Are Cheat Days Bad? - Mark Fisher Fitness

Are Cheat Days Bad?

If you’re a fitnessing person of a certain age, perhaps you remember Body for Life?

It was one of the first workout programs I ever did. I worked out a lot. I ate six small meals a day. And each Sunday I had a “cheat day.”

After a week of swallowing down dry chicken breast and rice and whatever else I ate, Sunday was the day I could cut loose and eat pizza until it (literally) hurt.

While this may seem a bit silly from our 2021 vantage point, there’s a certain logic in choosing your moments of indulgence. But too often it goes horribly wrong and encourages a cycle of restriction and bingeing, or at the least over-indulging.

Let’s unpack two of the problems with this approach and see if there are any potential takeaways.

Problem #1: “Cheat Meals” is a terrible and unhelpful framing

The first challenge is the name itself.

Words matter. When you frame a planned indulgence as a “cheat,” you’re implying you’re doing something wrong. Cheating is defined as “an act of dishonesty.” Wtf?? The very name assigns moral dimensions to what you eat. And that’s not going to be helpful OR terribly logical.

If we HAD to package this kind meal with a label, I think “Free Meal” is better.

But generally, I’d prefer to not label it as all. We don’t want a binary delineation between your “good/virtuous/angelic” meals and your “cheating/bad/evil/dastardly” meals.

They’re all just, um… meals. They exist on a spectrum. They vary in calories and in nutrient density. And in your subjective sense of yumminess.

Yes, some meals move you closer to your health and fitness goals. And some meals probably move you further away. But we don’t want to separate your meal choices from the context of your life, your values, and the social context you’re eating it in.

Problem #2: “Cheat Meals” can encourage YOLO style over-eating

Related, when you have a sharp line between “good/virtuous” meals and “cheating/evil” meals, there’s a tendency to overdo it.

After all, you’ve given yourself but a small window to break all the rules. You finally feel free from the chains of “healthy food.”

FREEDOM!!!

Even as you eat, you sense the door starting to close. You have no choice but to eat as much ice cream as you can before the night ends and the morning brings dreary oatmeal. Tomorrow is a gray, sad, bland life of boredom and restriction.

But tonight…

Tonight we FEAST!

And then when you DO wake up after your 4,000 calorie YOLO bonanza, your sleep was poor, your stomach hurts, and you feel a shame hangover.

See why this isn’t helpful? It’s no wonder “Cheat Meals” set you up for misery.

If you felt more than a tinge of recognition with the above, it suggests your approach to “cheat/free/whatever” meals may need some consideration.

But what if this accurately describes your approach, but you don’t resonate with the emotional stakes?

Planning Satisfying and Intentional Indulgences vs. “Cheat Meals”

On the other hand, if you’re able to enjoy an indulgent dinner on Saturday night without eating to physical pain or experiencing genuine panic about your window closing, it’s likely you’ve found a more balanced approach.

“Eating healthful meals most of the time while planning intentional moments to indulge a bit more with food you truly love and with people you love” is actually a pretty solid way to go. Particularly if we can move past the binary “good” vs. “bad/cheat” labels.

When we get this right, we don’t feel overly restricted. We don’t feel like we’re at war with candy all week. We’re not narrowly holding on by a thread as we dangle over the abyss of sugary, salty, fatty treats, praying that time speeds up as we await our next chance to “be bad.”

Quite the contrary!

In this scenario, we’re eating well most of the time. We don’t feel restricted because:

  1. We have a sufficient variety of meals we genuinely love that also support our health and well-being.
  2. We know we have some upcoming opportunities to indulge in an intentional and soul- satisfying manner.

So the challenging nuance is this:

It’s not really the approach in and of itself that’s the issue. “Picking your moments” is a great strategy in most of life.

It’s how it makes us feel, how we’re applying this strategy, and if and how it impacts future behaviors.

Different people have different relationships with food. So I’m not sure there’s a one size fits all approach.

But the one thing that will never work long term is something that feels restrictive.

Even in programs like Snatched in Six Weeks, we no longer use language like “You can do anything for six weeks!

Listen, if you’ve got some specific goal and deadline to achieve some physique goal, I support the shit out of you. By all means, go all-in. There are truly people in the world capable of “enjoying” the self-discipline high of achieving peak leanness for a wedding, a tropical trip, or a week on Fire Island. This is also a valid way to go!

But I’ve seen too many people grit their teeth until some (arbitrary) deadline only to dash against the shores of “regular life” because their diet was unsustainable and unenjoyable.

The goal is NOT perfection (whatever that even is). The goal is developing the skills required to cook (or order out!) foods you love that serve your fitness goals most of the time.

Final point:

I’m making this sound easier than it is.

While I hope you can see the logic in all this, if this were really all that easy, most people would be thrilled with the way they eat.

Did you find yourself chuckling at the above descriptions of “getting it all in before the doors slam shut?” Or maybe you recognized it and felt kind of sad? Well, you should know you’re normal!

After all, craving sugary, salty, fatty foods is a powerful biological urge. Choosing useful psychological framings and applying the tips and tricks MFF offers will definitely help. But please give yourself a big ol’ serving of self-compassion if you’re feeling any frustration towards yourself.

Part of the challenge is there are lots of ways to organize and structure your approach to food. And sometimes, “pick your battles” can be an effective way to go.

But if and when you find this — or any — approach feeling restrictive, that’s a good sign that further exploration would be helpful. Curiosity is our friend!

(And if you want more support/ guidance, also may be helpful to talk to a coach.)

I believe in you, always,
Mark

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