I’ve read several blogs & articles recently about the benefits of having a cheat day on your diet. A day when you eat all the stuff you deprive yourself of the rest of the time: pizza, fries, cookies, mocha latte whatchamacallits.
Sounds like a great idea, except by using that word, cheat, we’re solidifying the guilt that’s so pervasive when we eat “bad” food.
Let me explain.
Words hold the energy and subtle messages of the way we’ve used them, in our life, within our family, even through the ages.
“Cheater!” my son yells as his friend muscles past him during a foot race; the other boy bursts into tears. From a young age, we know that breaking the rules is not allowed, and being called out for it can sting.
Cheat on a game, and no one wants to play with you.
Cheat on an exam, and you fail it or maybe get suspended.
“Cheaters never prosper.” The old adage reinforces the notion that anyone who tries to circumvent the established rules won’t succeed.
These message get ingrained in our psyche, part of the belief system that drives the choices we make. When we do cheat, it comes with a sense of having to look over our shoulder, to make sure no one’s looking. Even as we try to let the secret snacking out of the closet (pantry) by making a consciously chosen day of it, the word itself still binds us to that sense.
The result: Guilt.
I shouldn’t be eating this piece of cake.
I shouldn’t have had that second glass of wine.
I’m such an idiot for buying that bag of chips.
Now I’ll never lose those last few pounds/ balance out my hormones/ clear my skin/ _________.
How do you lose the guilt and get back to enjoying your food? Two Ways.
1. Change the Rules
In a nutritional flip-side version of the 80/20 rule, the cheat day means you eat according to your particular healthy guidelines 80% of the time, so that 20% of the time you can let them slide. It leaves room for being human.
Even highly stringent college courses only require an 80% average to pass.
The great thing about following the rule from this perspective is that you eliminate the need for perfection, a state that’s nigh impossible to achieve. Heck, even when you get to the place you define as perfect, a new standard or option comes into view and raises that bar out of reach yet again.
By shifting your mindset about what entails success, you can relax around the notion of “wrong”, as it becomes part of the learning process of the journey. You introduce ease and choice into the equation.
You can calm down on a day without coffee, knowing that if you really want/need one, it’ll be ok. You can dig into that kale salad with more gusto when it doesn’t feel like a life sentence.
2. Change the Word
As I said before, my main contention with the practice of a cheat day isn’t the theory, but the language.
To extract the guilt, why not call it Permission Day?
Now that word opens possibilities. When you’re allowed to do whatever you want, that sense of ease expands even further.
But if I let myself eat that cookie, won’t I end up in a full-on backslide?
Given the green light, do you actually go fully overboard? The first time your curfew was extended past 10 pm, did you automatically get up to no good, or did it simply give you more time-freedom to hang with your friends as usual?
The more you adhere to whole food choices as the norm, the more your body will adjust to its benefits, and start to crave the “good” stuff regardless of what’s on offer.
Besides, I’ll bet that if you did go too far the first time you stayed out until midnight, the experience (i.e. the hangover) certainly taught you a lesson about your limits.
In the same way, a food hangover will call you out when you sidetrack too far. No need to kick yourself while it’s happening, your lack of sleep & bloated belly will tell you, and you can adjust accordingly.
The new word, permission, also adds a touch of reverse psychology. When the forbidden fruit moves to the other side of the garden, it loses some of its appeal.
There was a time, when I first cut way down on my sugar intake, that it was pure torture to go through the grocery line-up, with its rack of chocolate bars screaming my name. After several months of concentrating on whole food – mostly vegetables – I barely glanced at the candy. In fact, the thought alone of eating that much sugar now makes me feel ill.
Trust your body to know the right thing when it gets it, and to heal from an imbalance with grace.
What about you? Have you found a way to move past food guilt? When you share in the comments, you open the possibilities for others.