similar in each and every regard. The range of our reactions to this or that dietary intervention, however, is wide. Instead of making blanket recommendations, it’s more useful to offer the way to classify your situation and select your strategy depending on such classification.

Ultimately, the main question with cheat days is: Do they help you stay on path, or do they reinforce the notion of junk food being desirable, and a lost pleasure in your life? If they increase overall compliance, great – have them once in a while. If they maintain never-ending longing for harmful foodstuff – why cultivate and prolong your cravings? I believe the answer will be different for different individuals, and even for a given person it will change as we progress on our journey So… instead of trying to come up with universal answer, let’s look into ourselves and find our own answer with brutal honesty.

How? By listening to ourselves and by experimenting. First, ask yourself whether you really crave something or it’s merely a habit speaking. If you find it easy to get distracted and forget about pizza, or pasta, or whatever your subject of craving is, it’s likely to be an old habit and not a real strong longing. So go ahead and distract yourself with a good book, a movie, or a stroll along the beach. If, however, you notice a little half-transparent cloud with an image of an ice cream cone following you during that stroll and becoming all you can see and think of, it might be time for the next step of your experiment.

Go ahead and get that cone. Or slice of pizza, if that’s what was drawn on that cloud. Enjoy it, and listen to yourself: does it taste as good as you thought it would? The thing is, as we move through our low carb, keto or fasting journey (or combo of those), we lose our taste for many of former favorites – they become too sweet for us. We spoke about it in this post. Also, even if it’s still as good as you remember, pay attention to another aspect: when you finish it, do you want more or are you satisfied with one serving?

Next, listen to your body as it deals with your meal (if you have blood glucose meter, use it to measure postprandial). Many find that they now feel horrible after high carb or sugary food – heaviness, sleepiness, stomach ache, bloating are among frequently mentioned symptoms. If that’s the case, you have your answer – your body just doesn’t want this stuff, and neither do you. Finally, important question to ask yourself is: now that you gave in to temptation, do you feel satisfied or did it trigger new wave of cravings?

That’s your sequence of steps and road signs to find out where you are on the cheat day scale.

  • If you have no real cravings – great, don’t shove the pastry down your throat.
  • If you do want it, can have just one, feel fine after it and don’t feel the need for another for a long time after that – have your cheat meal once in a while. It doesn’t cause much harm to you, doesn’t bring back former cravings and probably gives you a good feel of self-control.
  • If you don’t feel particularly well after having that pasta, why torture yourself? You enjoy its taste for ten minutes, then suffer for a day and feel guilty for a week. Not a good trade-off.
  •  Finally, if having one meal wakes up former cravings – that’s the worst possible outcome of the experiment. Cheat meals are not for you – at least not yet. They trigger undesirable physiological response in your body. They also have unfortunate psychological effect, by making you feel deprived of something valuable and highly yearned for. Sorry to say, you are going to have to refrain from them, at least for now.

One more important detail: I would suggest using another name instead of “cheat” day or meal. You see, words that we use matter. They create, break, or reinforce certain attitudes and perceptions. This one reinforces the notion of some foods being forbidden while remaining coveted (in ketogenic lifestyle, term “forbidden fruit” takes whole new depth, doesn’t it?). It signifies restriction requiring constant discipline, permanent self-control, and, eventually, growing resentment. In fact, this is not the case at all; your low carb lifestyle can be perfectly satisfying without any feeling of being deprived. Call them test days. Or carb up. Or carb cycling. Or switch up. Or metabolic flexibility test. Or metabolic flexibility training. None of these terms would be cheating (see what I did there?), since that’s exactly what those days are. And just as with many foods, they may or may not be a part of your regimen depending on your tolerance.

There you have it – your personalized answer to a cheat meal question. Pure rationale, without moralizing, guilt, emotional outbursts or arguing. Isn’t that nice?

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