I have several friends whose eating style involves “cheat” days. In fact, I’ve heard that there are diets that promote food restriction during the week and cheating on the weekends. As an eating disorders therapist, the idea of cheat-eating has always seemed like an unproductive idea and encouraging it as a way to pull us farther away from, rather than closer to, “normal,” regulated, appetite-cued eating.

The main reason is that the word cheating makes us feel as if we’re bad and doing something wrong. That perspective assumes that eating a slice of chocolate cake, enjoying a few potato chips or enjoying a buffet dinner is akin to sinful. What does that tell our poor brains? One thing it does is confuse them. It makes us think that some foods are bad and others are good and that we are bad or good for eating them. Mainly, it makes eating feel like a moral issue rather than a nutritional one.

People like the idea of a food plan that includes cheating because, once again, they’re being told what’s okay to eat and what isn’t. They don’t need to take responsibility for thinking about what and how much to eat because someone/something else is doing the work for them. I think they also like feeling as if they can have their cake and eat it too (literally and metaphorically).

The irony here is that by learning to eat “normally” they also can have their cake and eat it too, in that they can eat any food they want, high or low in nutrition, as long as they’re doing so in accordance with appetite rules for hunger, craving, mindfulness, satisfaction and fullness. They can have pecan pie for breakfast, linguini for lunch, a burger for dinner as long as they’re eating these foods according to appetite cues. They can do this without feeling as if they’re cheating or doing something wrong.

The other problem with cheat-eating is that it doesn’t take into account the concept of eating for health. If you’re going to go all out eating on a weekend and consume large quantities of food that will harm your body in the form of fat, sugar, or processed fare, it doesn’t matter what day of the week you’re doing it. In large amounts, these foods simply aren’t healthy. Cheat-eating makes it sound as if they’re okay to eat.

As I’ve said before, your goal should be to become a “normal” and a “nutritious” eater. That means eating according to appetite and according to what foods promote or damage health. Cheat-eating doesn’t avoid the physiological consequences of non-nutritional eating. It only makes us think it does.

Best,

Karen

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