Lose The "Cheat Day" Mentality: How This Language Can Negatively Affect Your Health
Have you ever described the foods you eat as "cheat foods?" Have you had a "cheat day" where you allowed yourself to eat foods you feel you shouldn't? This mentality is extremely normalized but may pose negative effects on your long-term health.
This article sheds light on some compelling reasons why abandoning the "cheat day" mentality can be beneficial to your overall health.
Cheat (verb): To act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage, especially in a game or examination.
Cheating is unanimously considered a negative behavior, one that is frowned upon. When applied to eating, cheating insinuates that straying from healthy foods or a diet is dishonest. Further, labeling yourself as a "cheater" instills guilt and shame, implying that your food choices determine your morality. Within The Bold Nutrition Method framework, we consider physical and mental health when adopting healthier nutrition habits because they both contribute to overall wellbeing and maintaining long-term healthy habits.
Having a mindset where food choices affect the perception of your morality is a slippery slope that often makes long-term healthy habits very difficult to maintain.
Black and White Thinking:
This "cheat day" mindset often leads to the categorization of certain foods as "good" or "bad," creating an overly simplified, dichotomous view of food that leads to feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety when indulging in so-called "cheat" foods. Labeling food as good or bad also leads us to believe that we are good or bad based on the foods we choose. This black-and-white thinking around food often results in feeling the need to restrict bad foods, for the sake of health (but really for the sake of being "good.") It's important to allow your mind and body to trust that there is a grey area and you are not any less of a good person for liking and consuming more non-nutrititious food. This dichotomous mindset often comes from fat-phobic, diet culture messages, and the reality is, these "bad" foods that make your feel like you are cheating, are actually not that bad for you. Anyone with a truly healthy diet will know that there is room for all foods.
The Truth About Restriction
When something is labeled as "bad" the mind automatically creates restriction around it, due to our innate human desire to be "good." Although we may think that the obvious way to be healthy is to avoid foods that negatively effect our health, the research on food restriction makes us understand otherwise. Food restriction has an interesting mental effect; It makes you want more of the restricted food. Jansen et. al. portrayed this in a study on children between the ages of 5 and 6 (old enough to understand the rules, but young enough to not carry a history of shame and guilt around food). In the study, the children were given a variety of sweet and salty treats. One group was told they could not eat any of the treats that were red in color, while the other group had no restrictions. The results showed that the children that were forbidden the red foods showed a greater desire to eat the red foods and had a higher consumption of the red foods when their red-restriction was lifted (1). When we look at common trends of dieting individuals, we often see phases of restriction of certain foods (a diet), followed by overconsumption of foods (a "cheat"). This can be arguably attributed to the restriction of certain foods in the first place. This may lead to overall greater food intake in the long run, as well as weight cycling and yo-yo dieting, which can have negative health outcomes in the long term.
It's important to recognize that restrictive mindset and behaviors can be physical as well as mental. We know physical restriction to be physically obsaining or avoiding something. Mental restriction, however, is where you don't obtstain from something physically, but you tell yourself that what you are doing is wrong. Hense why the "cheat day" language is a perfect example of mental restriction.
The True Meaning of A Balanced Diet
Just like a relationship with another person, we must see food for more than just good or bad. Food has many purposes, some being nutritional value, some being enjoyment, comfort, and celebration. A healthy relationship with food allows us to consume all foods in moderation, creating a mindset of food neutralization. This helps foster a healthier, more balanced relationship with food, better equipping you to establish long-term, sustainable, healthy eating habits.
Labeling certain days or foods as "cheats" can distract from what is truly important about balanced nutrition: eating nutrients! Building habits around increasing nutrient-dense and supportive foods is arguably more important than eating fewer treats and foods with less nutritional value. When we think of a healthy diet in terms of what we do eat, instead of what we don't eat, we leave room for the indulgent, tasty foods that we love in comfortable, yet satiating moderation, while still prioritizing our health. By using a "cheat day" mindset, we've associated this balanced way of eating with the negative act of cheating when in reality, this is the most supportive and sustainable way of eating!
Simply changing your language of how you label and refer to foods can have a profound positive effect on your health and health related behaviors. It will help you reduce the shame and stress associated with good and bad foods, neutralize food allowing room for all types of food, and help you feel consistent in your nutrition habits and in control food in all situations.
(1) Jansen, E., Mulkens, S., & Jansen, A. (2007). Do not eat the red food!: prohibition of snacks leads to their relatively higher consumption in children. Appetite, 49(3), 572–577. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2007.03.229