Cheat Days, Motivation, And Guilt: Staying strong despite temptation

The wagon. Sometimes we fall off it.

The wagon. Sometimes we fall off it.

Dieting can suck, until it becomes a way of life (which is the ultimate goal). But if you’re transitioning from a less-healthy lifestyle to a healthier one (whether that’s low-carb, or just generally healthier), you’re going to run into cravings. Which can suck.

And sometimes those cravings overcome you – maybe it’s been a hard day at work, or you see some chocolate on special, or you’re out with friends and you’ve had a few too many (suitably low-carb) drinks, and that pizza is just calling your name…

Or, if you’re me this past weekend, you decide that a huge Snickers-flavoured milkshake just CAN’T be passed up on Saturday, and if you then have a food festival on Sunday, well…(I don’t know why I thought that would be a good idea). Suffice to say, crepes were eaten. As were many, many samples.

And, again, if you’re anything like me, you then wallow in the guilty aftermath feeling awful for having fallen off the wagon. That’s not productive though. So here are some tips to help you through, post-splurge.

1. Stop eating cheat foods. Now.donuts-179248_1280

Yes, you broke diet. That’s fine – you can’t change it, so there’s no point in crying over spilled milk (unless it’s chocolate milk, as that would be far more tragic). But that doesn’t mean that you should KEEP eating cheat foods.

Why would anyone keep eating cheat foods once they came to their senses? Well, as it turns out, we’re great at justifying things to ourselves. So once we realise that we’ve already cheated, a lot of the time a little switch in our brain goes “Well, might as well keep eating then…I mean, you already started, right?”

Wrong. Once you identify that you’re falling off the wagon, put a stop to it. Don’t use it as a poor excuse to keep falling off (usually with the promise that tomorrow you’ll jump back on), put a stop to it early.

2. Don’t freak out.

Cheating on a diet can evoke immediate feelings of guilt and shame, and if you’re like me, you immediately start dreading your next weigh-in (because it sucks seeing the numbers on the scale go back up, even if it is normal fluctuation). But that’s stupid, for a bunch of reasons.

Firstly, the guilt and shame are more likely to make you comfort-eat (prolonging the cycle), because people make less rational decisions when they’re in a bad mood.

Secondly, people quite often overestimate how much a cheat meal/day has really affected them. For example, say you’re on track for a deficit of 3500 calories over the week (roughly equal to 1lb/500g of weight lost), and your cheat day involved eating an extra 2500 calories than your normal intake (which would require a pretty big binge). You’re still 1000 calories down for the week! So even if it slows your weight-loss (and you might, admittedly, see a short term gain on the scales again), overall for the week you’ll be down.

Remember, we’re all about weekly averages when it comes to weight, because trends are more important than individual days. So there’s no reason to freak.

3. Stop wallowing in guilt.

The mud represents guilt. Stop doing this.

The mud represents guilt. Stop doing this (I’m not implying anyone is a pig!)

This is, admittedly, something I sometimes struggle with. But there’s plenty of research out there that shows that people in bad moods make bad decisions – which, if you’re trying to diet, might mean more cheat-eating, and that’s bad. That’s because often people will attempt to self-regulate their mood by doing something that makes them feel good.

As I mentioned in the point just above, there’s probably far less of a reason to feel guilty than you think there is – you’re unlikely to set your weight-loss back by a huge amount, and even if you do show a gain for the week, we’re in this for the long haul. All that matters is getting back on the wagon, and staying consistent. Trust me, you haven’t failed as a person if you cheat on your diet – just try to limit it, learn from it, and move on.

4. Sometimes cheat days are GOOD.

Yeah, in a perfect world we’d never have any trouble sticking to a diet and we’d all look like supermodels. But it’s not a perfect world, and dieting is hard. Denying yourself things you enjoy for extended periods of time a) leads to a miserable life, and b) promotes unhealthily rigid thinking (so that when you DO cheat, you end up freaking out, feeling like a failure, and wallowing in guilt).

So what’s the answer? Plan a cheat day every now and then. Don’t go overboard, but have some cheat meals in mind that won’t derail you too much.

One advantage of this is that you’ve got something to look forward to, which can by itself reduce the likelihood of impulse cheating. You see the chocolate bar on special, and you say to yourself “No, because this weekend I have an awesome day planned, so I don’t need chocolate right now”. On the other hand, if you saw that same chocolate and you had NO planned cheat day to look forward to, you might be swayed by the more immediate temptation.

It's the end of the world as we know it...

It’s the end of the world as we know it…

At the end of the day, cheating on your diet is not the end of the world. Feeling awful about it is more likely to do damage to your long-term diet success, so learning to accept that it happens sometimes and forgive yourself when it does is the most adaptive approach you can take. Of course, it’s possible to take this too far the other direction, and stop feeling guilty AT ALL when you cheat on your diet, which probably means that you won’t be dieting very long…try to avoid that.

Hopefully this helps people realise that occasionally falling of the dieting bandwagon doesn’t have to be a big thing. You accept it, you move on, and you don’t let it push you into unhealthy eating patterns. Feel free to share your own experiences below!

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