Falling off a meal plan can feel like failure. We anticipate starting a “diet” to abide by the rules perfectly, with no room for cheating out of fear that results will stall. While sticking to a plan makes sense to achieve a goal quickly, being realistic and mindful about the long-term impact of strict guidelines may help drive lasting results through sustainable nutrition planning – and help ease the mind from pressure for perfection.
In the fitness and nutrition world, results are driven by science: burn more calories than you consume and you will burn fat. Analyze your unique body composition and understand your metabolism to craft a personalized plan to follow perfectly to achieve results in a specific amount of time. Conceptually, this is a very valid approach to reaching a goal, and research shows it works. Allowing minimal opportunities to budge on a meal plan means results will come quicker, and for many, this is a perfectly feasible way of life. However, for some, too much pressure for perfection in a plan can create a sense of overwhelm and feeling of “failure” with a single mistake. In this case, a simple strategy can be built into a plan that allows for intentional leniency in order to craft a more sustainable approach and bring long-term results. Enter: The Cheat Day.
A cheat day is simply a calculated, permissible and intentional period of time where you break any strict adherence to a set plan. Just like your muscles need rest days to recover, from a psychological standpoint, your brain also deserves “time off” from its constant dedication to a structured meal plan. Taking breaks from a strict eating pattern can also regulate hunger hormones, specifically leptin and thyroid hormones. Prolonged calorie restriction drops leptin levels substantially and signals intense hunger sensations, which can lead to uncontrolled overeating. Calorie restriction also drops T3 (thyroid hormone) levels and negatively affects the metabolism, or the rate of energy the body burns at rest. By allowing some space in a meal plan to indulge, these important hormones are regulated in the body which can help avoid excessive overeating, promoting a more sustainable and balanced approach to healthy meal planning over time.
Of course, factoring in cheat days can be a detriment to results, and for some, it may not be feasible due to mindset. In a theory psychologists coined the “Abstinence Violation Effect” individuals who make a personal commitment to a strict plan, but then allow for a slight “slip-up” may fall back into a full habit of overindulgence. In these instances, a cheat meal can turn into a cheat week or month, which greatly hinders results.
How do you avoid negative effects of “cheating” on your meal plan? Experts ranging from nutritionists to master trainers advise not indulging too frequently and planning cheat days around special occasions or heavier training days. And perhaps most importantly, understanding your mindset and becoming aware of your own tendencies in following meal planning guidelines is crucial in developing a structure that works best over time to reach a goal. Smart advice from clinical psychologist, Dr. Melanie Greenberg, “you have to find something that will work for [the long-run]. It’s not what you can do — it’s what you can keep up.”