For people who aren’t following a diet or eating plan, Thanksgiving is a holiday to look forward to, with food and family galore. But if you’re someone who exercises regularly and likes to maintain a healthy diet, you might dread Thanksgiving. How do you look at a table full of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, corn, cranberry sauce, rolls and pumpkin pie, and help yourself to only a small serving of turkey and vegetables? The answer to that question is, you don’t.
Chances are, if you do follow a diet, you allow yourself a cheat meal every once in a while. And Thanksgiving is the perfect opportunity to have an entire cheat day. Don’t think about the calories or how big your serving size should be. Instead, eat what you please until your belly tells you to stop and then maybe just a few more bites after that.
Benefits of a Cheat Day
Now you may be thinking, yeah, but aren’t cheat days bad for me? It’s easy to believe cheat days would be a set-back and might make you fall off the wagon. However, they really aren’t all that bad.
Cheat days can be really good for your mind and to keep you motivated. If you use cheat days as a reward for your dedication, they can really act as a positive reinforcement of your exercise and diet plan. If you have a snack or meal to look forward to every week or month, it might make the chicken and vegetables just a little more bearable. So that’s good news. The even better news is there’s a biological advantage too.
The best advantage of cheat days is regulating the level of leptin, a hormone secreted by fat cells, in your body. When leptin levels are sufficient, the leptin hormone is triggered, which signals to your brain that you have enough energy stored and can stop eating.
How is this affected by cheat days? Well, when you restrict calories regularly, as you would on a diet, leptin levels drop significantly. This drop causes your body to feel extra hungry and can result in binging. Having cheat days every now and then can help balance leptin levels to prevent this overeating over time.
Restricting calories can also decrease certain thyroid hormones in your body, which actually decreases your metabolic rate in the long run. This is obviously not what you’re going for when trying to lose weight. These biological facts are the perfect reasons to support cheat days.
The Rule of Cheat Days
So, cheat days are a good thing. But there is one rule — moderation. Moderation is key. It’s important to only have cheat days every now and then. Spread out your cheat meals and have only a few throughout each month.
For some people, cheat days are indeed a setback. Sometimes it’s hard to have a taste of freedom — or pizza, or brownies — and then try to make the switch back to healthy eating. It becomes easier to say, “Well, I’ll start eating right again next week.” For this reason, a cheat meal may become a cheat month.
Unhealthy eating can become a habit very quickly, which can then become an addiction. Habits and addictions are incredibly hard to break, especially when you use the habit as a reward. If you don’t take control of your cheat days, they may take control of you.
When you’re planning for a cheat day, set guidelines for yourself in terms of what you’ll allow yourself to eat:
☐ Decide if your cheating will last for a whole day, or just one meal or snack.
☐ Think about how much of your cheat food you’ll let yourself eat.
☐ Then, the hard part, stick to those rules.
If you’re a particularly committed person when it comes to your diet and you’re confident in your ability to get back on the right track after your cheat day, you can let yourself binge more freely. That’s why it’s important to know yourself and be realistic about your self-control.
It also helps to cheat on a day when you will have an extra-intense workout. After that, you can have a big cheat day without feeling guilty because you’ll have had a good workout to balance it out. This isn’t a particularly good mindset to have throughout your training in general, but it works for cheat days.
The best rule for cheat days is to not let them get you down. If you feel guilty after a cheat day, or even if you let a cheat day go on for a cheat week, the best thing you can do is get back on the wagon as soon as you can. Don’t feel bad about slipping up. Instead, start fresh and begin eating right the next day.
Turkey, Stuffing, Yams, Oh My
The cheat day of all cheat days is, of course, Thanksgiving. This is the best day to stop thinking about the guilt you might feel about what you’re eating and, instead, just enjoy the food and family in front of you. The worst way you can spend Thanksgiving is staring at all of the food and trying to figure out what you can and cannot eat. While you waste time counting calories, you’re missing all of the family conversation and laughter going on around the table. That’s not the way to spend the holiday.
This Thanksgiving, give yourself the gift of a cheat day. Spend time with your family and friends, not your calorie counter. Fill up your plate and enjoy your holiday without worrying about how much food you’re eating.