A man can only live on kale, unrefined carbohydrates, and lean (read: grease-free) cuts of meat for so long. Sooner or later, he’s going to step out on his diet.
But, luckily, when it comes to weight loss, wandering every once in a while isn’t such a bad thing. “Cheating on your diet can prevent you from growing to resent your diet and giving up on it completely, says Wesley Delbridge, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. So even if you favorite foods aren’t particularly healthy (and, come on, whose favorite food is all that good for them?), by including them in your diet with regular "cheat days," you can lose more weight and get healthier than if you tried to nix them entirely, he says.
So how do you cheat on your diet without undoing all of those salads? Follow these eight tips for splurging success.
1. Make It a Meal
Instead of using your cheat day as an excuse to stuff your face for 24 hours straight, focus on a specific meal or snack in which you want to throw some of your dietary caution to the wind, recommends cardiologist and trained chef Mike Fenster, M.D., author of The Fallacy of the Calorie. It’ll prevent you from overdoing it big time, undoing your efforts from the rest of the week, and winding up feeling like crap.
2. Opt for Fresh Foods Over Processed Ones
Weight loss is about more than calories in versus calories out. So make sure that any caloric splurges contain at least some quality. “If it’s a burger and beer night, head out to that local restaurant that sources regionally and provides an incredible pastured, grass-fed, beef burgers. If you’re grabbing chips for a party, choose the non-GMO, organic blue corn chips and make some homemade salsa, Fenster says. “Although these seem like small details that might not make a difference, we are learning to our continual amazement how a little change in the quality of our food can mean a big change to our gut microbiome, health, and weight.”
3. Plan It Out
If you wing your cheat days, opting to have them whenever a craving strikes, you’ll end up cheating every day of the week, Delbridge says. And that’s not called cheating, that’s just plain gaining weight. Instead, it’s best to schedule out your food treats about once a week, he says. Or, if they are super-small, like one square off of a bar of chocolate, you can schedule them every day. Besides keeping your caloric intake from getting out of control, planning out exactly when and what you’ll splurge on gives you something to look forward to and makes all of that quinoa feel a lot less monotonous, he says.
4. Focus on What You Really Want
On cheat day, you can eat whatever indulgence you want. But remember, that’s singular, “Focus on the one food you crave the most that week,” says Delbridge, who notes that most guys’ cravings come down to either carbs, desserts, or alcoholic beverages. If that sounds a lot like you, maybe you rotate which food group you allow yourself during your cheat meal. So, for instance, if you’re craving carbs, maybe it’s time for your favorite pasta dish. But no, you don’t also need the cocktail and tiramisu. You can have one of those during your next cheat day. Likewise, if you’re gearing up for an entire day that’s going to be filled with food, like Super Bowl Sunday or just an overdue lazy day with your Netflix subscription, try to hone in on the foods that you really want, rather than eat the so-so buffalo wings just because it’s cheat day and you can, Fenster says.
5. Pace Yourself
“On cheat days, it may be tempting to dive head-first into the buffet—and wearing a snorkel so that you don’t even have to even come up for air,” Fenster says. “But we need to remember that cheating is for enjoyment. It’s not something to race through.” To help you slow down, he recommends keeping any splurges social. “Snacking while we chat gives our stomach time to tell our brain that we’re full,” he says. The result: You eat less food, and probably while having a better time that you would if you shoveled food into your mouth all by yourself.
6. Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
Dehydration and hunger feel a lot alike. So if you make sure to drink plenty of water (remember, your pee should be light, not dark, yellow) on your cheat days, you won’t sit down to your pizza feeling quite as hungry. “You’ll still indulge, but hopefully not to the point of making yourself feel sick,” Delbridge says. Plus, if you’re putting away high-sodium foods like baked goods and chips, getting enough water can actually help prevent cheat-day bloating.
7. Splurge Earlier in the Day
If you’re planning a big dinner out or evening hitting up the bars for your cheat day, by all means, go for it, but if it’s all the same to you, schedule your splurges well before bedtime, recommends Fenster. “Some studies do suggest that there is credence to the belief that eating later in the evening prior to bed can result in a small, but significant, weight gain compared to consuming the same food earlier in the day.” That means that your plate full of nachos might not be as bad for your waistline if you eat them at noon rather than at midnight.
8. Pay Attention to How You Feel
Once your regularly scheduled cheat day has come to an end, it’s time to access how you feel—both physically and emotionally. If your cheat leaves you feeling miserably stuffed or guilty, you’ve probably overindulged at some point, says Delbridge. Or maybe that heartburn is your body’s way of saying fried Twinkies just aren’t worth it. The goal is to wrap up cheat day feeling good and ready to take on your next week of healthy foods.