Why Do Cheat Days Work?

The cheat day is one of the all-time great innovations in diet and health culture. Truly a genius, genius idea.

If you're unfamiliar with the cheat day concept, it's just a pre-chosen day of the week where you get to break your rules--dietary or otherwise. You want to enjoy an extra snack? Go for it on your cheat day. Got your eye on that big slab of cheesecake? Have at it--on your cheat day. But don't forget the important part: make sure you keep your cheating limited to the one day you've chosen for it.

Better still, you can apply the benefits of cheat days in many disciplines. Are you trying to minimize your consumption of television or other vapid media? Give yourself one day a week to indulge in it without guilt. How about building a habit of waking up early? A cheat day gives you one day a week to sleep in and not feel like a loser for it.

Most importantly, the knowledge that you've got a cheat day coming up makes it easier to control yourself the rest of the week. Here's how:

1) It makes habit-building easier.
It's a lot easier to follow any habit when you only have to string six days together. It's a lot harder to build a habit when you know it's for .... FOREVER. But when you incorporate a cheat day, your new habit isn't for forever, it's just for the next six days. Then you can indulge. It just doesn't seem quite so hard to do, so you actually do it.

2) Satisfy the craving, pursue the pleasure.
Who says a diet has to be a life of permanent abnegation? One thing that sucks about dieting--or any new habit for that matter--is the ugly permanence of it all: no more "bad" foods. No more fun.

But with a once-a-week cheat day, you can let your hair down and enjoy some extra pleasure. Better still, the fact that you can indulge means you'll actually experience fewer cravings for that indulgence. You'll appreciate the "sin" more, and you won't need it quite so badly on your "good" days.

3) You'll feel like crap after a heavy cheat day.
A well-executed cheat day has some convenient follow-on effects. A dietary example: if you eat clean for six days but then indulge heavily on day seven, you're going to feel pretty lousy--both on that day and perhaps the next couple of days.

This is a good thing. It just reinforces better habit formation. You'll want more discipline and you'll want to experience more moderation going forward, and it will be even easier to make it through the next six days without cheating.

4) More mindfulness.
All of this adds more mindfulness--not just with how you eat, but in any area of your life where you seek improvement. You know what sinful foods are for, and you know their proper place in your diet. You know what habits you want to build, and what behaviors you want to change. And since you can still "cheat" once a week, you know they'll never find their way back into your daily habits again. And this helps you reach your goals faster and more effectively... and without any unnecessary suffering.

Once again, cheat days aren't just for food. I'm convinced we can take the cheat day concept and use it in nearly any area of life. And hey, why not consider a financial cheat day? After six days of carefully minding your spending, reward yourself with a "money cheat day" and go out and blow a pre-determined sum of dough on whatever you want!

Readers, what ideas can you share for applying cheat days in your lives? Share your thoughts!

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Anonymous said...

5. Guilt!

At least that is what cheat day did for me. Last June, I started to drink water to the exclusion of all other beverages. In late July, I had an adult beverage in celebration. I felt so guilty for about 2 weeks after, that I have pretty much stuck to that water only habit since then.

Sally said...

I'm opposed to the idea that enjoying a treat is "cheating." Why does eating something that tastes good and brings you pleasure have to be called "cheating?" Why can't it be "enjoying a treat?" Why does the food have to be called "sinful?" Why can't it be tasty or pleasurable, something for enjoyment or celebration?

I think our thoughts about and language about food is part of our problem with food. It's not good or bad. There are things that are to be consumed more often, things to be consumed less often. All are to be enjoyed.

In "Our National Eating Disorder" Michael Pollan wrote: No wonder we have become, in the midst of our astounding abundance, the world's most anxious eaters. A few years ago, Paul Rozin, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, and Claude Fischler, a French sociologist, began collaborating on a series of cross-cultural surveys of food attitudes. They found that of the four populations surveyed (the U.S., France, Flemish Belgium and Japan), Americans associated food with health the most and pleasure the least. Asked what comes to mind upon hearing the phrase ''chocolate cake,'' Americans were more apt to say ''guilt,'' while the French said ''celebration''; ''heavy cream'' elicited ''unhealthy'' from Americans, ''whipped'' from the French. The researchers found that Americans worry more about food and derive less pleasure from eating than people in any other nation they surveyed.

I strongly agree with the idea of relaxing and enjoying a treat food regularly. I strongly disagree with calling it "cheating."

Shannon said...

3 points for effective use of "abnegation" in a sentence!

Melissa said...

I was trying to figure out how to eloquently disagree with this post, and thankfully, Sally got me started.

I vehemently oppose cheat days. I think every day should be the same - not 100% strict, not 100% indulgent. Balance. Every day.

The words cheat and guilt and diet and good and sinful and bad have no place for me and I think they do psychological damage to all of us, to any of us, to continue to use them. I am distressed just thinking about how many people (mostly women) I see using them, every day, in regards to food, to determine their "goodness" and their self-worth. No.

I try each day to nourish my body the best I can with what it needs. Some days I don't do that as well as others, but I try not to attach any emotion or concept of right or wrong to it because I see that as unhealthy thinking. I have persuaded a few gals on tumblr to try that perspective and they are much happier for it as well.

Sally said...

@Melissa - Thanks for completing my thoughts.

This is a little off-topic, but I also have problems with food being healthy/unhealthy. Food is neither healthy or unhealthy. Some foods promote health, others not so much. The foods that don't promote health as much should be consumed less frequently, but not necessarily eliminated. Nor should one feel guilty or be made to feel guilty for liking and eating them.

Daniel said...

I'm always happy to hear sound and well-articulated disagreement from my readers.

But let's not let our individual semantic preferences separate us from an idea that really works.

One idea to consider: use a different word. If the word "cheat" bothers you, call it something else. A freedom day. A cake day. Or, borrowing Sally's phrase, an "enjoying a treat" day. The whole point is to evaluate the idea, not the emotional content you might see in a word, right?

We're all after the same things: how to build and sustain a healthy life. Don't let mere semantics interfere.


KB said...

Mr. B and I used cheat days for awhile. They worked for me for awhile; I'd monitor my eating carefully all week long and then use up my saved weekly WW points. The problems for me were:

1. A really satisfying cheat day can sometimes more than undo the effects of the week's discipline.

2. For me, it reinforced some all-or-nothing behaviors, which for many of us with food issues can turn into binge-like behavior.

3. I've had to teach myself that help doesn't equal deprivation, and using cheat days made me feel like I deprived myself of something for six days and then rewarded myself with it on day seven.

That said, the over-indulgence certainly would help me want to get back on track, but it would also sometimes make it HARDER to get back on track.

I do like the general idea, though I think for some of us, it reinforces some bad thinking. (Also, I'll note that what I've said here actually applies to finances for me, too! The two are disturbingly tied, I find.)

KB said...

Ahem, in 3 -- HEALTH, not help. :) *Bad English teacher!*

Joanne said...

Rather than have cheat days, I have cheat moments. For example, I LOVE peanut butter but it's obviously high in calories. For a while I tried to make myself not have it but that just resulted in a major binge. Now, I eat it as part of my breakfast every day. Problem solved.

Obviously this can't be done with all foods that one craves, but it's the same idea. Because I know I can have it at some point, it isn't quite so desirable.

Diane said...

Yes - what Sally and Melissa said. Defining your life in terms of cheat and non-cheat days (or treat and non-treat days - whatever) is - in my opinion fairly pathological.

Enjoy your life. Do things in moderation. Don't define yourself in terms of your habits.

Melissa said...

For me, Dan, it isn't semantics. The words are not the issue. I actually don't think cheat days work in the long run, for a lot of people. It fosters an all or nothing mentality, a punishment and reward mentality, with the "punishment" portion of your week being what SHOULD be your "normal and healthy and relaxed." This is how I see it, and I guarantee you this is how people think of it. I've been "good" all week, now I will be "bad" for one day. That makes me cringe.

It seems I am not necessarily in the minority, either. I'd love to hear an even wider discussion on it!

Daniel said...

I hear you Melissa. And I like your perspective on the idea of reward/punishment. Further, I can see how the cheat day concept would fail utterly with, say, smoking, for example.

Then again, I think some people would consider a cheat day option more of an encouragement to take action in the first place. It's an idea for people who consider the idea of going "cold turkey" to be too intimidating and too all-or-nothing. Interestingly, in this case the cheat day option could offer a *less* all-or-nothing solution. Depends on how you look at it.

I'd be interested in going deeper on this subject, perhaps there's a post in here: is it more all-or-nothing to change a habit cold turkey, or is it more all or nothing to rotate in cheat days while you adopt a new habit?

Good discussion. Once again, this is exactly why I seek out readers who disagree with me.


Diane said...

Again, Melissa said very well what I was thinking. This isn't semantics. It's an issue of setting up your mind to judge your life and act to dole out punishments and rewards to yourself. The whole concept makes me exhausted just thinking about it.

Sally said...

Once again I agree with Melissa.

Melissa said...

And that's exactly one of the reasons I enjoy reading you and knowing you all these years. True discourse, even in disagreement. You're a gem. :) I really would be curious about other opinions. I will also consider tossing this out on tumblr and seeing what others in my running and/or health and fitness circles think of the concept of cheat days.