Nutrition Articles

Can You 'Cheat' on Your Diet and Still Lose Weight?

How Cheat Meals and Cheat Days Affect Your Weight Loss

Your Calorie Bank
The banking of calories works in a similar fashion as your checking account or debit card.  For example, if you invite your main squeeze to dinner and a movie on Friday, you have to make sure you have the funds to cover your outing. So you save a few extra bucks Monday through Friday, therefore providing sufficient money in your account to spend on the evening out.  Now, apply the same principle with the calorie banking.  By eating at the lower end of your recommended calorie range Monday through Friday, you can accumulate a few more calories to spend on your Saturday splurge day, while still remaining within your weekly budget when you take the average for the seven day period.  While this gives you more calories to spend on your special day, it still requires planning. This works because a single day of calories (whether low or high) won't make or break your weight loss. It's the overall trend—or weekly average—of calories that affects changes in your body.
Better than Cheating: How to Remain Faithful to an Eating Plan You Love
If you feel the desire to cheat on your diet, it may not be your fault. Your diet—or your view of how you "should" or "need to" eat to lose weight or be healthier—is the real culprit. If your diet is so restrictive, plain, boring, tedious, or "perfect" that you can't stick with it forever, then try these smart strategies to bring your eating habits back to normal.
  • Start embracing all foods.  Remember that no single food causes weight gain.  Weight management is based on total calorie intake—not the restriction of certain foods, ingredients or food groups. All foods can fit into a healthy eating plan. Instead of thinking about foods as being "good" or "bad," change your food language.
    • Instead of saying "This is a bad food," say "This food has a lot of calories; if I really want it, I will have it in moderation."
    • Instead of saying "I cheated," say "I ate more than I wanted to, but that happens to everyone once in awhile. It is normal and I won't beat myself up over it."
    • Instead of saying "I was bad," say "I ate more calories than I intended, but I am in control now."
  • Start to enjoy those "off limits" foods in smaller portions. Slowly incorporate food you once considered "bad" into your eating plan.  Don't be discouraged if you occasionally eat too much of a food that you once considered "off limits."  If you are used to eating large quantities of a food, it may take practice to moderate your portions. To help, savor every bite and take your time eating.  Make snacks last at least 15 minutes and stretch out your meals to last at least 30 minutes.  Do not eat out of packages.  Make food special by putting it on a real plate or bowl and using silverware.  Limit distractions and enjoy your food without watching television or using the computer. 
  • Socialize and enjoy. Enjoy once "off-limit" foods in the company of others. This may help you avoid over-indulging, which is easier to do when you are alone.  When you are in a restaurant with companions, order what you want, not what you "should" eat.  Savor every bite and enjoy it slowly.  Stop eating when you feel the first signs of fullness.  Don't feel that you must clean your plate.  If you have difficulty eating certain foods in small amounts when home alone, practice eating safe portions in safe places where you are less likely to overeat. 
Overcoming the Desire to Cheat
I have a friend named Patrick who had smoked for more than 30 years and finally decided to quit. The next time I saw Patrick, I said, "I hear you've quit smoking.  How's it going?" 
Patrick sternly looked me straight in the eye and said, I did not quit smoking, for I am not a quitter!  I chose to not smoke!" 
What a powerful statement that you can apply it to your weight-loss journey as well.  You are not a quitter! You are not a cheater! If you feel the need or desire to "cheat" on your diet, it may be worth examining your relationship with food and whether you're actually taking steps to leave dieting behind in favor of adopting a healthy eating plan that you can live with for life. The idea of "cheating" tends to reinforce the concept that certain foods are "good" in your mind while others are "bad." This idea is hard to break if you've been on and off diets throughout your life, but it's not impossible. The healthiest eating plan—and mental outlook—is to embrace all types of foods and never to feel guilt, remorse, embarrassment or discouragement about the foods you eat. Taking proactive steps to ditch the "diet" mentality can reduce your anxiety and obsession with food and help you avoid out-of-control binges that derail your weight-loss efforts.
Kushner, Robert, MD, ''The Swing Eater Handout,'' in Dr. Kushner's Personality Type Diet (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2003).

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About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

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