By Garth Davis, MD, FASMBS
To cheat, or not to cheat?
Let me start off this blog about cheat days by saying that there is no one answer to successful weight loss. I have been helping people lose weight for 17 years and I have an idea of what helps, but I have seen many who were successful doing diets I would never recommend, and others that have struggled with my prescriptions. That being said, there is enough data to make some generalizations, and in general, I don’t like cheat days or cheat meals.
I can list many reasons I don’t like cheat meals but probably the prime reason is that it implies you are doing an extreme diet, and one thing I do know is that extremes rarely work. There is a database known as The National Weight Control Registry. It is the largest database of people who have been successful losing weight and keeping it off. I see people lose huge amounts of weight on extreme diets like ketosis and HCG, but they always gain back the weight. For me, success is not weight loss but weight maintenance. When you look at the registry of maintainers, they are not doing extreme diets; they eat a generally low-fat diet, but more importantly, eat a consistent diet. Consistency is key, and cheat meals are the antithesis of consistency.
More importantly, cheat meals tend to glorify, and thereby strengthen, our weaknesses. Let’s say you are going to eat healthy but you love cheeseburgers, so you say to yourself, “If I can just eat healthy all week, then I can have a cheeseburger on Sunday.” Seems harmless enough. The problem is what you are inadvertently doing is reinforcing your love of the cheeseburger and conditioning yourself to hate the healthy eating. All week you will be dreaming of the burger, picturing it constantly, and when you finally take a bite you will relish every bite and begin dreading the next week of healthy eating.
Instead, I prefer to train my brain to love the food I eat and despise the food that is bad for me. I often have patients take a picture of themselves that they don’t like, maybe holding a bag of medicines, and surround that picture with pictures of food that they typically eat. After getting that visual and seeing it daily, when they see a cheeseburger, they no longer crave it. Instead, they get the image of the cheeseburger being associated with gaining weight and making them sick. Likewise, I have them take a picture of their goal, maybe a healthy person crossing a finish line, and surrounding that picture with pictures of colorful fruits, vegetables and bean dishes. That way, they associate these foods with reaching their goals and start to notice the beauty of these colorful vibrant foods.
People always comment to me that I must have amazing willpower to not eat a cheeseburger. It takes no willpower at all. A cheeseburger looks like a fat, greasy, colorless food that will make me feel ill. I would much rather eat a beautiful, bright salad with fresh, local ingredients that I know will make me feel fantastic and help me reach my goals. This isn’t just a mindset change, it has actually changed my tastes. So the idea of “cheating” becomes bizarre. Instead, I enjoy every healthy meal during the week, and I stay very consistent.
Garth Davis, MD, FASMBS, is the Medical Director of Mission Weight Management.