“Do you believe in cheat days?” I was recently asked this question by a reader. He’d been encouraged to take a “cheat day” to eat whatever he wanted, and as much as he wanted, to better his metabolism.
I prefaced my response with two thoughts: First, if cheat days are working for you, and your blood tests are great, don’t change a thing. Second, consider questioning anything that is really appealing.
What do I mean by that?
Our minds are easily convinced of things we want to be convinced of.
There’s a story of an ice cream peddler who came upon a man giving a political speech. He joined the group of listeners. The speaker was saying, “Down with fascism! Down with communism!” The listeners were cheering and waving their hands. The ice cream peddler joined in their enthusiasm until he heard the man say, “Down with ice cream!” Hearing this, the peddler walked away.
Our minds are like this. We believe easily in the things we want to believe in. When there is something we don’t want to believe, we want more evidence in order to be convinced. For instance, it may not take strong evidence to convince you that eating a plate of pie is good. That would be an appealing belief! However, I’ve not seen strong evidence for it.
Many patients tell me of books they read, like THE 4-HOUR BODY, by Tim Ferriss. I’m a fan of Ferriss’ work and there is great information in the book. However, many have tried the cheat days he encourages and found that they lost a lot of momentum: They gained more weight on the cheat days than they could lose on the others.
For many of us, food is like an addiction, especially when it comes to sweets and certain types of junk food. Do you know these foods actually change your taste buds? If you’re eating clean, good food, your taste adapts, shifting your taste buds in helpful ways. Your cravings for unhealthy food ceases. If you start eating poorly again, your taste buds change, throwing you back into a cycle of food cravings.
You feel like you’re starting over again.
If you’re questioning whether cheat days are helpful, don’t do them. Instead, think more deeply and ask yourself, “Why are cheat days needed?” Many times, when we want or feel the need for more food, we’re actually experiencing cravings and not true hunger.
Why do we have food cravings?
If you’re on a healthy diet, one reason could be you’ve cut out too many carbs. If you don’t eat enough good carbs, your blood sugar will plummet. When your blood sugar plummets, your brain says, “I need glucose now.” This isn’t negotiable, so you become like a puppet on a string being sent over to grab the candy or whatever it is you’re craving.
Other factors to consider are proper amounts of sleep, your caffeine intake and your emotional state. Are you getting enough sleep at night? Are you overdoing caffeine? Do you feel a lack of security, fear, panic or anger that may be causing the cravings? There’s a separate brain in the intestinal tract, called the enteric nervous system. Due to the way this system functions, you can experience false feelings of hunger when you’re swallowing your feelings or stuffing your emotions.
How do you differentiate between legitimate hunger and false hunger?
Legitimate hunger goes away when you consume healthy food. When you eat an adequate amount, you’re not hungry anymore. False hunger doesn’t want healthy food. It wants sweets, junk food or heavy foods, and it wants more and more without satisfaction.
If you’re unsure 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 contrary, if you aren’t satisfied and want more and more food, it wasn’t legitimate hunger and was caused by something else.
Get in touch with what’s 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 avoid addiction to the wrong foods. Try talking to a close friend or counselor. Try journaling, if you’re unable to communicate with another person as quickly as you’d like. Try some type of movement or another activity to occupy your time instead of turning to the wrong foods.
Cheat days are alright if you’re lean and fit, and they’re already a part of your regime. If not, think more deeply about why cheat days may be needed. Is your diet off? Do you need more sleep? Are there negative feelings stuck inside you? Let your answers be the stepping stones to lead you to better health.