Should you take a cheat day?

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As a nutrition and wellness coach, when I say I don’t believe in cheat days I immediately paint myself as a hard-nosed, toe-the-line, no-deviation-from-the-script ascetic. But that’s actually the opposite of my philosophy. Let me explain.

In case you’re not familiar with the concept of cheat days, the idea is that when you’re following a restrictive diet, you get a day off every week or so to eat whatever you want as a sort of reward for sticking with the diet the rest of the time. The more restrictive the diet, the more hog-wild cheat days tend to be, often ending in gastrointestinal distress and feelings of guilt and regret. “I was doing so well, but I totally blew it on my cheat day! OMG, why did I eat that?!”

One of the reasons I don’t believe in cheat days is that I don’t believe in restrictive diets, either. I don’t believe in starvation or deprivation. That’s not how you heal the body.

The reason we need food to live is that we break down everything that enters our digestive systems into smaller bits that our bodies need to function. We use food to build and repair tissue, synthesize vitamins and hormones, remove toxins, keep our organs functioning — pretty much everything the body needs to do, it needs food in order to do it. Food isn’t just there to fill up our stomachs and keep us from feeling hunger. Food literally builds our bodies.

Different foods work for different people because we’re all so unique, inside and out. Your genetics, the composition of your gut microbiome, your external environment and whatever toxins and irritants exist there — all of these things affect how your individual body breaks down food and what it does with those smaller parts.

A large part of my coaching practice is helping people figure out what foods work for their individual bodies. What foods support health for you? What foods make you feel and look amazing? What foods give you glowing skin, boundless energy, sound sleep, balanced moods, untroubled digestion, painless movement throughout your day? Conversely, which foods make you feel awful? Which foods cause skin rashes and breakouts, digestive distress, insomnia, anxiety, depression, headaches, muscle aches, joint pain and fatigue?

It takes a while to figure all this out. But once you have figured it out, and provided you’ve done it by enjoying an abundance of clean protein, healthy fats and whole-food carbs in proportions that work for your body (not starving yourself, in other words), my hope for you is that you’ll choose to eat in a health-supporting way most of the time. Notice I didn’t say all the time. There may be situations in which you make an informed choice to eat a food that you know will make you feel bad because you’re willing to deal with the consequences of that. And that is a valid choice because you’re the boss of you and you get to make those decisions, guilt-free.*

(* Caveat: When you know a food makes you feel bad and you choose to consume it more than once a week or so, or if you feel compelled to set aside an entire day to binge on foods that you know make you feel lousy, there’s something going on there that needs to be addressed. The best-case scenario is that you’re not including enough calories and fat in your diet so that you feel deprived and deserving of a food “reward”. Worse-case, it’s about you feeling that, for some reason, you deserve to feel bad. Or at the very least, you don’t deserve to feel good. And it might be a good idea to examine why you feel that way.)

Barring an allergy or some other medical condition like diabetes or celiac, there are no good or bad foods. There are foods that make you feel good and foods that make you feel bad. There’s no such thing as “cheating” when you’re eating this way. There’s no stress over worrying whether a particular food is vegan or paleo or low-carb or detox-approved or otherwise on your “diet”. Everything you put into your mouth is a choice, or in some cases an experiment: how will this food make me feel? The answer to that question matters more than any diet dogma.

Love yourself. Forgive yourself. Nourish yourself. Don’t cheat yourself.

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Should you take a cheat day?

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