Why You Need To Avoid The Cheat Day Trap
How my massive binge day nearly ruined my relationship with normal food, and how you can avoid the same fate.
The idea of a “cheat meal” or “cheat day” is common in the weight loss industry. Here’s the story of my restrictive diet, and the bingeing that followed. This article will teach you how to avoid the same fate.
Diagnosed with Crohn’s disease after two years of illness and weight loss in about 2001. I spent the next couple of years in bewildered drunkenness. I’d sometimes fast for 48 hours before going out and getting smashed in a club. I’d do pretty much anything to avoid needing to go anywhere near a toilet. Diarrhoea doesn’t stand much of a chance if you have nothing in your GI tract. Fasting was the only way I could be comfortable in any social situation. This lasted a while before I decided enough was enough. I was going to get better.
Constant pain and weight loss. The threat of experiencing extremely public diarrhoea. Crohn’s disease left me thin, sick, and anxious. Already a nutrition geek. I concentrated on what I ate. It seemed like the only thing I actually had any control over. I spent the next 8 years on some restrictive diet or another in the quest to feel normal again.
Towards the end of 2005, I read the book “the Paleo Diet for Athletes” by Dr Loren Cordain. I was immediately struck by the notion of eating like our Palaeolithic ancestors. Once I realised that modern disease was preventable by eating as our cave dwelling descendants once did (note: this is in no way true), I was hooked. The pain and suffering of the previous 5 years could be fixed by following Cordain’s protocol:
The following foods should be avoided by those with Crohn’s disease:
• All commonly consumed cereal grains, including wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, and rice—note that rice is probably the least damaging grain.
• All beans and legumes.
• Potatoes and tomatoes.
• All pseudo grains, including amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, and chia seeds.
As I’ve written before, it’s the story you buy into, not the product itself, and I was fucking sold.
When it doesn’t work
A desperate person is easy to manipulate. When something you’ve bought into doesn’t work, it’s easy to think that it’s not the product that is failing, it’s you. As simple as it all seemed, giving up “modern” foods made no difference to my health. Was it because what I’d read about the diet wasn’t true, or was it because I needed a more drastic approach? Further diet restriction continued until I was down to only a handful of cave man approved foods. My health was still no better.
In the summer of 2006, we were in the thick of our biggest tour schedule to date. I decided to have one “cheat meal” that deviated from the restrictive diet I was following during the week. The beginnings of a binge – restrict mentality were born.
Pizza, a burger, or ramen in Shibuya, were all back on the cards. The feeling of relief that eating one regime free meal a week gave me is actually hard to express. It’s only natural that one meal became 2. After a while, it turned into 24 hours of the type of deviant behaviour worthy of Henry VIII.
Planned throughout the week, “party day” as me and my band mates coined it, was legendary. A packet of doughnuts in the taxi on the way to an interview? No problem. Curry Wurst at every European truck stop? Whole tubs of ice cream? Jars of peanut butter? Boxes of pastries? Enough booze to kill Oliver Reed? Oh yes.
I viewed this behaviour as a net positive in the bigger scheme of things.
What I didn’t realise was how it was affecting me.
All or nothing
“Party day” happened on Saturday. Not Sunday, or Wednesday, or Friday. 24 hours of uncontrolled hedonism was fine if limited to that day, but outside of that, there would be hell to pay. A family meal during the week or an ice cream at the cinema would result in immediate detriment to my health. One massive binge day a week was fine. One tiny dietary deviation during the week was unthinkable. I’m an intelligent person, and I’m still embarrassed about how I came to this conclusion.
Being able to have a “regular” life one day a week had become so important to me, I met any threat to it with immediate panic. If I did deviate during the week, I’d worry that I’d set my health back and that all the good work I’d been doing was for nothing. I’d never get better with that kind of lazy attitude to my diet, so I thought. I’d go into Saturday feeling guilty and miserable, which only led to more unrestrained eating. What started as one regular meal, had turned into a destructive, harmful mindset.
Dietary flexibility in the world of weight loss literature is a good thing. Loria-Kohen et al, gave one weight loss group bread, while another group wasn’t allowed it. The bread group ended up with better compliance and fewer dropouts. In another study, Smith et al. found that:
“…individuals who believe themselves to be on strict diets, by actively counting calories (or fat grams) and by avoiding certain foods, tended to overeat and splurge while alone. Furthermore, these strict dieting practices were associated with unsuccessful weight control (increased body mass)”
Fat gain isn’t a worry with Crohn’s, but if you’re a small female not eating much in the first place, cheat days can wipe out a diet. Don’t fall for the lie that cheat days “boost your metabolism”. That story is to sell you on the behaviour, and, the coach who pushes the behaviour. My story might not be about weight loss, but it’s still about recovering from a restrictive mindset.
The realisation that what I was doing was not healthy or sustainable took time. The fact that I didn’t feel better from following a restrictive diet of any kind, wasn’t part of my thought process. Nothing else had worked, this had to.
In a situation where I couldn’t eat the way I wanted to, I started to notice that I actually didn’t feel any different. The negativity around food started to slip away. Saturday became much like any other day, and the guilt I used to feel when eating a “bad” food, became a thing of the past.
All this informs how I work with clients now. The guilt. The setbacks. The binge-purge mentality. If I spot it, I address it.
If a situation could arise that might cause someone to go down the same path I did, I tie a knot in it as soon as I can. I do my utmost to push people away from a black and white, dichotomous relationship with food.
For me, a mindset born out of fear and vulnerability took only months to ingrain, and years to get over.
A cheat day sounds like a great idea on paper, but take my word for it, don’t go there if you’re prone to black and white thinking.
Want to lose weight while still going out to eat the foods you love? Get the eat out stay lean system and never worry about eating out again.