Hey Runner... here's why you shouldn't have a "cheat day"... and what to do instead
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
Do you have "cheat days"? Cheat days (and cheat meals) are incredibly popular. The idea behind them, if you're not familiar, is to eat healthy most of the time, say, 6 days a week, and avoid "treats" - like chips, fast food, desserts, alcohol, soda, or any number of "bad" foods. Then you allow yourself to have all the foods that you crave one day a week.
On the surface, this doesn't seem like such a terrible idea for runners. Most of the time you're eating healthy - fruits, veggies, water, lean protein, less added salt and sugar and fat. You're probably concentrating on fueling your body with the right foods at the right time, so your runs and recovery are likely going great. And then, so you don't go crazy, you have a day where you get to eat anything you want! What could go wrong?
Here are three things that are more likely to happen when you regularly engage in "cheat days".
Indulging in black or white thinking
When you have a designated "cheat day" or "cheat meal", you're more likely to categorize foods as "good" or "bad" (or "clean" vs "cheat", or something similar). This black or white thinking (all-or-nothing, perfect or failure) can be really harmful.
Think about it this way: if you eat a "bad" food on a day that you're not supposed to "cheat", you may be more likely to continue to "cheat" for the rest of the day, promising yourself you'll start again tomorrow. This can lead to feelings of shame and guilt around food and eating. But if you just ate the food without putting moral value on it, you can just move on - making your next meal choice more likely to be healthy.
Promoting an unhealthy relationship with food
Remember what I just said about how you're more likely to label your food as "good" or "bad"? You're basically putting a moral value on food... but food doesn't have a moral value. It is just food. (You might think that 'everyone' thinks a certain food is "bad", but that simply isn't true. Someone who avoids lots of saturated fat might label bacon as "bad" but someone who is on a "keto" or low-carb type diet might eat bacon every day.)
Putting that moral value on food makes it easier to put a moral value on yourself when you eat a food. But again, that isn't true. You're not any more "good" or worthy or holy because you ate a ton of vegetables, nor are you "bad" or a "bad person" because you ate a slice of pie. (Note: you're not "good" or "bad" if you do or don't go on a run either, and you're not only allowed to eat "bad" foods on days that you ran.)
Again, all of these attitudes can lead to lots of feelings of shame and guilt around food and eating... making nourishing and fueling your body a lot more difficult.
Ignoring your hunger signals
If you're only allowed one day a week where you're allowed to eat anything you want, you might feel compelled to eat an extra slice of pizza or a few extra cookies or drink another glass of wine - even if you're full and don't really want it - only because you know you're not going to be "allowed" to eat those foods again for a few days.
But your body doesn't really need the extra food if it is full, and indulging at this time is only going to make you feel sluggish and uncomfortable. And again, you're more likely to have feelings of guilt and shame around eating food. And tomorrow's run? It's probably going to feel lousy.
Okay, ready to stop with the cheat days? Here's how to start to feel better and get over them.
If you have a favorite food, allow yourself to eat it. Seriously! Don't believe me?? Let's try this: how do you feel if I were to say "You're never allowed to eat __(insert your favorite food here)__ again" versus "You can have __(favorite food)__ anytime you want it - even if you didn't run today."
I'm guessing the second one feels better, right? If you take away the moral value and quit labeling foods as "good" or "bad", they lose their power over you. You can sit down and enjoy eating them fully without any shame or guilt, and know that you can come back to them again tomorrow if you so choose. And if you choose not to, that's okay too!
Choose foods that you enjoy and make you feel good
When you start to pay attention to foods that you're eating and how your body feels when you eat them, you're going to start choosing foods that nourish you and give you energy for running and for life more often.
These foods can be different for everyone - some people might feel great with a banana before a run, whereas others are going to go for the graham crackers, and still others will eat something completely different.
Likewise, you'll be more likely to give up foods that you've been eating only because they're "allowed" on a cheat day - assuming they don't make you feel good. I mean, if eating (x) food makes you feel like crap on your run the next day, you're less likely to eat it just because you can. Or, you'll still eat it, but will eat it without the associated shame and guilt about eating it and just enjoy it instead.
Take the time to get to know your food - see it, touch it, smell it, listen to it (yes, sometimes you can hear food!), and taste it. Sit down at a table and really enjoy it and savor it. Far too often we eat in front of a computer or a TV (I know, I'm guilty of this too) and we don't even notice what or how much we're eating.
But when you eat your food mindfully and with intention, it makes the experience of eating so much more enjoyable. And often you find that you don't need as much of it in order to feel satisfied.
Are you a runner that has a "cheat day" or "cheat meal" every so often?
If so, does it work for you? Or, are you a runner who already allows themself to eat foods that they like without labeling them as "good" or "bad"? Or are you a different type of runner altogether? I want to know in the comments!
Whatever type of runner you are, if you want to fuel your body better so that you can be a better, faster, happier runner, I am here to help. Schedule a free runner's nutrition strategy call and we can talk about how you can give up the "good food vs bad food" mentality (or whatever you're struggling with!) and learn how to fit in foods that you enjoy any day of the week. Doing so can make you a better, faster, happier runner, and I'm happy to show you how it is done.