After decades of published trend diets and “superfoods” going in and out of fashion, I do think Western society has landed somewhere on the perimeter of a well-balanced approach to healthy eating. Even though it hasn’t been too long since my adolescence, I don’t recall receiving nearly as much encouragement from my peers or role models to be “strong” rather than “thin” as a teen. I don’t know of many credible nutritionists and dieticians any more who are trying to pin carbohydrates or fats alone as the culprit of why Americans consistently rank high in obesity-related diseases among first world countries. We’re still maniacs, but maniacs with a slightly better understanding of how whole foods really affect us.
Now that we know that having artificially sweetened, low-calorie treats low in nutritional value to satiate our starving taste buds aren’t necessarily better alternatives to a small portion of homemade, full-fat goods every once in a while, millennials have popularized the concept of the “Cheat Day.” To my surprise, even Dictionary.com includes an entry on the phrase and defines cheat day as “a day in which a person goes off a dietary regimen.” In other words, if you workout consistently and are sticking to whatever diet you define as clean eating, you would allow yourself one day a week in which calories and macros don’t count.
The premise is that you’re not depriving yourself or holding impossible standards that will ultimately result in you giving up and eating even more of the tasty but nutritionally empty foods you told yourself to avoid in the first place. It’s certainly less intimidating to tell yourself to save cinnamon rolls for Sunday morning rather than pretending that you’ll never, ever eat cinnamon rolls with sticky, carmalized pecans and gooey-cream cheese frosting for breakfast again.
But with the pressure to “eat clean,” is there a linked pressure to “treat yo’ self?” It makes sense that a habit of binge eating can grow from a near-obsessive restriction of calories and tracking of macros because binging can be an emotional response to mental stress. It’s also reasonable to expect that on the one day you get to eat whatever you want, you are going to eat whatever you want. And a lot of it. Soon enough, every Cheat Day looks like the last panel of a Cathy cartoon before the cycle of logging every tablespoon of cream in your coffee on MyFitnessPal starts all over again. Bouncing between these two extremes can really do a number on your metabolism – but those consequences are a conversation for an actual health professional.
Remember when I said that you are lying to yourself if you think you’re never going to indulge in flaky pastries (or whatever your dietary Achilles heel may be) for the rest of your damn life?! Because from personal experience, I know that if I try to cut something entirely out of my diet for vanity reasons, I’m going to burn through those goals faster than Mindy Lahiri burns through fiancees. I truly love potatoes more than I love my own family – hashbrowns, tater tots, curly fries… if I tried to subsist on a lifestyle where I didn’t get to have home fries for brunch at least once (or thrice) a week, I would probably be unemployable because of the inevitable sobbing fits.
Instead, I focus on staying hydrated and filling my daily plates with colorful vegetables and plant-based proteins first. I avoid nutritionally-deficient starches and sugars because I understand from experience that regularly consuming those products decreases my mental and physical stamina. Your taste buds really do adapt, so I began to naturally crave these whole foods. However, I learned to cook by baking sweets – I’m not immune to their temptations. If I’m craving a salted chocolate chip cookie from a cozy, local bakery, I’ll probably get the cookie. Knowing that I get to have my favorite foods when I want them makes it easy to resist temptation at birthday parties or office functions, or I can indulge in those events because I haven’t treated myself in a while.
This balance of nutritionally-dense foods and indulgent treats isn’t the problem with “The Cheat Day.” My downfall under this premise is being so restrictive for six days out of the week that when that golden moment comes around the bend, I redefine “going overboard.” I make myself physically ill on grease and sugars. I eat until I’m well past full and then keep eating.
The word “cheat” itself is troubling. It turns a moment I’m supposed to enjoy into a delinquency. It makes those homemade brownies I baked to share with my sweetie somehow fraudulent. Our relationship with food is already so fraught and complicated, there’s no reason to admonish ourselves further for our very human desires. Eating a donut isn’t comparable to adultery, so let’s just stop calling it cheating.
Cassey Ho of Blogilates calls these meals “YOLO” meals – as in, “you only live once!” I just prefer to call it “living my damn life,” but I am a big fan of hers and I certainly like her phrasing much better than “Cheat Meal.” She is right – You. Only. Live. Once. Most of us already spent a quarter of each year doing jobs that have nothing to do with our passion – food is good, why waste more of each day obsessing over things you can’t do?
Cooking whole grains and vegetables can be delicious and exciting, and being mindful of what fuels your body is crucial to accomplishing all the physical and mental challenges that makes us warriors. If I alternatively subsisted on a lifestyle solely made up of garlic mash and poutine – well, I wouldn’t feel great. I would feel physically terrible and unmotivated. I have learned that if I eat a pie-plate full of potatoes O’Brien after a week of my favorite smoothies and quinoa bowls, I don’t need to mentally admonish myself for spoiling my diet because my body will do a fine job of reminding me why I can’t sustain myself on those indulgences.
I can’t decide for you what your nutritionally-balanced daily meal plan should look like, and I won’t say that being mindful of your dietary choices isn’t important. I’m not a medical or athletic professional, so I still struggle every day with achieving my best self. All I can do is try to make the best choices for myself every day and know that when I inevitably slip, my hard work will allow me to bounce back with resilience and minimal consequences. Health is for your entire life, not just the 8 weeks until next summer. Think sane and your body will thank you – eat sane and your mind will.