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Swap Cheats for Treats

I inherited healthy eating habits from my mother, who cooked for us each night, so I've never had to worry about my weight. I enjoy the occasional high-calorie treat but generally stick to a healthy diet - only now I’m the one doing the cooking. I don’t ever feel guilt about my occasional indulgences because I know they’re just that - occasional - and I don’t feel that any food is “good” or “bad.”

When I moved to the United States from my native country, Australia, I encountered a different world. Not only were certain foods “good” or “bad,” but eating them (or not eating them) made you “good” or “bad,” too. Many of my friends seem to rate their personal value based on what they eat and what they resist, something I’d never before experienced. It was also the first time I’d heard of a “cheat day.”

A cheat day is a mini-break from a calorie-restricted diet for weight loss. The idea is that you follow your diet religiously all week, and then you can have one day (Sunday, for example) or even just one meal to eat whatever you want, no matter how many calories it contains.

Mary Hartley MD, a dietitian and nutritionist, says she’s often asked if she recommends having a cheat day. She says if a cheat day means a feeding frenzy that packs in lots of extra calories, then she’s against it. But if it means making room for a high-calorie favorite treat, she’s all for it. She says no diet should be so restricted that there’s no room for your favorite foods.

Variations in day-to-day calorie intake may actually be beneficial to out health. Studies of intermittent fasting in animals has found that a pattern of highs and lows helps the body cope with stress and resist disease. This makes evolutionary sense - early humans would have gone days without food and other days with plenty, so it makes sense that varying your calorie count each day would have beneficial effects/

Healthy eaters who maintain steady weights don’t usually take in the same amount of food each day. They eat more or fewer calories depending on the social situation, give themselves permission to eat their favorite foods, and use regular exercise to balance out occasional high-calorie days. Either way, they don’t look for excuses to overindulge like a designated “cheat” day. Your daily diet should be enjoyed, not endured. 

When you decide to indulge in a favorite food, don’t use the word cheat. That has negative connotations and can set you up to feel guilty later. Instead, have a treat - something you’ve chosen to eat because it fits into your balanced, not radical, diet and lifestyle.


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