There's no satisfaction like a few bites of greasy pizza when you've been sticking to your healthy diet for the past month—until those few bites lead to a few slices, and that one bad meal leads to an entire day of bad eating. Suddenly, you've had a whole weekend of cheat meals... and potentially the pounds to show for it. Giving yourself just three cheat days a week is enough to impact your gut health as badly as a consistent diet of junk food, according to a study in the journal Molecular Nutrition and Food Research. Meanwhile, another study from the University of Georgia found that 61 percent of people gain weight while on vacation—anywhere from 1 to 7 pounds (yikes!).
Packing on a pound or two is really not that big a deal. But it's easy to let one or two turn into five or 10, putting your motivation and health at risk.
"It's easier to gain weight than it is to lose—and it's certainly a lot more fun to gain than to lose it," says Alexandra Caspero, R.D., owner of weight-management and sports-nutrition service DelishKnowledge.com.
Even with willpower of steel, we're all going to splurge on something sooner or later. So how many cheat meals a week are okay? And how do you keep one cheat meal from turning into a cheat month? By slowing down and following these 10 tips:
1. Stop thinking of it as "cheating."
First of all, you might want to reconsider calling it a cheat day or cheat meal in the first place. "The notion of a 'cheat day' actually does more harm than good. If you dedicate a frame of time (a day, a week) as the time to 'cheat,' then you're more likely to eat just to eat because you feel like this is your one time to do so," says Caspero. Think of it as consciously indulging, offers Tori Holthaus, R.D.N., founder of Yes! Nutrition in Ohio. Find what matters to you—if brunch is your go-to meal, then enjoy that. If you love pizza, have a slice and really relish it. "There is so much power in enjoying your meal without guilt. Ironically, the more guilt we feel about eating decadent food, the more likely we are to overeat," Caspero adds.
2. Don't freak out.
That new pizza place up the block may certainly be trouble, but hitting it up a couple of times really isn't cause for alarm. "It does take some work to gain five pounds—it doesn't happen overnight," says Caspero. The average restaurant meal, for example, averages 1,000 calories or so. That's certainly more than we typically eat at home, but it's not thousands and thousands of calories, she points out. "Consistency matters—if you are eating out much more than you used to, you will likely see some weight gain. But it's not going to be after one or two nights out."
Aim to stick to your healthy diet 90 percent of the time. If you eat three meals and a snack each day (plus a workout shake four days a week when you exercise, which may not be true for everyone), that means you eat 32 times per week. Twenty-nine of those 32 meals and snacks should stick to your healthy diet plan, leaving three to do whatever you want. It sounds simple, but once you start tracking your adherence to your diet plan, you'll be surprised how easy it is to skip a meal or grab a quick refined-sugar snack when you're short on time. (Also consider the 80/20 rule for dietary balance.)
3. Put calories in context.
"To me, gaining a pound on vacation is worth it for the fun and experience, even if that means I need to add a few more workouts in when I get back," says Caspero. Too rigorous a diet and you'll be missing out on the local flavor—whether in a new city or the one you live in—so don't beat yourself up about it. (Related: Please Stop Feeling Guilty About What You Eat)
4. Limit yourself to one meal.
Eating foods that make you feel the best for most of your meals and then splurging on one is a great way to control your cravings without feeling like you missed out. "A balanced breakfast and lunch followed by a more indulgent dinner and drinks won't be as detrimental as a hearty breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks out," Caspero adds.
Most people don’t feel good after stress-eating a bowl of Ben & Jerry’s on a Friday night. But if you plan ahead and reward yourself for a week of sticking to your diet and exerciseplan with a bowl (not a pint) of Cake Batter ice cream, that feels different. Plan your splurges so that you can truly enjoy them. (Jen Widerstrom has some amazing tips for balance in our 40-Day Challenge for Crushing Your Goals.)
5. Avoid throwing in the towel for the day.
"When you set yourself up for the traditional cheat day, there's an all-or-nothing mentality," says Caspero. ("If I've already ordered nachos, what difference is a hot fudge sundae going to make?!") Obviously, calling the whole day a wash is going to do a lot more damage than one bad meal would. "Allow yourself to eat what you really want in that moment and then continue on to your normal, healthier eating pattern," she says.
Surprisingly, knowing that you can cheat anytime usually lessens any desire food has over you, so tossing those restrictions will actually help you need restrictions less. And remember that cravings can go either way: "I often find that choosing healthy food once makes it easier to choose healthy food again, just like with indulging," Holthaus adds.
6. Stick to the same guilty pleasure.
It's not just about weight gain or the psychological spiral of indulging in unhealthy fare. Junk food messes with your gut health, which can affect how well you process food and how your body gains weight. Research shows consistency in your diet helps support a healthy gut microbiome, so having a go-to cheat meal can actually help ease the turmoil it causes your GI tract, says Holthaus.
Don't reach for the baking mix just yet: "Rather than indulging in a large brownie as a cheat meal, you're better off including a tablespoon of dark chocolate chips or cacao nibs as part of your regular meals for better gut health and to help ease cravings," she adds.
7. Re-frame why you should eat healthily.
"Instead of feeling like you need to punish yourself with eating healthy after a cheat meal, I like to bring it back to what makes me feel good," says Caspero. "I don't have the same energy after eating a large stack of pancakes as I do after a green smoothie or yogurt and fruit bowl—so that feeling alone is motivating to me." After you enjoy an indulgent meal, think back to what foods make you feel the best and have that next. "Returning to the foods that make you feel good will help curb any binge or residual cheat-day effect," she adds. (See: How Bad Is Binge Eating Really?)
8. Follow splurges with detoxifying foods.
"Unfortunately, after a cheat meal there's nothing you can do to undo the damage. But you can make a positive, healthy step to the future by focusing on foods you know are healthy," says Holthaus. Opt for foods that can help your body reset. Broccoli, for example, is rich in glucoraphanin which helps power your body's own detoxification pathways for up to 72 hours, she explains. Water and potassium-rich foods (dark leafy greens, avocados, and bananas) can help balance sodium levels in the body and reduce bloating, while probiotic-rich foods (like yogurt, kefir, and kimchi) can help offset the damage to your digestive system. "Bottom line: Don't stress and just get back on track." (Try this: What You Should Eat the Day After Indulging)
9. Hit the gym.
That cycle of bad cravings is hard to break. Returning to a healthy diet can help, but so can getting your heart rate up. "Exercise is a powerful tool for more than just a calorie burn. Psychologically, not only do you feel better, but you actually start to crave healthier food when you're active," says Caspero. Same goes for while you're away. That same University of Georgia study that showed people gain weight on vacation also found part of the reason the pounds stuck around was because most folks worked out less once they returned home. Keep your routine while away so you don't fall off the motivation bandwagon once you're home "Anything counts when it comes to continuing an exercisepattern on vacation—hiking, snorkeling, paddle boarding, just walking around—make it fun," she adds.
10. Look at the scale after one month.
Don't beat yourself up for eating badly for one week or gaining a few pounds after a short holiday. But if you're away for an extended period or have been eating poorly for a month or so, pay attention to how your jeans fit. "There is some research that shows the more you gain, the easier it is for your body to store extra calories as fat and add on the pounds," warns Caspero. If your Levi's are starting to get a little snug, reconsider whether you're indulging sporadically or need to truly clean up your diet.
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