The Story of a Latte (Are Diet "Cheat Days" A Good Idea?)

photo of cappuccino on a table in a coffee shop

When I was a personal trainer, my clients were always asking me how often they could cheat -- one day a week? one meal a week? Once a week period?

The short answer is, well, there is no short answer. What I always told my clients: you can cheat as much as you want to cheat on your dietary goals, but don't expect the same results.

I encourage my clients to find other ways to reward themselves then by splurging on food. If you worked hard all week to exercise and make good choices, why undue all of that on one weekend bender? A day filled with candy, fried foods, excessive alcohol or poor food choices can easily -- and quickly -- rack up the calories, calories you've spent all week trying to burn.

For example my client, Leah*, loved a frozen frappuccino at Starbucks. As Leah's weight-loss started to slow and she was having difficulty losing the last 15lbs, I suggested she cut out her weekly 500+ calorie drink. Leah refused to give up her "guilty pleasure" insisting it was what she looked forward to every Friday after a long, hard week. Eventually Leah's 15lbs started to budge and upon reviewing her food journal I noticed the frapp was missing. I asked Leah about it and she said, "One day I realized I would have to spend an extra hour or more at the gym to work off a drink that I can consume in 10 minutes or less. When I figured that out, I suddenly stopped wanting them. I've found other ways to kick the stress off -- like getting a manicure.”

But eating (or drinking) all the calories back on, is not the only issue. If we want real, lasting change -- it has to be permanent. If we continue to have bad habits, even one day a week, we are doing ourselves a disservice. In many ways we’re preventing our body, taste buds and mind from adapting to a new, healthful diet -- such as helping it break past addictions to excessive, salt, fat or sugar. These were just my observations as a trainer, but for many of my clients, scheduled cheats sabotaged their overall efforts to eating better.

I noticed a pattern with my clients who had “off” days or “cheat” days planned into their schedule. They waited for those days to come and at first it wasn’t so bad, but as the weeks wore on they started being less enthusiastic about the days in-between. Sooner or later cheat days started turning into cheat weekends, or cheats two nights per week. Little by little those clients kept creeping closer and closer back to their old lifestyle. It was very gradual, but still noticeable. Eating "right" and exercising became a diet and not a dietary change.

My clients who committed to a healthy lifestyle 24/7 but would occasionally splurge (and usually at random), however, didn’t miss a beat. It didn’t seem to unravel their progress. Many of them even found affirmation after 'cheating' -- “I felt so bloated! I’ll never do that again!”

Sticking to and intending to make a lasting change all day every day made all difference.

Now, I'm not saying you have to live a life of pure, perfect choices. We all should have a slice of cake every now and again -- but make the exception just that - an exception. Something that happens once and awhile on a whim and not systematically every 6 days.

  • name changed to protect client privacy

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