When I was a kid growing up in south Texas, the lunch week at my public elementary school always followed a predictable pattern:
Wednesdays meant Mexican food day. The enchiladas were off the friggin’ chain good. And the dessert was the best chocolate cake you ever tasted.
I can still remember the smell wafting into the classroom through the open windows. Yeah, the school I went to had no air conditioning. Just a bunch of sweaty, stinky, south Texas kids and a teacher who was probably wondering what-in-the-natural-hell she signed up for.
And Friday was fried fish day. With the most awesome yeast rolls you could ever imagine.
This was back in the day when the cafeteria ladies actually made this grub by hand. And it was hella good.
Now no one really gave a single rat’s ass about Monday, Tuesdays or Thursdays. No one was jazzed about Salisbury Steak, “mystery meat” or whatever else might be on the menu. Mostly we just flew through lunch in like 5 minutes so we could get outside ASAP and play kickball.
But I can tell you this: rare indeed did I or anyone else miss school on a Wednesday or Friday. Oh hell no!
A silly story, yeah. And yet – what does this have to do with navigating clients (or yourself) around the idea of “cheat days” as a diet motivator?
I’ll tell you this: it’s a damn slippery slope. Because the problem with the “cheat day” as a motivator is that every other day is NOT a “cheat day”.
In other words, could you/would you enjoy “the now” if the thought of something better – or in this case, insanely more delicious – lay just on the horizon?
If you establish *any* lifestyle factor as good/bad, work/reward, sacrifice/return dichotomy, you’re relying on willpower to get you from one “cheat day” to the next.
And we know that willpower is a finite resource. Even the bad-ass Archilochus thought so, 2700 years ago:
“We do not rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
So for you, when the stress volume redlines or you’ve got decision fatigue from a ball-buster day at work, you’ll revert to that child-like part of you that just wants to be soothed by the fastest hyper-palatable food you can have Uber-Eats drop in your lap.
And if that weren’t bad enough, those “cheats” won’t reduce the want, but rather send it into orbit.
In the words of Dr. Robert Sapolsky (Behave):
“Food evokes dopamine release in hungry individuals of all species, with an added twist in humans. Show a picture of a milkshake to someone after they’ve consumed one, and there’s rarely dopaminergic activation—there’s satiation. But with subjects who have been dieting, there’s further activation. If you’re working to restrict your food intake, a milkshake just makes you want another one.”
I don’t want to wax all eastern thought / woo here, but this is like trying to grasp and hold onto happiness. Or dodge pain. Both are impermanent and ethereal. And to treat them otherwise is to create a continuous loop of suffering for yourself.
If you’re happy for a *reason*, you can be sure you’re still operating from a baseline of suffering.
So back to the question at hand: can cheat days be used as a successful dietary lever?
If you happen to be someone who hasn’t learned to moderate well, even planned flexibility (i.e., a cheat day) is dangerous because it ignites all the subconscious fireworks that led to the bad habit in the first place.
This is made even more insidious because those caught in the loop will deny up and down that it’s even a thing for them. And, like the “ABSOLUTELY NO TRESPASSING” signs on the fences surrounding the limestone quarry near where I grew up, tell someone that they *cannot* have something and it automatically places that something in the forefront of their attention and amplifies its value.
Ding! Ding! Challenge accepted!
You, me, and every other human being walking the planet are highly susceptible to languaging. And if you think you’re not, you’re even MORE susceptible.
The term “cheat” implies shame, judgment and hiding. And it’s completely disempowering. The exact opposite of what you want. Not just in managing your diet (and more broadly, lifestyle), but in ALL aspects of your life. An empowered individual makes smart decisions consistently over the long haul. Maybe not all the time, but more times than not.
Life is lived in probabilities, not extremes.
The same empowered individual can *choose* to have a bite or two of a bad-ass dessert, set the fork down and be satisfied. There’s no dichotomy, no shame/judgment, no win/lose situation.
There are consequences associated with every decision we choose, with those consequences being skewed relative to the “dose” and frequency of the choice. And I am fully in control of those decisions.
I am, as it were, the captain of my own ship.
For a disempowered individual, unplanned goal deviations feel like failures and thus set off a “fuck it all” cascade that finds them elbows deep in a gallon deep in Hagen Daz before they even know it.
Guilt, shame, hiding and self-loathing rush in. It’s a feed-forward loop to be caught in. And rarely does it end well. Physically and emotionally.
Empower yourself today. You CAN have anything under the sun to eat. Now, what do you CHOOSE to eat? And why?
Is this a simple, verbal, sleight-of-hand? Of course it is. And it works.
Try it for yourself and you’ll find it makes all the difference in the world in your dietary and lifestyle behavior modification.
You got this. You ARE empowered.
Health thyself, hone thyself, change the world –
PS – Looking for a free, no-obligation, health assessment to support a hyper-personalized nutrition program? Look no further. Click HERE NOW