I started my current weight loss plan on the 28th December 2018, more than four months ago. And, in that time, I’ve managed to curb my sweet tooth and stay true to my goals. Sure, there have been times when I’ve eaten more than I wanted, but I’ve always managed to stick to ‘allowable’ food items. Nothing that could be classed as an out and out cheat. April, however, turned out to be a real challenge. My routine was disrupted by a number of trips away. And then there was the small matter of Easter… So I decided I should try a cheat day.
A cheat day, for those who don’t know, is when you throw your dietary restrictions out of the window and eat whatever you want for the whole day. It is the bigger version of the ‘cheat meal’, where you do the same thing but only for the duration of a single meal. Unsurprisingly, the whole concept of the cheat day is highly contentious. For some people, cheat days are an essential part of their lifestyles. Other people, however, insist that you should never have a cheat day…
A lot of the differences between these points of view stem from the starting position. It can usually be summarised as the difference between a ‘diet’ and a ‘lifestyle’.
As I’ve been losing weight and increasing my exercise levels, I’ve been drawn to YouTube to look for guidance. I think the difference in attitudes regarding cheat days is made plain, here.
How can such a thing be possible, I hear you cry…
Well. I’m glad you asked.
Natacha is in her 20s and is living a very active lifestyle where she does intense exercises sessions, regularly throughout the week. Jeff, who also does this, is in his 40s. While they’re both fitness professionals, Jeff is a qualified personal trainer and physical therapist. Natacha is neither of these things, nor is she pretending otherwise. The key, here, is that they’re focusing on different people. This isn’t to say there isn’t crossover, there is. Everyone can benefit from either of them. But certain people will get more from one than the other.
Jeff’s main focus is getting overweight, unhealthy people back on track. These people tend to be older and, therefore, have a slower metabolism. While Jeff is adamant that ‘diet’ isn’t the solution to this, that it needs to be a healthy lifestyle, he famously only eats cake once a year. Natacha appeals more to younger people, with their sparkly new metabolisms. She, famously, eats in the region of 2,800 calories a day, and still looks incredibly fit. She also has a huge cheat day every six weeks, or so.
Ah, to be young again…
So, while neither Natacha or Jeff recommend ‘dieting’, the lifestyle that each have adopted means that they have a calorific equilibrium. It’s just that this equilibrium is easier to maintain when you’re in your 20s, compared to when you’re over 40. So, while Jeff might not be ‘dieting’ per se, for those of us who have been serial dieters, it’s close enough to be confusing in low lighting.
For me, the upshot of all this is:
- You should be able to have a cheat day if you’re on a diet, because ‘dieting’ isn’t a permanent state; it’s a means to an end. ‘Cheating’, in this case is okay, because you know that at the end of the diet phase is the lifestyle change, where cheating will no longer be necessary.
- You should not need a cheat day if you’ve adopted the correct lifestyle choice. The whole point of a healthy lifestyle is that it’s healthy and balanced. It’s something that you can enjoy doing for the rest of your life. If you feel the need to ‘cheat’ from your daily routine, then the routine isn’t right. Your lifestyle has to have the right balance of exercise and foods that you enjoy, to keep you fit and healthy.
So, because I’m in a diet phase, I should be allowed a cheat day. I could cheat for this one day, and then get straight back on the diet.
It sounds so simple.
I agonised over the decision for quite a while. I’m fully aware of my own unhealthy relationship with food. I have a very sweet tooth and tend to associate eating cakes, sweets, biscuits (cookies), etc with happiness. For most of my life, I had to have something ‘nice’ each day, or I felt I was missing out. And ‘nice’ invariably meant ‘hugely calorific’. Over the years, an awful lot of diets have ended when I strayed from the path just once.
Having broken the diet (cheated) once, it became so much easier to do it a second time. Within a week, the diet was nothing but a memory, and all the weight piling back on. Often with reinforcements.
On the flip side, my enthusiasm to stick to my diet plan had been waning over the previous weeks. It had become harder to find the motivation to cook the evening meals; takeaways seemed so much more appealing. I’d even started to plan for when the diet would end, something I hadn’t been doing at all this time around. For me, thinking about what comes after the diet, just means the diet is about to end.
I needed to do something.
I was trying to balance the two issues:
- Would it be better to have a cheat day, satisfy my cravings, and risk not being able to get back on track?
- Would it be better not to have a cheat day and risk the whole thing falling apart because my cravings won out?
Frankly, there was no easy answer. But, at 3pm on Easter Monday, I decided that, on balance of probabilities, I should have a cheat day. Well, a part cheat day, really, given that I was starting in mid-afternoon; but that was part of the appeal. After all, how much damage could I do in 12 hours?! (I tend to go to bed at around 3am)
The fact that it was Easter Monday was another thing that was in my favour. Easter Monday is, very much, a special occasion. I rationalised that, going forward, I could associate the cheat day with a genuine special occasion, thus making a relapse less likely. Fortunately, the number of equivalent special occasions throughout the year is very limited. In reality, they are limited to:
- Easter (April)
- Wedding Anniversary (July)
- My Birthday (September)
- Christmas (December)
You see how my mind works?! Even in the midst of trying to work out whether I should have a cheat day at all, I’ve managed to plan one per season…
Anyway, I was going for it; it was cheat day time. I started with a packet of cheese and onion crisps in Hestercombe House, which I was visiting with Julie. I wanted something that actually had crunch to it. Something with a bit of texture. Eating the crisps was… alright. It was nothing special! It didn’t really do anything to solve the cravings. Not that I expected it to; crisps are savoury, my weakness has always been sweet.
When I got home, I started to graze. There was Easter chocolate everywhere around the house. In the great scheme of things, I didn’t go too mad. Mainly because the taste of the chocolate wasn’t really moving me. I found myself eating snack bars from the drawer, more out of habit and because I was allowed to cheat, then from any real desire.
The biggest calorie intake of the day was from the fish and chip shop. Savoury again… I had Spam Fritters and Chips (fries). I had a lot of chips…
Strictly speaking, my ‘diet’ allows me to eat takeaway food like Fish and Chips, it’s just that I’ve chosen not to. If we are having a takeaway, I’ve tended towards other, healthier, options in an effort to maintain my weight loss. I’ll do a post on my healthy takeaway choices, because sometimes you need to have a break from routine. And you need to be able to do so without derailing yourself. Hence my choice to largely avoid deep fried food.
After the evening meal, I continued to graze on chocolate, despite it not really doing anything for me. I also had a half dozen chocolate digestive biscuits, which were nicer. What I really wanted was cake, that’s my real Achilles Heel. I didn’t have any, though; we didn’t have any in the house and I didn’t go out to get any. Even if it hadn’t been Easter Monday night, meaning everything was closed, I wouldn’t have gone.
I had my evening porridge, as normal. Then I decided to have some Ice Cream. The tub had been in the freezer for months too long; it looked quite dehydrated… I still ate it though. I didn’t even want it, I was already uncomfortably full from all the other snacking and grazing. But the ‘Cheat’ mentality drove me to consume it. Which brings me back to my relationship with food. And why the diet I’m doing has to be as restrictive as it is.
The really strange thing is that I didn’t really enjoy my cheat day. I didn’t actively want any of the things I ate, with the exception of the first Penguin Bar. That was awesome. The ones that followed, much less so; the Law of Diminishing Returns, and all that. I still ate all the Penguin Bars in the house, of course; it’s how I am.
Which is why I’m working hard to change that into being, ‘how I was’.
In terms of being worried how my cheat day would impact on my weight loss for the week, I wasn’t really. In the past, when I have broken my diet and got back on it, it’s often seemed to benefit the weight loss. For me, it’s seemed that the ‘shock’ of getting all that sugar ‘wakes’ the body up again. You know how you always lose about half a stone (7lb/3kg) in the first week of a diet? It’s always seemed there’s been a slight return to that position.
I do understand that, in reality, that first half stone in mainly water weight. I’m just explaining how it’s worked for me. And there does seem to be some indication that a cheat day causes a boost in the metabolism. But it’s only a small boost, and for a very limited period. That said, despite my cheat day, I still lost two pounds in the week. Which remains the upper limit of how much you’re supposed to lose in a week.
Physically speaking then, there was no consequence with having my cheat day.
Psychologically speaking, however, is a whole other story.
My cheat day is now three whole weeks away, and it’s still in my head. That’s the reason I’m making this post on a Monday, instead of the usual Friday: Monday is weigh day and I wanted to see where I was. But I’ll get to that in a bit. First, let’s get back to the rest of the week of the cheat day.
The day after the cheat day I went swimming. It was much easier than it usually is. Presumably because all that extra sugar had gone to my muscles in the form of glycogen. By coincidence, I was also trying a new version of the front crawl stroke. I’d made the mistake, the previous evening, of watching a YouTube video on how to properly swim front crawl. I nearly drowned…
Anyway, I didn’t feel too hungry throughout that first day. Maybe a little bit more hungry than normal. But I did find myself absentmindedly thinking about snacking more often. And, sure, that was partly due to the abundance of goodies around. But there’s no getting past the fact that there was a very real hangover of the mindset of the previous day. Overall, though, that first day wasn’t too bad.
Things then got trickier throughout the week. Friday was the hockey end of season dinner and dance (we won team of the year. Whoop! Whoop!). I stuck to my meal, which was healthy enough, and I only drank diet cola and water. That night, though, I had some bread and cheese. Then, on Saturday, I was plagued by the desire to eat other things. So, again, Saturday night I succumbed to some bread and cheese.
I was able to justify to myself the eating of the bread and cheese, on the grounds that I’d be doing a high intensity cycle the following day. But the problem with that way of thinking is that you’re leveraging future exercise against current eating. And even if you exercise as hard as you plan, all you can do is break even. That’s no way to lose weight.
And that has been where I’ve been stuck for most of the three weeks since my cheat day. Whatever it was that made me seek a cheat day; that itch doesn’t really appear to have been scratched.
Thankfully, in the last few days I’ve had an epiphany.
I’ve been doing more and more exercise over recent weeks. I’ve been doing two-hour cycles, twice a week and I’ve been doing a one-hour swim, once a week. In addition, I’ve been going on two-to-three mile walks on a frequent basis. All this exercise has left me feeling without energy or focus. And hungry!
This increasing hunger has led me to want to eat more. In the three weeks since my cheat day, I’ve eaten more extra food than in the three months beforehand. This food has typically been bread and butter and/or small amounts of cheese. But it all adds up. To compensate, I’m increasing the intensity and duration of my exercise, which simply leads to more hunger.
For me, constant hunger is very dangerous to the continuation of a diet. Constant hunger, combined with lack of weight loss, is invariably the end. Which is why I was so happy to see that I’d lost another two pounds in this last week.
But, now, I think I understand.
I think that it was the increased exercise levels that fed the hunger, which led me to get caught up in the idea of a cheat day in the first place. Having done the cheat day, however, I’ve found myself in a very dangerous place, in terms of continued weight loss. Having broken my diet once, it’s much easier, psychologically, to do it again.
But, equally, I need more food, to get rid of the lethargy and, more importantly, the hunger. Bread, butter and cheese is clearly not the answer. Tomatoes, cucumber and a low-calorie salad dressing, however, might be. I can have a decent sized bowel of salad, for fewer calories than a single slice of bread. And, for me, there is no pleasure in eating a bowel of salad, whereas I enjoy bread and butter. But that’s the point: I’m on a diet!
A ‘diet’ means that must limit myself to foods I need, over foods I want. At least for the duration of the diet. Eating bread, butter and cheese is still cheating, even if it isn’t as bad as cake. And that’s what I’ve lost sight of in the kerfuffle around my cheat day. My diet is programmed around porridge and one other meal. If I’m snacking on bread and cheese, I’m still breaking the diet.
If the increase in my exercise levels and intensity mean I need more food, I have to focus on high volume, low calorie foods until I find the right balance. I don’t get to start eating what I want and thinking it’s okay just because it’s savoury, instead of sweet. Calories don’t care where they come from, they just care where they’re going. Which is to say, my fat cells.
Having worked all that out, I think I’ve found my equilibrium again. In these last couple of days, since my epiphany, I’ve been feeling less hungry. Now that I’ve accepted that next time I feel hungry, I’ll be eating salad, I don’t feel hungry any more. Funny, that!
I’m struggling to comprehend just how much of a diet is in the mind.
Seriously; around 10 days ago I was so hungry, so much of the time, that I was starting to worry that the diet was about to come to an end. Then I work out that I can eat as much salad as I need, and the hunger disappears. I’m still doing the same amount and intensity of exercise. I’m still eating the same porridge plus evening meal. But now the hunger is gone.
When people have called me a ‘salad dodger’ in the past, it turns out that they were spot on.
So, where does this leave me going forward? Should I do another cheat day?
On balance, I think not.
I didn’t really get any pleasure from eating the cheat foods, while I was eating them. I was too worried (and guilty?) about the impact they would have. Justifiably so, as it turned out. And what has this lackluster experience got me? Three weeks of self doubt and hunger. That does not seem like a good return to me.
So, going forward, my plan is not to have another cheat day during my diet phase.
And, as I’ve already established, there shouldn’t be such a thing as a cheat day during the maintenance phase. When I’ve settled into my new lifestyle. By the time I’m there, I will have worked out my calorific intake, based on my exercise levels, and set aside a portion of said calories for ‘treats’. And treats are not the same as cheats. Treats are built into a lifestyle, whereas cheats are excursions away from said lifestyle.
Overall, then, I don’t think that anyone who is dangerously overweight, as I have been, should be having cheat days; they’re just not worth it. Particularly if you have as unhealthy a relationship with food as I do. I also think that, the older you get, the less inclined you should be towards cheat days; our relatively lower metabolism is always going to struggle to cope.
If, on the other hand, you’re in your 20s and with a reasonable amount of weight to lose, then I don’t think an occasional cheat day should be a problem. But the key word is, ‘occasional’…
Ultimately, though, providing you continue to lose weight at a rate you’re happy with, you can ‘cheat day’ to your heart’s content. If your weight loss falls away, so should your cheat days.
Lets all just try and get to a place where we’re fit and healthy, with a sensible relationship with food.