Like anything in the field of nutrition science these days, there are conflicting thoughts on whether or not intermittent fasting and cheat days are an effective method for weight loss. One thing is for certain though: the best nutrition patterns for weight loss are ones that you can stick to. The word "cheat" means to act dishonestly and unfaithfully or to avoid something undesirable. Cheating on a lifestyle change signifies that the actions are not in an honest alignment with your health goals, you are being unfaithful to your commitment to change or the changes you are trying to make are undesirable to you.
What are "Cheat Days"?
Cheat days are momentary lapses in sticking to a nutrition or lifestyle pattern that you are trying to achieve. These cheats can be as small as a snack or as large as a weeklong event. My clients have described to be lapses from a snack after dinner when nobody else was watching all the way to a 7-day cruise in the Caribbean. What they all had in common was the knowledge that the actions were not in helping them to reach their long term health goals. Many of my clients have been able to rebound from a cheat day, however, some have found the transition back to the goal eating pattern to be a bit more difficult. So my next question is, why do we do it, even though we know it's not leading us to what we want?
Why do we cheat on diets?
Research is currently limited on why we cheat on diets and how to overcome them. Findings on the frequency, nature of and causes of the lapses are mixed. A few small studies have some suggestions on why cheating on diets happens.
A recent 2017 interview-style study on 40 people who successfully lost and maintained weight revealed that cheat days happened as a way to save face in relationships (Romo, 2017). Some people are faced with sabotage, criticism, and less social support after a successful weight loss journey. In order to save their relationships with friends and family, these successful losers shared they used strategies such as taking part in cheat days, accepted food but did not eat it, avoided social situations involving food, or ate unhealthy food in smaller portions to fit in with the group. Some successful losers reported that they'd give an excuse about their personal choice for certain health reasons in an effort to balance between maintaining their weight management practices without compromising their relationships (Romo, 2017).
According to a 2017 study on 189 adult weight loss participants, lapses happen the most when were in a poorer mood (such as being stressed, bored, angry, frustrated, or sad) and the "forbidden foods" were readily available. The greater the belief of deprivation, the greater the desire to cheat (Forman, et al., 2017). When the alleged momentary hunger was the strongest, the desire and action of cheating was the most common (Forman, et al., 2017). These non-physical hunger cues are also known as emotional hunger.
When does cheating happen the most?
In a study of 189 adults in a 12-month behavioral weight loss program, surveyors asked participants about if cheating happened and requested them to explain the situation, their setting, and their mood states at that time (Forman, et al., 2017). From this study, we learned that lapses happen most often at home, in the evening, on weekends, and included eating a forbidden food (Forman, et al., 2017). At first lapses were more frequent, then declined, and then increased again (Forman, et al., 2017). The more lapses that occurred- especially in the beginning- were linked to poor initial and long term weight loss (Forman, et al., 2017).
What to do about the cheating?
There really aren't any solid research studies out there about how to change the diet cheating mentality, but I have a few ideas of my own…
1. Delete deprivation.
The common tie associated with cheating, as seen in the research, is acting out against feeling deprived and eating a "forbidden food." If there was no such thing as forbidden foods, could cheating still happen?
How would your relationship with food change after changing the way we think about foods from "I am allowed to have this, but I shouldn't have that" to "I choose to eat this. I am currently not choosing to eat that"?
When you know that there is no such thing as a food that is off-limits, how would you react?
2. Get a supportive support system.
Find a support system who supports you or at least understands your health goals. Having an ally is helpful when going through a lifestyle change. People who regularly attend and engage in support groups are more successful in weight loss than those that are not. Plus, they'll be your buddies who want to do the things that are in alignment with your health goals such as going for a bike ride, walk, or going out to a trendy healthy restaurant. They're going to be your friends where not everything at every social gathering revolves around food. Need help finding a support group? The Obesity Action Coalition has a list of in-person support groups in your area http://www.obesityaction.org/advocacy/support-groups or you can join an online support group like those at Weight Loss Buddy. http://www.weightlossbuddy.com/Features.aspx
3. Stop Impulse Eating
Because the evening and the home environment are times and places of high likelihood of lapses usually triggered by stress, make that time and space as stress-free as possible. Before reacting rashly to that emotional hunger that often occurs here, take a moment to stop, breathe, and reflect before acting. One strategy that has helped my clients is setting a timer for 15 minutes in which they switch their attention to a new task in a completely different room or use it for relaxation and meditation. Once the timer rings, they are then given the opportunity to make a decision with a less stressed mind and in a physical space that was different than when the desire to snack was first triggered.
Please share with me...
Are you pro- or anti-cheat days, why?
What are the reasons you believe that we cheat on our nutrition and health related goals?
What steps, if any, would you take to stop the self sabotage?
Forman, E. M., Schumacher, L. M., Crosby, R., Manasse, S. M., Goldstein, S. P., Butryn, M. L., . . . Thomas, J. G. (2017). Ecological Momentary Assessment of Dietary Lapses Across Behavioral Weight Loss Treatment: Characteristics, Predictors, and Relationships with Weight Change. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 1-13.
Romo, L. K. (2017, February). An Examination of How People Who Have Lost Weight Communicatively Negotiate Interpersonal Challenges to Weight Management. Health Communication, 1-9.