A lot of women feel encumbered by the dogmatic world of diet culture. Information in magazines and scientific literature effectively divides food into two opposing camps: good food and bad food. Further, the parameters of what is considered “healthy” are constantly shifting; so, too, are the most popular diets and revered experts. If you are striving to exclusively consume “good” foods while puritanically eschewing the “bad,” you are likely to set yourself up for failure; too much rigidity and conflicting health statistics can lead to stress, hunger, and bingeing. For lasting health and weight management, we suggest sticking to a balanced diet of holistic health foods.

At Bodhidevi, we have observed that strict dieting can often backfire. That’s why we recommend a balanced diet complete with a few “cheat days.” In fact, we don’t really like to label an occasional indulgence as “cheating.” The word has an inherently negative connotation. However, cheat days actually yield physiological and psychological benefits that will help you maintain your weight and your health.

This week, we explore why “cheating” on your diet can actually be a good thing. We also describe the most effective way to indulge while maintaining a diet comprised primarily of holistic health foods.

Why Cheat?

It is important to, for lack of a better word, “cheat” on a diet of holistic health foods every once in a while. That’s because dietary rigidity can actually lead to severe health complications. In the best-case scenario, cutting out an array of “bad” foods can lead to excessive weight loss and/or vitamin deficiencies. In the worst-case scenario, it can lead to obsessive behavior and disordered eating.

Stringency can also lead to yo-yo dieting. Extended periods of deprivation spike ghrelin production, stimulating intense hunger and cravings. If cravings go long enough unfulfilled, they may become so intense that they give way to binge eating. Following binges with a period of compensatory restriction will land you in an endless, exhausting cycle of bingeing and restricting.

Occasionally indulging in a treat will help you maintain health and balance more easily. “Cheating” will satisfy and eliminate cravings instead of exacerbating them, preventing overeating in the long run. Plus, knowing you have a treat awaiting you at the end of a week of healthy eating will help you stay on track.

Physiological Benefits

Sure, indulging every once in a while will prevent you from becoming fed up with your diet and stuffing your face, making it easier to maintain a healthy, balanced diet of holistic health foods in the long run. But “cheat days” actually yield tangible physiological benefits, too, that can facilitate weight loss.

Consuming a carbohydrate rich meal after a period of dieting increases energy expenditure, i.e. calorie burn, by 7% for 24 hours post-meal. It also increases levels of leptin, the hormone that instructs the body to stop eating and use fat as fuel, by a whopping 30%!

The body actually adapts to calorie restriction, burning fewer and fewer calories with time. The human body’s prerogative is to reserve enough energy, i.e. fat, to provide subsistence in the event of scarcity. Thus, when you begin eating less, your body won’t just plow through its fat stores indefinitely. Instead, it will down-regulate your basal energy expenditure to prevent you from losing fat. That’s why, if you have been dieting for a long time, you may hit a weight loss plateau. Fatigue will accompany a plateau, too, as the body ceases to expend energy on more basic functions.

Regularly enjoying a high-carb, high-calorie cheat meal will prevent your body from adjusting to lower caloric intake. It does so by restoring normal hormone secretions and metabolic functions. Experts recommend 1 or 2 cheat meals a week for the best results.

The “Don’ts” of Cheat Days

Like most things, there is a right and a wrong way to cheat on your diet. The key is to seek balance and moderation.

Don’t let a cheat meal turn into a cheat day. A cheat meal is enough to boost your metabolism without undoing your progress. A cheat day, on the other hand, can do enough damage to offset a week’s worth of exercise. That’s especially true if you are consuming both extra food and alcohol.

That leads us to our next tip: don’t indulge in every area possible. Choose one special treat to indulge in. Maybe you are craving a burger with fries. Perhaps you’ve had a stressful week and want to unwind with a couple of cocktails. Or maybe you’ve been dying to try the new dessert at your favorite restaurant. Pick your preferred indulgence, but don’t go for the meal, dessert, and drinks all at once.

Whatever your selected indulgence is, don’t make your cheat meal a fatty meal. Sure, a burger and fries has plenty of fat. But it also has protein and carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are what stimulate the body to produce more leptin after a large meal. Fats, on the other hand, are easy to metabolize and store. They are more likely to produce fat gain without stimulating the metabolism.

Finally, don’t starve yourself or do two hours of cardio before your cheat meal. Doing so is likely to drive you to eat way more, and it probably wont compensate fully for the excess calories. Additionally, starvation and excessive exercise spike levels of the hormone cortisol. And higher cortisol levels mean your body is more likely to store the additional calories as fat instead of using them for energy.

The “Do’s” Of Cheat Days

Instead of gorging during your cheat meal, slow down and savor the flavors. Eating mindfully will prevent your cheat meal from devolving into a binge. Further, slow, mindful eating will leave you more satisfied, curbing cravings until your next indulgence!

While you don’t want to deplete and exhaust yourself before a cheat meal, a little exercise won’t hurt. In fact, those cheat calories will be put to better use if you consume them as a post-workout recovery meal. While it’s a good idea to eat lighter meals prior to a cheat meal, don’t starve yourself. Try a light, protein-rich meal, like a salad topped with chicken, followed by a quick gym session.

A cheat meal allows you to stray from your macronutrient goals, consuming more calories, carbohydrates, and fats than you normally would. However, it is not an excuse to eat empty calories or toxic foods. Stray away from highly processed meats or refined sugars for your cheat meal. Go for a burrito over a large bowl of ice cream. Try to consume a meal that is both indulgent and balanced. Want a cheeseburger? Go for one with organic cheese and grass-fed beef. Make your own burrito with organic, well-sourced ingredients instead of going for fast foods. Choose a slice of cake made with coconut oil and almond flour instead of downing a bag of candy. Do what you can to satisfy your craving while still nourishing your body.

Finally, choose something that will truly delight and satisfy you. If there is a delicious food that reminds you of your childhood, choose that over a food that only has moderate appeal. Indulge for genuine pleasure. For maximum health benefits and enjoyment, prepare an indulgent meal at home with your partner or a close friend.