How to Help Nutrition Clients Beat Cheat Day Mentality
“Cheat day” is a buzz phrase that has been floating around the diet and nutrition space for years and today, we’re chatting all about how to help your clients beat cheat day mentality so they can build trust with themselves and their relationship with the foods they choose to enjoy.
What Is Cheat Day?
When a client asks about a “cheat day”, they’re likely referring to a day or meal to let loose with food choices, be more relaxed with adherence, and potentially even eat whatever they want in whatever quantities they want.
In these cases, your client likely considers a cheat day a “light at the end of the low-calorie tunnel” and believes looking forward to one day or meal will help them stay more consistent every other day of the week. In other words, it is a reward they give themselves for sticking with their plan.
In theory, this sounds like it could be helpful in helping them create consistency with their diet long-term, right?
At WAG, we’re all about adding in flexibility. That being said, there are some things we need to look out for from a mindset perspective when considering “cheat days” so your client can feel proud of their choices, build sustainable nutrition habits, and work towards their goals without frustration.
What is a Cheat Day Mentality?
Cheat day mentality is comprised of at least one (if not all) of a few core beliefs:
- Your client believes this is the only way they can be successful on their diet and stick with it.
- Your client’s current way of eating leaves them feeling deprived. They need something to regularly look forward to because what they’re doing now doesn’t feel sustainable.
- Your client has seen this trend in the nutrition space and believes it will be effective for them.
Helping your client breakthrough the cheat day mentality comes down to guiding a shift in their mindset. To do this, you need to understand why it can be problematic in the first place.
Why is Cheat Day Problematic?
Are cheat days bad?
This is another question you may get from clients and although you always want to steer your clients away from “good” and “bad” language, there are a few reasons why a “cheat day” can be problematic.
Let’s look at some of those reasons:
- It encourages an all-or-nothing mindset instead of instilling lessons of balance and moderation . When a client finally feels that it is “okay” to eat a certain food (usually a dessert or “junk food”), they may go overboard.
- It can lead to a “binge” mentality where clients aren’t eating to satiety but overindulging just because they “can”. Further, it can be triggering for those with a history of disordered eating patterns . An extension of the all-or-nothing mindset, the drive to eat everything and anything when it is “allowed” can cause someone to eat far over satiety levels.
- It may promote “good food” vs. “bad food” dichotomy. When your client saves a specific food for a “cheat day”, it generally means it isn’t a food they’d eat on a “good day”. So, when they have that “cheat day”, they may consider those foods “bad” and as an extension, may consider themselves “bad” for choosing that food. There is no room for morality in food choices!
- It may slow progress by drastically increasing overall calorie intake . Depending on how much a client eats on a “cheat day”, it could drastically decrease their weekly caloric deficit, slow fat-loss progress and increase frustration.
- It may be tougher for your client to recommit to their plan if they’re still craving indulgent foods . The body may be primed to still want sugary, calorie-dense foods after a day of eating lots of them!
Any of these reasons can be damaging to a client’s mentality around health and nutrition. Unfortunately, many of them are often in play at once.
The first thing you need to do is identify which problem(s) cheat day mentality is causing for your client. From there, explaining how a cheat day could further that issue and lead to more frustration is the next step before starting to find some solutions together.
Remember, a “cheat day” is a popular buzzword and dieting tactic. So, your client may be asking about it or experimenting with it based on what they read or see in the media, from friends or in their own research.
It is your job as a coach to help them find a more effective way to add flexibility, find a realistic way of eating and create sustainable results. Here are a few ideas you can use.
Alternatives to Cheat Days
If your client is asking for or about a “cheat day”, it means that there is SOME part of their nutrition plan that feels limiting. After you’ve shared a bit more about why thinking of a day or meal as a “cheat” may not be the most helpful approach to their goals, it’s time to get creative!
A great way to help your clients shift their cheat day thinking is to offer up some alternatives:
Set Them Up For Success
When you’re building your nutrition plan with your client, really listen to their needs, wants, and desires.
If they hate a certain kind of vegetable, help them find an alternative that they like! If they struggle with a specific craving, help them plan it into a balanced day, guide them to seek out a healthier version of that food or share a recipe for how to make it at home.
If they feel satisfied with the foods they are eating every day they will be less likely to feel the need to indulge.
Create Small, Attainable Goals
If a client comes to you with a lofty goal of losing a lot of weight or transforming their body, it can be hard for them to come to terms with the fact that it will take time to get there.
Long-term goals may cause a client to get discouraged if they aren’t seeing changes right away. If you can help the client create small goals along the way that lead up to the bigger goal, they will feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in the short-term. This will make them less likely to want to derail their progress by taking a “cheat day.”
This goal setting guide can help guide your client along the way!
Teaching your clients about moderation encourages them to break free from the all-or-nothing mentality.
Moderation allows them space to learn how they can incorporate foods into their nutrition plan that can satisfy their craving without feeling the need to deprive themselves and then overindulge later.
IIFYM (If-If-Fits-Your-Macros) is another popular saying in the nutrition world and basically means it is possible to continue eating foods you want to eat while still sticking to your macro ratios. If your clients want to adopt this approach, you still need to encourage them to seek out healthy alternatives to any processed foods they may be craving.
At WAG, we prescribe a minimum fiber target for our clients to encourage them to make sure that they’re getting enough whole, healthy foods as they experiment with adding treats in moderation.
Get to The Root Cause
When someone believes strongly they need a “cheat day” to be successful, this is usually indicative of a deep-rooted limiting belief that you can help them uncover.
Sometimes, it’s not even about the food itself but more about how the client views themselves. Do they struggle with self-sabotage? Do they not feel support for their new diet and lifestyle? Helping them uncover the root cause can make a huge shift in their mentality.
Help them Identify Their WHY
Whenever a client is taking on a huge life change like a new diet, it’s important for you to help them get clear on their WHY.
What do we mean by this? Help them connect to the reasons behind why they are going for a certain health and nutrition goal. What is their intention? Is it to get healthier for their children? For their partner? For a career change? To feel stronger in the gym?
The more you can help them connect to their why, the more they will be able to focus on that and not on their urge to “cheat” on their diets.
Does Your Client Just Need a Break?
Client questions about diet breaks typically come at one of three times in their journey:
- When they first start and are already worried about feeling limited in their food quantities and choices.
- When they’ve been dieting for a while and feel they need a break for physical reasons.
- When they’ve been dieting for a while and feel they need a break from tracking for mental reasons.
If you’re dealing with situation #1, this is when explaining a few reasons why “cheat days” can be tricky from a mindset perspective goes a long way. From here, ensure them that it is your job to help them find sustainable ways of eating which can totally include a treat now and then in the broader context of a balanced intake. This freedom through structure is what many of our clients at WAG grow to love.
But, if you and your client have been working together for a while, they may just need a break from dieting for physical reasons. There are a lot of metabolic adaptations that occur at lower calorie intakes and your client having trouble eating fewer calories or noticing a drive to eat over their plan regularly is a sign you should listen to. In this case, raising macros and either reverse dieting or taking a diet break may be necessary.
Lastly, your client may just be ready to try their hand at putting their food tracking app and food scale away to building trust with their body! In this case, “cheat day” is likely just a phrase they’re using to describe not tracking anything if they’ve grown to think of tracking as the “best” thing to do. Guiding your client in intentional eating and letting go of strict tracking is an amazing thing to experiment with together.
There are so many components of coaching nutrition clients and helping them with their mindset and limiting beliefs so they can overcome cheat day mentality is just ONE of them! If you’re looking to expand your knowledge on nutrition science and coaching strategies, check out the WAG Coach Certification!
- Hill, A. (2018). Should you have cheat meals or cheat days? Retrieved from: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/cheat-meals#effectiveness
- Murray, S.B., Pila, E., Mond, J.M., Mitchison, D., Blashill, A.J., Sabiston, C.M., & Griffiths, S. (2018). Cheat meals: A benign or ominous variant of binge eating behavior? Appetite, 130. 274-8. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2018.08.026.
- Fitzpatrick, K. (2019). Are cheat meals bad for you? Retrieved from: https://greatist.com/health/cheat-days-explained#physical-effects
Andi is a holistic nutrition coach who believes in a mind, body, soul approach to health and is passionate about helping women transform their life through food, fitness and spirituality.
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