Food Freedom Friday Edition 35

The Cheat Day

One of the questions I get asked the most is around ‘cheat days’. Thoughts, benefits, ideas, when, how many, what to eat, how to recover…..

I would generally respond by turning the question back to you. If you currently use cheat days in your plan and they are working for you, you feel great and your blood work is healthy, no need to change a thing. On the other hand, I think it is important to questions anything that is that appealing.

We easily and readily convince ourselves of the things we want to be convinced of. Our minds are like this. We believe easily in the things we want to believe in. When there is something that is unappealing or we hesitate to believe, we want more evidence in order to be convinced. As an example, it may not take strong evidence to convince you that eating a plate of pie is good. That would be an appealing belief but I think we are all aware of the lack of evidence to support this.

Many of my clients read books and follow programs supporting and encouraging ‘cheat days’ or ‘cheat meals’. Sometimes they begin to encounter setbacks where they lose a lot of momentum; they feel that they gain more weight on the cheat days than they could lose on the others or the cheat meal leaves them feeling awful and lethargic and their recovery time is too great.

For many of us, food is an addiction, especially when it comes to sweets, processed carbohydrates and certain types of mass produced ‘junk’ foods. In actuality, these foods take your taste buds hostage and sabotage your ability to determine true flavour. If you primarily eat real, whole, naturally occurring, good-for-you food, your taste adapts, shifting your taste buds in helpful ways and your cravings for unhealthy foods begin to dissipate. Once you start eating poorly again, your taste buds change again, throwing you back into a cycle of food cravings.

It can feel like taking a giant leap backwards.

If you are skeptical about the benefits of cheat days, there is no need to do them. It is more pertinent to ask yourself why you feel they are necessary. Many times, when we want or feel the need for more or certain foods, this is a craving, rather than true hunger.

There are many reasons for food cravings, both physical, and emotional. If you are following a solid eating plan, you may have reduced your carbohydrates too much. When you are not eating enough good carbohydrates, you may cause blood sugar dysregulation which is turn creates a physical need for glucose – RIGHT NOW. This is not a negotiation and you find yourself dashing to grab the quickest source of fast burning carbohydrates you can find.

Other factors that can have an impact on your cravings include your sleep patterns, your caffeine intake and your emotional state. Sufficient nighttime, restful sleep and excessive caffeine can send you reaching for that pastry.  A lack of security, fear, panic or anger that may further be influencing your cravings. The enteric nervous system, which is found in your digestive tract is often referred to as your 2nd brain and communicates directly with the brain in your head. This means you can experience false feelings of hunger when you are in situations where you feel emotionally restricted, are swallowing your feelings or stuffing your emotions.

It becomes important to determine the difference between your legitimate hunger and the stimulation of your 2nd brain:

True hunger dissipates when you eat some real, nutritious food. Once you have eaten an adequate amount, you are no longer hungry. A false sense of hunger generally has no interest in anything nutritious. It wants sweets, junk food or heavy foods in greater amounts with minimal satisfaction.

If you are struggling to determine whether your hunger is legitimate or not, eat some healthy food, and see what happens. If you feel satisfied, it was legitimate hunger. On the other hand, if you feel unsatisfied and want more and more food, then the hunger was caused by something else.

A suggestion to begin connecting your thoughts and your body is to place a hand on your ‘hungry’ belly and literally ask if you are hungry. This may take some practice and getting used to, but it does begin to form a mind-body connection to the true roots of your hunger.

Get in touch with what is going on inside of you. Why the cravings are there? If deep feelings are causing false hunger, there are ways to deal with them to begin to break or avoid your reliance on non-nutritious foods. Talking to a friend or professional, journaling, moving your body or any other activity to occupy your time can be helpful instead of turning to foods to deal with your emotions.

I personally do not enjoy using the term ‘cheat’ as it creates connotations of right and wrong, good and bad, around food. Indulgences are okay when consumed occasionally and mindfully. When you begin to use these treats as punishments or rewards, it can create a myriad of emotional issues around your food consumption.

Cheat days are alright if you lean and fit, if you are at and maintaining your health goals and they are already successfully a part of your regime. If not, think more deeply about why cheat days may be needed. Do you need to re-assess your diet? Do you need more sleep? Are you hiding from negative feelings stuck inside you? Let your answers be the stepping stones to lead you to your better health.

Michal Ofer