You’ve been so good, eating healthier meals, avoiding heavily processed fast food, cutting down on the empty carbs, swearing off candy and junk food like it was the bubonic plague. You’ve even stopped having that glass or two of wine after work (gasp). But face it, being this good is killing you. How long can you keep up this charade?

Don’t panic, the first step to solving a problem is admitting there is one. So what’s the problem? Adhering to a strict dietary regiment is fine but eventually almost everyone needs a reprieve.  Chances are you’ve heard about and quite possibly have exercised the concept of “cheat days.”Cheat days are little breaks from your otherwise healthy routine to temporarily indulge your cravings without feeling guilty. Many people view this as a reward for staying the course all week.  Before you start rewarding yourself, take heed. While cheat days can be effective for some, they can be a slippery slope for others!

If you find yourself headed down hill with your efforts to eat healthier, you aren’t alone. In 2015, the American Psychological Association conducted a Stress in America survey, and 27% of respondents reported a lack of will power was the most significant barrier to making positive change. The good news is that 70% believe that willpower is something they can learn or improve.

This is where tracking can help. Food and calorie apps are designed to track what you eat and drink each day, providing other insights relating to carbs, fats and nutritional value. This information is exactly the thing you need to steady yourself for the healthy road ahead. Many people use these apps to lose weight, but others use them to help maintain weight, gain weight or have a more nutritional diet. If you are really savvy, these apps can help to manage your cheat days too!

The more you know about your eating habits, the better your choices will be going forward. Undoubtedly you will have a better handle on your will power and adding a cheat day to your routine will no longer induce anxiety, it will be the reward you deserve. And speaking of rewards, you might be surprised to learn there are physiological advantages to cheat days.

One such advantage is the effect on leptin levels in the body. Leptin is a hormone that fat cells in your body secrete that help you regulate your energy balance by inhibiting hunger — the pesky hormone that tell you when you’ve had enough cheesecake and to back away from the dinner table. Unfortunately, caloric restriction (read: dieting) has been shown to cause a drop in leptin levels. This of course can lead to overeating. On top of that, dieting has also been shown to have a direct effect on the T3 thyroid hormone which helps to maintain your metabolic rate. Dieting can result in a lower production of these thyroid hormones and a decrease in your metabolic rate which is exactly what you don’t want if you’re trying to lose weight.

Luckily, a weekly or biweekly cheat day has been shown to combat both of these problems. By increasing your caloric intake every now and again you can force the body to stave off decreasing levels of leptin as well as T3 thyroid hormones. Plus, you get to eat pizza! But remember, you have to be careful to make sure these controlled slips don’t become full-blown slip ups!

So how can you cheat properly? By following the rules of course!

 

Cheat Meals, Not Cheat Days

This is an important distinction and failure to follow it will render all your work — as well as the rest of these rules — null and void. It’s easy to hear the term cheat days and jump to the conclusion that it means, for 24 hours, you’re allowed to be a food monster that devours everything in sight. A cheat day should simply be a day when you’re going to take one of your cheat meals. And you can take more than one a week. Two is probably the most you should take if you want stick to your healthy routine. Just don’t make an entire day of it.

With cheat meals you’re aiming for an occasional spike of extra calories and carbohydrates. An entire day of eating poorly can throw off your routine so much that it leads to you having a cheat weekend and then a cheat week. Also, don’t stagger your two cheat meals; spread them out, it’ll give you more to look forward to over the week.

 

Make Your Cheating Schedule and Then Stick to It (No Cheating!)

It’s important here to be consistent. Use your tracker to plan out your cheat meals for the same day of the week, even the same time of day if possible. Building these dietary deviations into a schedule will help you think of them as less of a break from your routine and more of an integrated part of it. Additionally, your tracker can help monitor your caloric intake for the week and with those results, determine how bad you’re “allowed” to be for your cheat meal. But of course, despite our best efforts, life can often interfere and derail our plans; that’s where the next rule comes in handy.

 

Plan Cheat Meals Around Gatherings and Get-Togethers

If you know you’re going to go out for drinks and a meal with a friend, why not make that your designated cheat meal? It can be difficult to find healthy options on menus and most times it can feel impossible not to give in to temptation, especially if your dining partner isn’t in the same boat as you. Allowing these get-togethers to be your cheat meal alleviates both potential problems at once. If you receive a last minute invitation to dine, you might feel anxious that an accumulation of unplanned meals might wreck your diet. But if you’re tracking your cheat meals, you have the ability to make choices and stay in control. Saying yes to an unplanned cheat meal is not the end of the world. You can always remove one from the bank!

 

Beat the Binge Blues

Getting past our desire to indulge is really what using cheat meals come down to and why the mental effects of allotted planned cheating should not be underestimated. It’s hard to stay motivated when we feel guilty about the things we eat. Guilt only leads to more guilt and eventually to exhaustion. Instead of feeling defeated, take charge! Factor in to your plan that you’re not perfect. Accept the idea, take control of your reality and manage the outcome. When you fall short of your intentions, before you go to the dark side, give yourself permission to allow a scheduled indulgence. Instead of following your diet to a ‘T’ for a month, only to crash and binge from the building pressure, allow yourself the occasional, scheduled indulgence. Being healthy isn’t easy, but it is in reach and well worth working towards. It shouldn’t be another unreasonable expectation you’re afraid you can’t live up to. Accept that you have limits; use those limits to redefine your rules. Change how you play the game so you can win. In other words, stop cheating yourself.