Last year, I was very curious about food challenges and cheat days, so I tried out two scheduled cheat days myself (here’s the first one and here’s the second video!). I had a fantastic time for both days, but I never implemented cheat days as a regular part of my routine since then.
On the other hand, back in February, I wrote about the different types of cheat meals and how you can work around them to gain the best experience and to even use them to your advantage for your fitness and performance goals. To write that post, I actually experimented with these cheat meals myself, cooking up all kinds of food, whipping up original recipes, and replicating my old “naughty” favorites that I used to enjoy on the regular before adopting a healthier lifestyle. At first, it was subliminally fun getting creative with these meals. I had a blast cooking up a storm in my kitchen and exploring the grocery store like a kid at Disneyland. But, like everything, cheat meals have their pros and cons.
Given that I don’t have enough time throughout the week to concoct all these indulgent dishes, I usually had to resort to cheat days, otherwise reserving one day out of the weekend to consume all of my “sinful” desires (aka vegan donuts, chocolate milkshakes, Gardein nuggets, vegan orange chicken, pizza, a whole box of cereal, and cookies and creme ice cream to name a few). You know how many days it takes to develop a new habit? 21 days. I spent a month having a weekly cheat day. Hence, my weekly cheat day became part of a habit that went on for months.
Cravings became a daily part of my routine. I’d wake up with an undying desire to consume a bowl of cereal or a baguette stick, but because I always had my cheat day in mind, I ended up pushing my appetite later and later in the week. As a result, my hankerings only festered from within, growing stronger and occupying my daily focus. All I could think about was that slice of cake or bowls of chocolate cereal that I could enjoy only on Friday or Saturday (the two days I had the most time on during the week). Once the time got around to my cheat day, I wouldn’t just stop at one bowl of cereal–in fact, I would even polish off an entire box because I couldn’t imagine enjoying the cereal any other day.
When the gap of food quantity slowly increased to eating less and less during the week and eating more and more on my cheat days, the overfeeding didn’t feel like a binge because my appetite levels were elevated as a result of not eating nearly as much as I would on my cheat days due to my body’s needs of being fed more food.
This is where people may fall into the binge-purge or binge-restrict cycle: feeling the need to eat drastically cleaner and/or less the following days after a cheat day to eliminate any physical “gunk” as well as exercising even more out of emotional guilt and regret. Some people may continue to have frequent cheat days for weeks or even months to gorge on all their favorite foods, pushing themselves to eat higher quantities for their own sake. In their minds, this isn’t binging because they feel full after their meals. But their bodies are being stuffed by milestone to compensate for any past restriction.
It’s hard to explain the reasoning behind restricting all my cravings on one day, and it’s hard to explain because the reasoning is ultimately irrational. It was almost as if one day out of the week was a miraculous sort of time where calories and nutrients didn’t count (SPOILER ALERT: they do) and I could mentally liberate myself from eating the same foods all the time. Every other day was an opportunity to prepare my system for that magical, magical cheat day. I’d take only the most conservative nibbles and bites of “unplanned” food during the week, but still think about my foodie desires endlessly.
As a result of these cheat days, I would end the night feeling incredibly sick to my stomach where I could barely walk or even sit up properly. My body was simply not used to such a large volume of food, and I suffered for it. Even throughout the day, I felt physically ill and made myself walk a ridiculous amount of miles to compensate. Cheat meals led me to guilt-tripping myself. I so strongly resented feeling so antsy about my cravings that I’d give in full-force, only to hate myself even more for stuffing myself sick. Arguably so, I never classified my cheat days as binge incidents because I never felt a lack of control or loss of reality–I knew fully well that I’d regret some bites of food, but I pushed past my fullness levels anyways out of fear of food waste or being unable to enjoy the same food in the future.
To mitigate any near-permanent “damage” from these cheat days, I’d end up eating drastically cleaner for the remaining six days of the week. After one or two days of this “resetting period”, I felt a million times better–leaner and more refreshed, per say. However, in the middle of the week, I would start wildly craving those cheat day indulgences once again. If your body gets used to a diet of predominantly protein shakes, starchy vegetables, and salads, it is going to feel absolutely mystified when it suddenly receives foods loaded with sugar and fat.
Around the middle of May, my Food Science classes began to shift their curriculum where my Tuesday lab ended up preparing the more indulgent dishes like vegan milk buns, potstickers, and desserts rather than my Friday lab, which has consisted more of cooking cheese-based pasta recipes that I cannot eat. At first, this alteration brought a blow of anxiety–sugar on Tuesday? Nothing to eat on Friday?–because my schedule whacked out. But in the back of my mind, I was somewhat relieved. I could have a bit more control over what I would eat on my cheat day and more craving settlements during the week. I wouldn’t be driving myself mentally insane from all the hunger I’d experience.
Something inside of me recognized that this behavior is completely unhealthy. I began to unveil my physical and mental tendencies for these cheat days, acknowledging a disordered pattern of rationalization for cheating all-ham on my diet and alleviating the unpleasant symptoms through what most would consider a strict diet and exercise routine. Was my relationship with food truly healthy, at least for me, to dread my diet for six days out of the week and to loathe my body for one day? Why couldn’t I find a lifestyle that I didn’t need a diet break from? Why couldn’t I find a state of mind where I always loved my physical composition no matter what?
While the 80/20 rule has been talked about since the beginning of time (at least in the health and fitness industry), I had to re-inform myself about it and its objectives. Essentially, the principle emphasizes to center 80% of your diet around wholesome and minimally processed foods (you know the dealios: fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, starchy vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats, etc.), and reserve 20% of your diet for any foods that would be classified as treats (you know these dealios too: chocolate, waffles, bread, pizza, fried chicken, ice cream, pasta, etc.).
Say you eat three meals. Two-and-a-half of your meals would consist of healthy ingredients, and half of one meal can encompass a more splurge kind of food. In other words, you can enjoy a hearty salad with one or two slices of sourdough bread on the side, a slice of chocolate cake for dessert, or if you’re legal, a nice glass of red wine. My personal 20% treat nearly always is a whole bar of dark chocolate (Lakanto is my favorite) with some peanut butter or sunflower seed butter, but sometimes I like to get extra fancy and enjoy a donut, macaroni and cheese, or a cinnamon coffee cake.
Do I regret trying cheat days? Absolutely not. I learned so much about my body, how I view food, and what my culinary cap can do for me! Creating all kinds of indulgent recipes in the kitchen–Oreo and chocolate peanut butter nice cream and healthy-ish baguette bread, for example–served of utmost pleasure and learning. Every cheat day was a great way to try all kinds of new foods and products as well, especially of brands that I meant to look into but never got around to. In my experience, I got to try Oreo O’s, cheesecake with ice cream and cake, customized pizza, vegan orange chicken, and my first EVER milkshake (thank you Mama Ganache!)! However, I personally do not find this lifestyle sustainable, both physically and mentally. There’s a polarization that I find enables me to fear certain foods more than others, and I don’t want to fear anything.
Now, here’s the lowdown to my second question: what do I do now with cheat days and cheat meals? To tell the truth, there’s no set routine plan in changing anything. The majority of my meals are fully micronutrient-dense. My indulgent dishes still fall around the weekends, but are a lot more reasonably portioned and spread out to make each day more pleasant to experience. But cheat days still play a role in my diet once in a while. I love making a cheat day out of a special event or vacation I have, such as VegFest L.A. or my most recent vegan event Eat Drink Vegan! And you bet that when I travel abroad, I will enjoy as much local food as possible. Authentic red bean mochi from Kyoto and vegan coconut milk ramen from Tokyo? ABSOLUTELY.
On the other hand, the mental shift with my cheat day foods entailed me to recognize the fundamental understanding that a cookie on Monday has the exact same effect as a cookie on Friday. In practical terms, it makes complete sense, but emotional distortion determines what happens after the cookie has been eaten. Does the person go on a purge-fest, binge on the whole tray of cookies, or move on with his or her day? I had to form an entirely new habit where I forced myself to enjoy at least one treat every single day of the week, whether if it was an extra handful of dark chocolate almonds or an entire bowl of vegan udon noodles, and not change my exercise routine or physical activity in any way to cater towards those extra treats.
So far, my weight fluctuations haven’t changed at all. If anything, it’s remained more stable. But that’s not the important aspect of my experience with cheat days. Allotting one day out of my week to pig out on anything I wanted, only to deprive myself in terms of macronutrient composition and emotional perception for the rest of the week, has led me to truly recognize the fundamental purpose of fitness: you need to gain a routine that you don’t need a break from just as you need a career you don’t need a vacation from. Cheat days serve as diet breaks, but diet breaks shouldn’t be necessary in the first place.
This isn’t to say that I think cheat days aren’t entirely negative. Cheat days can be a very positive mechanism for people to alleviate their food fears and disordered eating patterns, plus it is a fun way to travel around certain places and enjoy different events. However, I genuinely wouldn’t be able to maintain such a lifestyle for longer terms and would rather have something small to look forward to every single day rather than just looking forward to one big day. Life is a lot more beautiful if you can wake up in the morning, knowing that you can eat what you love without guilt.
Well, unless if your favorite food can only be found in an entirely different country. Then you’re kind of screwed.
What are your thoughts on cheat days? Would you ever consider implementing cheat days in your routine or do you follow another approach?