Let me start off by saying that I’m not a big fan of cheat days. Every day you’re either moving closer toward your health and fitness goals or further away from them, and on cheat days, you move further away at warp speed. Still, we all have them – need them even – on special occasions, or just as a kind of sanity break every now and then. With that in mind, here are some tips you can use to maximize the enjoyment of your next cheat day while minimizing the negative impacts it can have on your goals.
1. Make it a Conscious Decision – A cheat day should be pre-planned. It should never happen as the result of a break in willpower at the end of a long week or a bad day. If you find yourself ready to cave, sit down, take a deep breath and tell yourself that now is not the time to stray from your healthy lifestyle habits. Doing so will only make you feel worse in the end. Instead, stick to your program for today and plan out your next cheat day. It’s fine if you decided it needs to be tomorrow – as long as you plan for it.
Achieving your weight loss or fitness goals is all about staying in control, so as much as you might want to just say, “Forget it!” and dive into a quart of ice cream, you shouldn’t. Take pleasure in the process of planning your cheat day, and make it something to look forward to.
2. Don’t Cheat for a Whole Day – On special occasions, like birthdays or anniversaries, there’s a real temptation to make the whole day one big splurge. I encourage you to do so, but not in terms of diet. Try to make at least one or two of your meals that day healthy ones, and treat yourself in other ways. Have your healthy breakfast delivered via room service (or by a willing partner), or schedule a massage or spa treatment, for example.
By limiting your eating-cheating to just one meal or a meal an indulgent snack or two, you still get the emotional satisfaction that comes with treating yourself without diving headlong into complete calorie ruin.
3. Change What You Eat, Not How You Eat – Whether your goals involve weight loss, weight maintenance, increasing your strength or improving your endurance, you probably have some pretty specific dietary guidelines you try to follow, and I’m certain that eating to the point of discomfort is not one of them. While a cheat day should allow you to indulge in some types of food and beverage you don’t consume on a daily basis, eating or drinking to excess should not be in the plan.
A few slices of pizza and a glass or two of wine, while starkly different than your usual dinner, does nowhere near the damage that a whole pizza and a bottle of wine can do. Be aware that one excessive meal can completely undo everything you’ve worked so hard for over the entire preceding week. Is an hour or two of “pleasure” really worth all that?
4. Limit it to One Day – Here’s where pre-planning will come in handy. If you do your cheating at home, then you’ll have the advantage of controlling exactly what goes into your meals. The downside is that having leftovers can end up stretching your cheat day into a cheat week. Try to choose meals, beverages and snacks that will be consumed (in reasonable quantities) in their entirety during your cheat day. Don’t bake a whole batch of cookies or cook up a pound of pasta for two people.
If you spend your cheat day out on the town, be aware that you’ll probably get many more “hidden” calories than you would at home, so really try to opt for small portions, and leave what you don’t eat on the plate rather than having it boxed up to go. If (like me) you can’t bare to let food go to waste, then you’ll have to call on your willpower to eat your cheat day leftovers in tiny portions. A single slice of pizza or 3/4 cup of pasta can be paired with a large, clean salad for lunch or dinner on the days following your big splurge with relatively little impact.
5. Don’t Skip Your Workout – It will be tempting to take the day entirely “off” – abandoning not only your diet but your workout as well, but I urge you not to do this. While the number of calories you’ll likely burn during your workout is small compared to the number of excess calories you’ll likely consume on your cheat day, combining those two just puts you that much further behind. Instead, choose an activity you love to celebrate your cheat day. Go for a long, slow walk or an easy bike ride. Play a game of tennis or basketball or go bowling. Remember that light to moderate exercise gives you an immediate mood and energy boost, and can help you sleep better at night.
I hope your cheat days are few and far between. And I hope the next time you have one, you use some of these tips to make it more enjoyable and less damaging to your health and fitness goals.