Should you ever take a cheat day?
It’s a question that seems to automatically raise everyone’s hackles. The anti-cheating camp will immediately proclaim that when you deliberately choose to eat something unhealthy, you’re only cheating yourself: sure, accidents might happen, but that’s no reason to make yourself less healthy on purpose! The other side will fire back that expecting Paleo perfection in a non-Paleo world is ridiculous; you’re just setting yourself up for failure and a rebound binge.
Here’s the kicker: they’re both right.
The benefits and drawbacks of “cheating” completely depend on the individual person. There’s no such thing as a universal law, or one simple rule that will apply to everyone. To everyone looking for an easy answer: sorry, but it doesn’t exist.
But what does exist is an intelligent framework for making decisions about whether or not a “cheat” is right for you – and that starts with getting rid of the word “cheat”!
Why You Shouldn’t Call it a “Cheat”
The problem with “cheat” is that it carries a huge emotional weight of guilt, shame, and failure. “Cheat” is not a positive word. When you talk about “cheating” on a diet the same way you’d “cheat on” a partner, you’re adding a massive load of moral judgment that has no business being attached to a burger or a piece of cake, because your “relationship” with Paleo is fundamentally different from your relationship with a spouse or partner.
Think about “cheating” in the context of a relationship. If you cheat on your husband or wife, it’s wrong because it’s hurting the other person, betraying their trust and breaking a promise. You have a moral responsibility not to harm the other person, as another human being if nothing else: deliberately choosing to hurt them is wrong.
But you aren’t bound by that kind of moral responsibility towards Paleo (or any other way of eating). Paleo is not a mutual commitment like a marriage, where the other person matters just as much as you do. You’re not trying to make sure Paleo is happy and fulfilled in your relationship. Paleo is just a tool to help you reach whatever goals you have (health, weight loss, performance, healing…). There’s absolutely no point in eating Paleo for the sake of eating Paleo; you only do it because you want to get some benefit from it.
Treating a person this way would make you a sociopath, but when it comes to food, this is a perfectly normal and healthy attitude. And that’s why using a word with moral connotations like “cheat” doesn’t make sense. Whose trust have you violated by eating a cupcake? What promise did you break? You didn’t, so it’s not “cheating.” Did you hurt Paleo’s feelings? Paleo doesn’t even have feelings! You haven’t done anything morally wrong, so stop using a word that implies moral judgment. You’ve simply chosen to eat something that falls outside of one particular nutritional framework.
The problem now becomes: what word to use instead? Call it a treat, a detour, a “free day/free meal” or a non-Paleo meal. Or just call it “part of the way I choose to eat” and leave it at that.
Once you stop making food into a moral issue, it becomes much easier to sit down and think rationally about whether (and if so, when) it makes sense for you personally to eat something that isn’t Paleo.
So When Should I Take a Detour?
So now that we’ve all moved past the language of guilt and judgment into something healthier and more useful, when should you actually do it? Well, when it benefits you! And “benefits” doesn’t just mean “benefits your physical health;” it means “benefits you as a whole person, including your mind and your soul.” Occasionally that means eating something nutritionally imperfect. Food is more than fuel, and a good life is more than eating the most perfect diet you can engineer.
So when might eating a non-Paleo meal actually benefit you as a whole person?
- If the occasional cheesecake or ice cream sandwich helps you stick with a mostly healthy diet for the long haul. 95% Paleo for good beats 100% Paleo for 2 weeks before you give up in despair. In this case, a non-Paleo food is actually benefiting your health in the long run.
- If the food is a central part of an occasional social, cultural, or religious experience that’s important to you. In this case, the food is benefiting your mental and emotional well-being.
On the other hand, sometimes straying from the Paleo framework isn’t the right choice:
- If you’re just starting down the Paleo path, and trying to re-calibrate your taste buds away from expecting junk food all the time. It's a good idea to do a month or so with no non-Paleo foods, to give your new habits time to settle in.
- If you’re trying an elimination protocol and even a tiny amount of the food you’re eliminating will force you to start all over again.
- If you know from experience that one taste of a certain food will send you down the road to a binge. Some people actually find it much easier to just say “never again” and get the food off their minds for good (for more on this, see here).
- If the inevitable pain that will follow on eating the food doesn’t make up for the pleasure of eating it (e.g. a very severe gluten allergy).
- If you discover, after a few months of eating fresh, healthy foods, that actually the junk food doesn't taste good to you any longer.
There’s obviously a balance to be struck here concerning how many non-Paleo indulgences you can get away with before the physical drawbacks start to outweigh the benefits. It's a balance that each person will have to figure out individually. Some people like to have a structure (e.g. a certain number of non-Paleo meals per week, to distribute however they like, or a plan to eat non-Paleo food only on particular special occasions); other people prefer to decide on a case-to-case basis.
If “I’ll decide as things come up” doesn’t work for you, a more structured plan might be better. On the other hand, if having a “non-Paleo day” encourages you to eat junk for the sake of eating junk, just because it’s your “free day,” then case-to-case might be more helpful. The point is to find something that works best for your whole life, so you can enjoy the present but still take care of your health for the future.
Summing it Up
Nobody is saying that you have to eat anything non-Paleo if you don’t want to. If you’re totally satisfied with eating 100% Paleo all the time for the rest of your life, great!
But for most of us, living a good life means occasionally eating something non-Paleo, and that’s perfectly OK. The way you eat should make your life better, not worse. If it benefits you overall (“you” meaning your physical and mental well-being, not just your abs), then there’s nothing wrong with eating something that isn’t Paleo, using whatever system works for you. Eat it, enjoy the experience, and get right back to your regularly scheduled meat and vegetables without any accompanying guilt or shame over “cheating” on anything.