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.

Should you take a cheat day?

Do you need a detox?

11705-a-beautiful-woman-holding-a-glass-of-juice-pvI’m sure you’ve seen them around: “cleanse” and “detox” programs promising to jump-start your health and weight-loss journey in anywhere from three to 30 days. Some involve juices, smoothies or shakes, some involve supplement pills, powders and specially packaged “foods”. Nearly all of them promise big results, fast. But do you need a cleanse or detox in order to kick off your journey to health and wellness?

In a word: no.

I am not at all a fan of cleanse and detox programs and don’t include them as part of my health coaching practice. Here’s why:

  1. They’re often deficient in calories, protein and/or fat — all things your body desperately needs to stay healthy and strong.
  2. They don’t actually do anything to reduce whatever toxic load you might be carrying (your liver and kidneys detoxify your body all day, every day).
  3. They’re expensive.
  4. They don’t produce lasting results.
  5. They’re often an excuse for people to eat junk when not on the program.
  6. They shock the body and actually can do more harm than good.

If you drink nothing but grapefruit juice, or lemon juice and cayenne pepper mixed with water, or kale and cucumber smoothies for an entire week, then yes, you’re going to lose some weight. You’re taking in about half the calories and way less than half the protein and fat your body needs to function, so obviously you’re going to shed some pounds (most of it water and sometimes muscle depending on the length of the program).

But what then? What do you do when the cleanse or detox is over? How do you eat moving forward? And how long do you think you’ll keep that weight off once the detox has ended?

Instead of embarking on a seven-day starvation regimen of flavored water and/or synthetic vitamins, what if instead you start TODAY eating just a bit less refined sugar, refined flour and factory-made food and eating just a bit more fresh vegetables, fresh fruits and clean protein? And then tomorrow, you cut back even more on the refined/processed stuff and load up a bit more on the fresh/clean stuff?

Do that every day and instead of sending your body into metabolic shock, causing it to break down muscle and throw your hormones out of whack, you’ll be building sustainable nutrition habits that lead to slow, steady hormone balance, tissue repair and weight loss. You’ll learn what foods work for your body, what foods don’t, what foods you truly enjoy and what foods you can give yourself permission to stop eating. Your relationship with food will change. No longer will it be a source of reward, punishment, guilt or shame; instead it will be what it’s meant to be — an extremely enjoyable way of keeping your body running in tip-top shape, feeling strong and energetic and free from pain and illness.

Those are results that last a lifetime, and that beats the heck out of losing and gaining the same 10 pounds (at $10 or more per pound, in the case of some cleanses) over and over AND OVER again!

Do you need a detox?