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A Smart Guide to Using Cheat Days Effectively

by | May 16, 2024 | Last updated May 16, 2024 | Blog, Digest

Learn to use cheat days effectively to boost motivation, satisfy cravings, and support long-term wellness. Get practical tips for planning, enjoying, and recovering from indulgences, ensuring your cheat days help rather than hinder your healthy eating plan.

You’ve been diligently following a healthy eating plan for weeks, making mindful choices, and seeing positive results. But suddenly, you find yourself craving your favorite unhealthy treats. Enter the cheat day (or as Noom sometimes calls it, treat day)—a planned side step from your regular eating habits that can surprisingly help you stay on track. There are benefits to incorporating cheat days into your eating habits, and we’ve got some practical tips for using them to support your long-term health and wellness goals.

What are cheat days, and why do people use them?

Cheat days, also known as “treat days” or “free days,” are planned breaks in a structured health plan. During these days, individuals indulge in foods that are typically limited. The concept of cheat days is based on the idea that occasional indulgences can help individuals maintain motivation and adherence to a healthy lifestyle.

Cheat days can prevent feelings of deprivation and satisfy food cravings. By enjoying these foods in moderation on designated days, you may find it easier to stick to healthy eating habits the rest of the time. Additionally, some people believe that cheat days can boost metabolism and prevent weight loss plateaus, although the scientific evidence supporting this claim is limited.

There’s another important point to keep in mind: there is no food that is “good or “bad.” These labels are given to food based on someone’s personal experiences, preferences, and opinions. Ultimately, you are in control of what you eat and when.

How do I plan a cheat day?

In order to use cheat days effectively, it’s important to approach them with intention and structure. Rather than viewing them as a free-for-all, think of cheat days as planned departures from your regular eating habits. 

Consider these points when planning a cheat day:

  • Schedule cheat days ahead of time to maintain control and avoid impulsive decisions.
  • Limit cheat days to once per week or every two weeks to minimize impacting on your progress.
  • Set clear boundaries for portion sizes and types of foods to include on cheat days.
  • Balance treats with nutrient-dense foods to maintain overall nutritional needs.
  • Strategically plan cheat days around social events or special occasions to enjoy favorite foods in moderation.
  • Resume regular healthy eating habits the day after a cheat day to stay on track with goals.

Remember, the key to successful cheat days is finding a personalized approach that works for your individual lifestyle and goals. Experiment with different strategies and be patient.

Tips for making smart choices on cheat days

Making smart choices on your cheat day is key to maintaining progress toward your health goals while still enjoying occasional treats. Here are some strategies to help you navigate your cheat day successfully:

  • Prioritize satisfaction: Choose foods that you truly enjoy and that will leave you feeling satisfied, rather than mindlessly overindulging in less appealing options.
  • Practice mindful eating: Take the time to savor each bite, paying attention to the flavors, textures, and aromas of your food. This can help you feel more satisfied with smaller portions.
  • Control portions: Instead of going overboard, enjoy moderate servings of your favorite treats. Consider sharing desserts or splitting larger meals with a friend or family member.
  • Balance treats with nutritious foods: Incorporate plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains into your cheat day to provide essential nutrients and help you feel your best.
  • Plan ahead: If you know you’ll be dining out or attending a special event, look at menus in advance and decide on a balanced meal that includes a reasonable portion of your desired treat.

By being intentional about your food choices and practicing mindfulness on your cheat day, you can enjoy your favorite indulgences while still supporting your overall health and wellness goals.

Recovering from a cheat day

After enjoying a cheat day, it’s important to get back on track with healthy eating habits without feeling guilty or discouraged. Remember that one day of indulgence will not undo all your hard work and progress. Focus on the positive changes you’ve made so far in your health journey.

To reset after a cheat day, resume your regular eating pattern the following day, aiming for balanced, nourishing meals. Incorporate plenty of fiber-rich vegetables, lean proteins, and complex carbohydrates to help stabilize blood sugar and reduce cravings. Staying well-hydrated by drinking water throughout the day can also help flush out excess sodium and combat bloating that may occur after a cheat day.

Engaging in physical activity is another great strategy for getting back on track post-cheat day. While there’s no need to punish yourself with an extra-intense workout, moving your body can boost your mood, increase energy, and help you refocus on your health goals. Choose an activity you enjoy, whether it’s a brisk walk, yoga class, or strength training session. Regular exercise can also help break through weight loss plateaus that may occur.

Additionally, consider making small adjustments to your food intake in the days following a cheat day (if needed) to realign with your goals. This may involve temporarily reducing portion sizes or cutting back on high-calorie snacks. However, avoid severely restricting your diet, which can lead to feelings of deprivation and potentially trigger a cycle of overeating. Aim for a balanced approach that allows room for occasional treats while prioritizing nutrient-dense foods. For those following a specific eating plan like the ketogenic diet, gradually reducing carb intake after a cheat day can help ease back into ketosis.

Avoiding Common Pitfalls

One of the most common mistakes people make when taking cheat days is letting a single cheat day turn into a cheat week or month. This can happen when feelings of guilt or shame after a cheat day lead to a “what-the-heck effect.” “I’ve already blown my health plan… why not keep indulging?” To avoid this pitfall, it’s important to have a plan for getting right back on track with healthy eating the very next day after a cheat day. View the cheat day as a planned part of your overall balanced approach, not a slip-up.

Another potential issue is using cheat days as an excuse to binge on massive quantities of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods to the point of feeling sick. Remember, the purpose of a cheat day is to enjoy some of your favorite treats in moderation, not to eat as much junk as possible. Before a cheat day, set some reasonable limits for yourself, such as allowing a certain number of treat meals or sticking to a certain calorie limit. Practice mindful eating and check in with your hunger cues. 

It’s also crucial to cultivate self-compassion around your eating habits and food choices. Beating yourself up about eating certain foods on a cheat day can foster an unhealthy relationship with food. Remind yourself that it’s okay to enjoy indulgences as part of a balanced diet. Focus on how you feel and all the healthy habits you’re practicing most of the time instead of dwelling on a single cheat day. Cheat days are a tool to support your psychological well-being and ability to stick with nutritious eating in the long run.

Conclusion

In summary, cheat days can be a positive tool for maintaining motivation and adherence to a healthy lifestyle. The keys to success with cheat days include:

  • Planning cheat days in advance and setting clear boundaries. 
  • Making mindful choices to minimize negative impacts on progress.
  • Getting back on track after a cheat day without guilt or self-sabotage.
  • Adapting cheat days to individual preferences, goals, and lifestyles.

Ultimately, the most sustainable approach to weight management emphasizes balance, moderation, and flexibility. Rather than aiming for perfection or adopting an all-or-nothing mentality, make room for occasional indulgences while focusing on consistency and progress over time.

Keep in mind that what works for one person may not be the best fit for another. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different strategies to find an individualized approach to cheat days that aligns with your unique needs and goals. With self-compassion, planning, and mindfulness, you can harness the power of cheat days to support your long-term health and wellness journey.