Paleo Diet: do you need a “cheat day”??


I started following the Paleo Diet nearly a year ago, and it has been one of the most significant changes I have made in my 31 years of living!  What started as research-in-action via a Lenten challenge has become a framework for eating and living that I absolutely LOVE.  When I decided to “go Paleo”, I did some research to get me started and went with it.

Over time, I figured out what worked for me and what didn’t.  I realized that the Paleo Diet is a framework and that each person needs to tailor it to fit him or her.

Personally, I have completely omitted all grains [some folks still eat white rice]; I have completely removed dairy from my diet [I found that I have a sensitivity to it and omitting it has made my bloated feeling totally go away]; and I eat more lean protein [chicken breast, turkey burgers and turkey tips, 90% lean grass fed meat, fish, eggs] and stay away from the less lean things such as bacon, pork, sausage, chicken thighs, bone marrow, etc. This is sheer personal preference, as is my choice to keep drinking 2 cups of coffee per day and enjoy red wine and tequila in a moderate fashion.  I understand that some fellow Paleo Dieters may do things a bit differently, and that is fine.

What I don’t understand, however, is how some folks have a “cheat day” once every week.  I know several people (mostly Paleo via Crossfit) who eat within the Paleo framework 6 days per week and then go absolutely nuts on the “cheat day”.  With this type of system, I just don’t understand the point of even following Paleo at all.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying a person should not allow him or herself cheese, bread, beer, pasta, rice, etc. in a small amount once in a blue moon when they want to.  But gorging on things like pizza, wings, chicken Parmesan, pie, cake, bagels, soda, cookies, etc. ONCE PER WEEK is absolutely ridiculous to me.

The thing I have the hardest time understanding is why a person would continually choose to consume foods that undoubtedly make them (quite literally) feel like shit.  I know that when I eat clean, I feel great.  My workouts are A+ and I feel strong, lean and fit.  When I do allow myself a “cheat” once in a while, I feel awful afterwards.  I have learned that it isn’t worth it.  I cannot consciously put something in my body that I know will cause that much discomfort and negative feedback.

Maintain a diet that is full of real, whole, nutritious foods that are extremely close to their natural source, and that is precisely what a person’s body will come to expect.  To then sabotage this healthy effort by eating foods that are not only “Paleo illegal”, but highly processed as well is a form of shock to the system.  I personally believe the benefits to a Paleo Diet framework are muted if not completely undone by a scheduled, regular “cheat day” once per week.  If a person “buys into” the Paleo Diet enough to adhere to it 6 days per week, then WHY blow it all on processed crap that 7th day?  It seems backwards to me!!

I’d really like to hear feedback on this topic.  Like I said, it is completely subjective so maybe other people have had different experiences.  Share your story with me.  Do you agree? Or are you a fan of the “cheat day”?

18 Responses to “Paleo Diet: do you need a “cheat day”??”

  1. Ali

    I fully agree- a certain Weinberg someone is on a ketogenic diet for fat loss right now (which I can’t understand how one would have any energy to work out) and a cheat day one day a week where she goes bananas. Her coach says that her body uses that day as the source of energy for the week. I feel like that is a terrible idea, and would rather stick to moderate healthy carbs throughout the week. To each his own though. Also for me, i used to stick with just lean cuts, but my naturopath told me for autoimmune health reasons that I should try to integrate organ meats (blech) and small amounts of things like pasture raised bacon, which I am starting to like!

    Reply
    • Michelle

      yipes. i can’t say i agree with that format, though i know coaches who advise it to their players. to me, i think the concept of pre-determined reversal of whatever a person is trying to accomplish is backwards!!!!

      pasture raised bacon…sounds good!:-D

      Reply
  2. Sarah Neely

    I do not believe in a predetermined “cheat day.” Why set yourself up all week to fail on your cheat day? What I do think is important is to follow a diet (I use that term as an eating plan, not a “diet), that doesn’t make you feel like you even need a cheat day. In other words, if your regular eating plan is so far away from the foods you like, you will undoubtedly fail (or feel the need for a cheat day). My advice is to add things that you like to your regular diet, paleo or otherwise. Add some Parmesan cheese to your chicken or add a little goat cheese to your salad. That way you will enjoy your “honest” days and not need your “cheat” days :)

    Reply
    • Michelle

      Thanks for commenting :)
      i totally agree.. the word “diet” implies an ending when all behaviours can be reverted back to old habits and that will never lead to success. I absolutely believe that people should make slow, long-lasting healthy changes to their lifestyle so that they wont feel pressure to “Cheat”
      i LOVE the concept of “honest” days instead of “cheat” days!!

      Reply
  3. jc

    If the Paleo Diet fad is so healthy and responsible for brain growth, then why didn’t the Neanderthals survive and thrive? They had 300,000 years in Europe following the diet to make themselves into “Einsteins!” Speaking of Albert Einstein, this is what he had to say on the subject of health and survival: “Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” http://www.veganfitness.net/viewtopic.php?t=723 & http://nutritionfacts.org/.

    Reply
    • Michelle

      thanks for commenting, jc… i do think that a vegetarian and vegan diet, just like all others, benefits some people greatly. as i stated in my blog- i do not believe that the Paleo diet or any other diet is a blanket solution for everyone. i draw from my own experiences and my results have been positive,so i stick with the diet. the point of the post was to discuss “cheat days” on any diet (i used paleo b/c its what i know) and whether or not building them in is correct. if a person is on a vegetarian or vegan diet and chose to have a 1x/wk “Cheat day” to eat meat, cheese, etc., i think that would be equally as backwards.

      Reply
  4. Chris

    The cheat day has always perplexed me as well. It goes along with the 80/20 rule that everyone throws around in the wrong manner. Basically convincing themselves that if they eat right 80% of the time they can just go crazy the other 20%. I can understand a day where you increase carbohydrate intake to replenish muscle glycogen to fuel tough workouts the coming week. But downing a whole frozen pizza and a bunch of cake seems ridiculous. I’m also not saying someone has to be 100% on 100% of the time… If you decided to have 1 piece of pizza or 1 piece of cake you would be fine and it would probably satisfy your craving… but making it an all day junk feast is crazy if you ask me. A sure way to kill discipline, motivation and results quickly. I used to tell myself I “needed” and “deserved” a cheat day. Once I stopped having a cheat day my results improved dramatically. Just my two cents… thanks for the article… I linked to it on our facebook page.

    Reply
    • Michelle

      Chris- Thanks for reading and commenting. I totally agree… people get in the mindset that they “deserve” a cheat day. That can create a vicious cycle. I try and redirect my client’s thought patterns so that they start to believe that they “deserve” to fill their body with nutritious food and that they “deserve” to be healthy and fit. Thanks for linking the blog. I will be sure to check out your FB page!
      -Michelle

      Reply
  5. Chris

    I have done cheat days or cheat times once a week. I don’t know if I go crazy, but I let myself eat what I want and not worry about it. I started doing paleo to purely help my training- not to lose weight or anything like that. I’m a professional performer and my body was making it difficult to train (I would not be tired, but I couldn’t use my arms because of serious joint pain). Doing paleo helped me train harder and longer- I love it. I allow myself to cheat once a week, because it lets me not feel completely removed from the things I used to enjoy. Eating is something I enjoy and there are a lot of good foods I can’t enjoy when I’m doing Paleo. I definitely do not feel as good when I cheat, so I have been doing it less, but I still give myself a day where I can eat something not great for me and not beat myself up about it. It helps me stay more controlled and fight temptation during the week. Maybe it’s not the best thing to do, but in terms of what I need from the Paleo nutrition plan, I’m getting it and I’m happy about it.

    Reply
    • Michelle

      Chris
      Thanks for your response! I absolutely understand the need for balance, especially when changing your food intake and lifestyle, the way that Paleo does.
      How long have you been Paleo? What I have found after 1.5years of Paleo, is that the longer I’ve been on it, the less tempted I am to “cheat”. This is because I have found new recipes (there are GREAT books and websites out there) that provide substitutes for the things I miss and do not longer eat. My body has also adjusted and does NOT do well with dairy and wheat, the way it used to. For me, having 1-2 craft beers used to be a pleasant treat… i LOVE enjoying microbrews. However, now I can’t even stomach 1 beer without being sick for 2 days afterward. What I’ve learned is that I can enjoy so many other things.. I try not to focus on what I CAN’T have, but on the things I CAN have.
      I am glad to hear that you’re enjoying your body’s response to Paleo! Thanks for reading the blog and I hope to hear from you again!
      -Michelle

      Reply
  6. Danny

    Cheating is cheating, no matter how you look at it. Taking the time to investigate this diet and spending the money to stay healthy should not have in cheat in there. Why spend
    the time researching and doing,if you are just gonna cheat, give yourself a positive outlook stick with your plan and see the results. Now, that I have started this diet myself , along with my workout (cf) why step backwards.

    Reply
    • Michelle

      Danny

      Thanks for commenting. I do agree with you- why try to spend time and money to create a diet that makes you feel and look great… only to sabotage it with crap foods. I am with you! What has been the hardest part of your transition to Paleo? Do you miss anything?

      Reply
  7. Tom

    I’m evaluating paleo right now as I think it might be a great program given my goals, both short-term and long-term. The reason I found this thread was by searching for people who are doing paleo on a 6 day model.

    It comes down to your goals and values, and in my case, I really enjoy the social experience and flexibility of eating a variety of foods with friends. Allowing for 1 day a week – likely Saturday – where I give myself permission to eat for pleasure, well that makes the paleo model a lot more accessible.

    Not so much in a “dieters gone wild” mode, but in a “I can have an ice cream” mode.

    Though some may prefer a 100% paleo, I’m willing to bet that a 85% paleo (6 days a week) would still be a great thing for me personally, and that’s all I’m concerned about.

    Interesting to see Robb Wolf’s post on the shades of paleo. http://robbwolf.com/2012/10/24/shades-paleo/

    Curious of your thoughts – was there a particular book, podcast, video etc that helped you in getting started with paleo? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Michelle

      Tom
      Thanks for commenting. You raise some good points- the joys of dining and drinking as a social experience. That, for me, has proven to be a challenge at different points and with different people. However, the longer I have been following a Paleo diet, the longer I realize that my body just FEELS better that way and I no longer have a desire to “cheat”. I have found substitutes for all the “Cheat” foods that may otherwise tempt me. I have fallen in love with coconut milk ice cream, I love spaghetti squash, and I use lettuce as a hamburger “bun”. I honestly don’t miss much.
      It took lots of time for me to realize this, but its pretty clear to me now.

      You’re absolutely right- it comes down to your values and goals…. and also your body’s reaction to certain foods. For me, I realized that it wasn’t normal to have a bloated belly after consuming Greek yoghurt.. but I didn’t realize this until I omitted that food from my daily diet. I have heard people say the same about wheat.

      I did not have a particular book or podcast in getting started… I did this because my personal training clients were asking me about it, and I decided to try for myself. I did a lot of research online and Robb Wolf has some great info, as well as Mark Sisson. You should be able to do a Google search and find a chart pretty easily that has a list of foods that are “Eat often” “Eat in moderation” and “eat rarely/never” so that you can get an idea of what to eat and what to avoid.

      I don’t think Paleo is for everyone…nothing is. But for me, it has made me a stronger and faster triathlete and i FEEL wonderful. Every time I “Cheat”, my body reminds me that I need to stick with what works.

      I’m curious to know your thoughts on the diet as well as know more about your journey. How long have you been Paleo?

      Reply
  8. Mike Johnson

    What many people don’t factor in is how potentially unhealthy such a sudden and dramatic change in your diet can be after 20, 30, 40, 50+ years of eating like the rest of Western society. Regardless of our evolution, another HUGE factor is the adaptability of our bodies to the Western diet during infancy and it’s reluctance to change as we get older. Therefore, the sensible approach is to have a cheat day (or holistic-I eat-anything day) once per week to ensure that you get a full range of nutrients that your body is used to.

    Reply
    • Michelle

      Mike
      Thanks for reading and commenting. You raise a good point. Ultimately, I feel that people should eat the foods that make them FEEL the best. When I gave up grains and dairy, I decided to maintain my diet as such because of the way I felt. I was less bloated, had better energy, my sleep was more consistent, and my cholesterol levels dropped from over 260 to 202. These factors indicated that I was (and am) eating properly for my body. I also am sure to supplement my diet with the proper vitamins and minerals.
      I do advise people to discuss their diet with a professional who may be able to give them some guidance around how to maintain good health while making dietary changes!

      Reply
  9. Mike

    This isn’t true at all. I do have a cheat day. I have one cheat day every month. This will actually slow your metabolism down for 2 to 3 days and literally the next day after the cheat day you need to go back to being extremely strict. Your body will metabolize even faster for a few days. Think of it was weight lifting. You don’t weight lift and run everyday…. you take a break once a week. I would say earn your cheat day and only have it once a month. For example, my cheat day was thanksgiving. My next cheat meal will be Xmas. Earn your cheat day I’ve lost 15.5 pounds in 31 days. I eat very strict. No recipes, just veggies and my portion of protein which is about 6-8 ounces. ​

    Reply
    • Michelle

      Mike
      Thanks for your comment. I am glad to hear that you’ve lots 15.5lbs in just about a month. I commend you for eating strictly and sticking to a good diet of veggies and protein.
      I would have to disagree with you regarding “cheat” days “built in” once a month or so. I believe that folks should be eating what makes their bodies FEEL the best and PERFORM the best. So, if you’re on a diet of lean protein and veggies 29 days out of 30, and you have a “Cheat” day where you eat pizza, wings, beer, or anything else, my guess would be that your body wouldn’t feel that great. Processed foods generally make people feel sluggish, bloated, wreak havoc on their bowels, and can cause mood swings. This doesn’t make for productive performance.

      I’m curious to know how your “cheat” day affects your physical output (workouts, energy, work, etc) and also what benefit you feel that you get from a “Cheat” day.
      Looking forward to hearing back from you
      Michelle

      Reply

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