Keto, Mediterranean, Paleo, intermittent fasting. How many times have you or your patients been sucked into the latest diet trend only to crash and burn just a few weeks later? I have tried every diet in the books and every single time, draw the same conclusion: extreme dietary restrictions are not sustainable. So many of us lose weight with the newest trending diet only to gain it back months later after we “fail.” Many people say, “I can’t diet,” but that statement is wrong. We can diet. What we can’t figure out is how to cheat on our diet, and therein lies our dieting demise.
As a physician and health coach, I do not advocate a specific restrictive diet program. Different nutrition methods work for different people. JAMA agrees: the best diet is the one you can actually stick to. For this reason, I encourage a reimagined diet: one that mandates a cheat factor. Find what diet philosophy works for you, and then be focused, flexible, and forgiving. Making healthy nutritional choices most of the time is the winning plan. Master the cheat and allow grace on the journey.
Cheating is not bad; it is our friend (in the diet world, at least!) The problem is when we get in our own way after a splurge and throw in the towel. We have all done it. Let’s face it; restrictive diets can be boring! And how about all those times we’ve gone on vacation and have actually … GASP … enjoyed ourselves while indulging in a few too many fries or poolside drinks? Regardless of the cause, the end result of cheating on our diet is often surrender. The irony: surrender is not necessary, but cheating is! Surrendering from healthy lifestyle choices does not bring joy. It brings frustration and disappointment. We need to splurge on occasion to enjoy life.
The importance of cheating is supported by the numerous strategies for a “cheat factor” across so many diets. Have you ever wondered why diets allow for wiggle room or time off? It’s all about pumping up the pleasure center. Some diets allow for an entire day of unrestricted eating, while others confine the feast to a single meal. Then some programs allow for weekly “points” to be dispersed for splurges throughout the week. Another tactic is the 3-bite rule, which allows eating three bites of any binge-worthy food before stopping. The theory is that we savor the first three bites of food the most, so this rule helps maximize enjoyment and minimize remorse. Cheat factors are the key to making healthy eating sustainable by allowing us to satisfy cravings without derailing our progress. Of course, self-sabotage is always a possibility, so how do we splurge successfully?
A good cheat factor is infrequent, limited, and 100 percent guilt-free. A successful cheat factor will require planning and preparation. Are you going to a birthday celebration? Set an agreement with yourself in advance about appetizer and cake limits and stick to it! We can also make compensations in advance. Consider eating a lighter lunch or boosting a workout for the day. If we set limitations ahead of time, we will have a better shot at sticking to them. Of course, indulging in our cheat factor daily or going overboard on any given occasion can backtrack goals, so it’s best to limit the splurge. When we honor our commitment to healthy lifestyle choices, keep the splurge in check, but give ourselves grace to socialize and celebrate, we set ourselves up for long-term healthy eating success.
Cheat factors are like vacations. The joy of a vacation is not just the vacation itself. Have you ever found yourself sitting at your desk, daydreaming about your upcoming trip to the beach? Just as we anticipate and look forward to a well-deserved vacation, a cheat factor makes healthy eating more doable when we know a splurge is just around the corner. We can eat cucumbers and tomatoes with grilled chicken for lunch because a piece of dark chocolate awaits us after work. Our focus and determination are much improved when our brains have something pleasurable on the horizon.
“Why did I have that extra glass of wine last night?” “How come I didn’t skip the truffle fries at our girls’ night out?” Do you ever find yourself asking these questions after a splurge? Well, it’s time to stop and drop the guilt! By definition, a cheat factor needs to be 100 percent guilt-free. Healthy eating is wonderful. It gives us energy and vitality with both physical and psychological benefits. But let’s be honest, sometimes we just want a scoop of ice cream or a drink with our pals. Reframe the cheat factor and lose the guilt. Skip the shame spiral and embrace the joy of living in the moment. A good diet absolutely allows for an evening with friends or an indulgent meal or dessert once in a while. Understand that when we spurge, it has purpose. Cheat factors, when planned and structured, help us savor life, so don’t skimp on them.
Life is lived at the dinner table. We are social beings. We gather, eat, and drink as we celebrate friendships, milestones, and embrace life’s pits and peaks. A sustainable diet needs wiggle room for life. Is date night on the calendar? Did you just get a promotion? Is it your birthday? Plan a spurge, keep it in check, and skip the guilt. A good diet always allows for celebration. You deserve it!
Michelle Housel is an internal medicine physician and a physician health coach.
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