Cheating. Whether it’s in sport, relationships or life, the word itself almost always carries a negative, even hurtful, connotation. And when it comes to meeting your fitness goals, cheating — on your diet, your workouts, and your food journals — can feel like a betrayal to yourself. Why work so hard, if you are only going to undermine your efforts with a cookie, or two — or five? But what if cheating was actually somehow good for you? What if taking a break from discipline can actually help you in the long run?
It might seem counterintuitive, but there is scientific evidence that relaxing the rules occasionally can improve your chances of staying fit and healthy for life. What’s more, it can also help you feel better about your body, and reduce your likelihood of developing a negative relationship with food.
How Does Dieting Affect Your Eating Habits?
For years, researchers have studied the effects of what is known as dietary restraint on eating habits and weight. Dietary restraint means consciously watching what you eat and trying to say no to temptation — think: you always politely saying “no thanks” to your coworker’s chocolate jar offerings. The results from the studies have shown that dietary restrainers tend to have a more sluggish metabolism and higher levels of cortisol, that nasty stress hormone that tells your body to hold on to fat.
Research additionally reveals that dietary restraint appears to be a potential trigger for overeating. In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto, restrained and unrestrained eaters were both deprived of chocolate for seven days—for some this could be agonizing! At the end of the test period, the restrained eaters not only reported more intense cravings than unrestrained eaters, they also consumed more chocolate when the restriction was lifted. The same research team fed restrained and unrestrained eaters a slice of pizza, followed by an unlimited amount of chocolate chip cookies, which they were asked to sample for taste. The restrained eaters not only ate more cookies than their non-restrained counterparts, but those who were given what they thought to be a larger slice of pizza ate more cookies than anyone! As it turned out, the pizza slices were actually the same size, yet the restrained eaters who ate what they thought was the larger slice felt guilty enough that they responded by eating more cookies than anyone else in the study.
It seems to all boil down to what has come to be known as “the dieter’s mindset” — an on-again, off-again eating cycle that begins with a plan to eat perfectly, but falls to the wayside as soon as the person feels they have deviated from the plan. In the end, restrained eaters tend to consume more calories when they open Pandora’s Box of chocolates— even just a crack — to forbidden foods. Overeating on the weekends is a prime example of this mindset.
Eating Purposefully Is More Effective
Striking a balance that works for you is key to avoiding the pitfalls of eating too perfectly. Just like you need to build rest and recovery into your workout routine in order to promote muscle growth, finding a way to enjoy some of your favorite, or even forbidden, foods in moderation, is an important tool for keeping you on track in the long run.
How often you choose to indulge depends on a few variables, including your personality, your goals and the types of foods that you tend to crave. For example, if you are a few weeks away from your first fitness competition, keeping cheats to a bare minimum is probably best. On the other hand, if it’s a regular day or a regular week, then enjoying a planned cheat meal or a favorite snack should not do too much damage to your diet as a whole. While some people prefer to enjoy a small treat every day (hello dark chocolate truffles!), others do fare better by having just one “free” meal per week. It may just take an extra glass of wine or a dessert when you go out socially to satisfy your need to cheat.
As for the size of the cheat you can afford, that also depends on a few factors. We know that cutting calories can help you lose weight, but being too restrictive for too long can actually slow down your progress by making it difficult for your body to build lean muscle, which helps you burn more calories at rest. If you know that you are consistently eating much less than you are burning (by 500 calories per day or more), then you may want to consider adding a healthy addition to help you meet your caloric needs. If this is the case, you can also eventually add a cheat that is on the healthier side (cup of strawberries drizzled with dark chocolate), to provide another chance to feed your body extra vitamins and antioxidants for your health.
If you have less wiggle room in your diet, then you should try to limit your cheats to a one time per week, or keep the portions smaller when you do indulge.
On the other end of the spectrum, full-out cheat days or weekends can be risky in the long run, especially if you throw all common sense out the window. If you don’t feel the need to cheat, that is okay, too. There is no need to force yourself to indulge if you are comfortable with your current routine. The most important thing is that you maintain a routine that is stable and sustainable for you. When working with clients who are training for specific events or those who have weight/fat loss goals, I will often discuss the element of their cheat/ indulgent/craving-type foods. However, we come to a mutual agreement of what is reasonable: it can be three times per week for one person, just once a week for another, or a piece of dark chocolate every day for someone else.
Ultimately, in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle, you must have balance. Participating in dietary restraint to the level of self-sabotage ultimately leads to an endless cycle of negative and destructive eating habits. Engaging in purposeful eating is far superior to “perfect restriction”.
Watts, M.L., Hager, M.H., Toner, C.D., & Weber, J.A. (2011). The art of translating nutritional science into dietary guidance: History and evolution of Dietary Guidelines for American. Nutrition Reviews, 96 (7), 404-412