Why you need to stop calling it “cheating” on your diet
by Heather Thatcher
This article takes 7 minutes to read
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I’m sure you’ve heard of the “cheat-day” mentality before. Just in case you haven’t, it goes something like this:
You stick to your diet plan for six days out of the week and then “cheat” on your diet one day a week and eat whatever you want.
Or maybe you say that you’ll allow yourself to have a “cheat meal” or you decide to order dessert somewhere and say “It’s okay, I’ve been good lately, I can “cheat” on my diet a little bit today.”
This way of thinking is broken, though, and I’m going to tell you why.
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#1 – If you feel you need to ‘cheat’ it means your diet is too restrictive
We’ve talked about how creating big changes makes our body work against us because it triggers our stress response. Remember, when we’re in default survival mode, our Inner Critic wants everything to stay the same and will do everything they can to have things return back to the way things were.
The longer you stick to a restrictive diet that is drastically different from how you used to eat, your Inner Critic is going to keep actively trying to get you to quit and make you go back to the way you ate before you started this diet.
Absolutely, you can still work around this and become a habit change ninja to create change in such a way that it doesn’t trigger your Inner Critic to ramp up your stress response because you’re doing something different.
But if you’re following one of today’s trending diets that are highly restrictive, you’re following a list of foods you ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ eat. There are foods that are ‘good for you’ and will help you towards your perceived goal, and foods that are ‘bad for you’ and will lead to failure.
I’ve been there. I was following a strict plant-based diet for years, but every once in a while I had a bit of Greek yogurt with berries or had a serving of cottage cheese. In my mind I would tell myself that this was ‘cheating’ and would sometimes feel a little guilty…or maybe a lot guilty. My view of what my diet should be, and what was and wasn’t allowed kept me in the mindset that eating anything else would be considered wrong.
Because, when you think about it, that’s what we’re implying when we say we’re ‘cheating.’
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#2 – Calling it ‘cheating’ implies that what you’re doing is wrong
We are taught from a young age that cheating was wrong. You weren’t supposed to cheat when you were playing on the playground or with a board game. We’re told not to cheat on tests, or while playing sports.
Cheating on your partner and being unfaithful in a relationship can break hearts and cause so much pain and suffering.
Your Inner Critic is following your mental filters and thought programming as the rules, and your Inner Critic knows that the word ‘cheating’ is wrong, and so when you use it to refer to your diet, your Inner Critic interprets what you’re doing as wrong.
But is it wrong?
Is it wrong to eat apples if your diet doesn’t allow for such a sugary fruit? Is it wrong to go out for ice-cream on a hot day if you’re eating a dairy-free diet? Is it wrong to have a little bit of meat once in a while if you’re vegetarian?
Food only has the power that you give it
Food is just food.
Food doesn’t have the capability to make you feel guilty. But we can choose to give food that power.
When I was following that strict plant-based diet and had that serving of cheese, I could feel so guilty and that I had failed by eating this bit of cheese.
My friends and family thought I was completely dairy-free, so by eating cheese was I letting them down as well as myself?
I would also be reminded about why I decided to go plant-based to begin with and then now I was letting down the environment, the farmers, and the animals.
That’s a lot of power for one piece of cheese, right?
I mean, my goodness!
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But the cheese itself didn’t make me feel this way. My mental filters led me to interpret eating this cheese to be ‘cheating’ on my diet, and that’s where all of these troubling emotions were coming from.
Cheese is a perfectly healthy food for lots of people, and there are easily accessible and affordable cheese options that are sustainable and cruelty free if you know where to look.
Food is just food and only has the power and associations that we give it.
Cheese doesn’t have that much power. Cookies, cake, ice-cream, mac-and-cheese, pizza – all of these foods don’t have any power at all.
It’s the emotions and labels that we apply to these foods that create our mental filters our Inner Critic uses to direct our reaction to them while we are operating in default survival mode.
It’s when you stop relying on these mental filters and labels that you can truly eat in a way that will work for you without restrictive rules that come with so many different diets out there.
No diet will work 100% of the time for everyone.
By connecting to your Objective Observer, you will be able to release yourself from this default programming and start to notice what will really work for YOU.
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There’s some confusion around what intuitive or mindful eating is all about, and it’s not just for the woo-woo spiritual crowd. Using our terms here, it could be called Objective Observer eating because you’re connecting to your inner objective interpreter of everything that happens around you, and that is the central pillar to intuitive or mindful eating.
If the idea of eating intuitively worries you, it’s likely because you’re operating out of default survival mode programming with your Inner Critic worried about what will happen if you don’t have rules.
Imagine how scary that must be for your Inner Critic who relies on rules to keep you safe – and now you’re thinking of throwing away the rules and eating whatever you want! Yikes!
But the truth is if you’re connected to your Objective Observer, who only has your best interests at heart, you won’t just binge on junk food and gain all kinds of weight.
Your Objective Observer is always taking in information and noting what is factually true, and what is our interpretation of what’s happening.
When you’re eating intuitively or mindfully, you’re only eating when your body is hungry (not your heart) and you’re noticing how foods make you feel after eating them.
Doritos might taste great while you’re eating them, but then shortly after you’re done the brain fog sets in, maybe you’re thirsty, or your stomach gets a little sour.
So your Objective Observer can say “nope, that food doesn’t work for us.”
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Let’s look at a less obvious example.
Broccoli is generally considered a healthy food. It has lots of nutrients like calcium, iron, phytochemicals and antioxidants, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for you.
If your digestion is sensitive to cruciferous vegetables, you may find that after you eat broccoli you feel bloated or get stomach cramps.
Eating in this way will require you to calm and comfort your Inner Critic who might be uncomfortable with the idea, but you as the CEO Objective Observer of your life can take control and be in charge of choosing what to eat without assigning labels.
Broccoli can be labeled as a healthy food, but if your digestion gets upset when you eat it – it’s not a healthy food for you.
Doritos aren’t the enemy and don’t have the power to make you feel guilty, unless you choose to remain in default survival mode relying on your Inner Critic to interpret what’s happening.
The more deeply connected you become to your Objective Observer, the easier it will be for you to interpret your cravings and retrain your body to crave what you want it to crave. Instead of craving candy, you’ll start to understand that you’re craving something sweet and reach for a piece of fruit instead.
My action step for you this week is to catch yourself when you’re saying that you’re “cheating” on your diet and change your inner and outer monologue to something more self-compassionate like “I choose to enjoy this treat” or “I will not give food the power to allow me to feel guilty or ashamed.”
These small mindset shifts are the perfect way to keep going on your journey to get out of default survival mode.
You’ve got this, lovely.