The Argument for Cheat Days
The concept of a "Cheat Day" or a "Cheat Meal" has been around for a long time. The idea being that if you are on point 6 out of the 7 days of the week then you deserve a little bit of break and you can eat all of that food that you've been restricting yourself from having because you've earned it. What harm could one day have in the grand scheme of things?
For some people this works well: they can have their cake and eat it too (quite literally). For others, this can set off a downward spiral of binge eating, guilt, and shame.
A little bit of background about me
I'm the kind of person that can eat a large Domino's pizza in one sitting and still be hungry. I've always been able to eat a lot of food and leave still wanting more, because of that, I had an unhealthy relationship with food. Even me calling it a 'relationship' will be bizarre to most people. It took me a long time to get over it.
When I was really trying my hardest to lose bodyweight, I stuck to a very strict diet that was complete nonsense looking back on it now. Sure I lost some weight, but it was completely unsustainable. I told myself "this week has been tough, I deserve to eat the food I want to eat". So I said I'd have a 'cheat meal'. And then that strict, rigid diet I had went flying out the window and I ate myself into a hole and put all of the weight I had 'lost' back on in one day. This then caused me to feel completely demotivated in my fitness goals (even though a spike in bodyweight is completely normal when you eat a lot of food after dieting for a period of time.)
Why I Don't Like Cheat Meals
I don't like this idea that you are 'cheating' on your diet, because at the end of the day you're only cheating yourself. If you are following a diet that says you can't eat X food, then all you're going to want is X food, all day, everyday. It's like saying 'Don't think about the pink elephant', lo and behold you can't get the pink elephant out of your head.
It's a psychological thing more than anything else. You do have control over your diet. You make your diet work for you—you're not a slave to it. I think this is key to finding what works for you, and if you're constantly restricting yourself, it makes things harder than it needs to be.
Flexible Dieting and the 80/20 Rule
I now practice flexible dieting or IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) with the aim of hitting a certain breakdown of macro-nutrients each day. The goal is to hit a general amount of calories while getting enough protein and making sure to get a balance of fats and carbs into my diet.
It's a unique challenge, and as a person who likes numbers, it's a very interesting challenge. I know I had 30 grams of protein for lunch, so I need to hit about 100 grams in the next few meals for the day. It's fun playing this game for me.
The premise of flexible dieting / IIFYM is you can eat whatever you want as long as you hit your macronutrients (and subsequently calories) for the day. Obviously I'm not going to suggest you take this to the extreme and eat Twinkies and protein shakes, but at the end of the day, if your goal is straight up weight loss or gain, then the quantity of calories is the most important thing.
What I would suggest instead is using the 80/20 rule - Get 80% of your calories from wholesome nutritious foods like lean sources of protein, and fibrous vegetables, and get the final 20% from food that you enjoy eating. And I mean do this day in, day out, always making sure to hit your daily macros.
The Beauty Of This Approach
The great thing about this is that it means that you can fit in those foods that you enjoy eating into your diet daily—you don't have to restrict them.
Here are a couple of key advantages I think this approach has:
This is a key mental shift from "cheating". This is your diet, you're not breaking away from the norm or cheating on yourself. This is your normal: Eating the food you enjoy day in and day out while achieving your goals.
You gain momentum from 'sticking' to your diet, and hitting your goals day in and day out. Actively breaking that momentum can make it harder to get back on track afterwards.
Learning More About Yourself
Because of this, I learned a lot more about the foods that I really enjoy eating and satisfy me. I found out that ice cream works really well for me, but pizza on the other hand: I'll walk away after consuming 2000 calories like it didn't even happen.
You're not cheating on your diet if you make the foods you enjoy eating part of your diet.
You can fit the foods you enjoy into your diet in a sustainable way and you don't have to feel guilty about it. Any diet that bans food that you enjoy eating will be very difficult to stick to for the long term. You are trying to enhance your life and achieve your fitness goals, not become a slave to the process. Give this approach a shot and see if it works for you.