‘Cheat Days’ Are Everything That’s Wrong with Diet Culture

Diets don’t work. 

Or, at the very least, they will almost always fail, to the tune of around 95% of people not achieving lasting weight loss. We tend to blame that failure on ourselves, not the diet itself. But research also indicates that those who have lost weight are hungrier and have lower metabolisms. Our bodies are simply not designed for weight loss. And yet rarely is the question asked: Should we be organizing our lives around the pursuit of weight loss? In other words, welcome to diet culture

Diet culture is a relatively new moniker used to describe a not-so-new phenomenon: our approach to food and bodies as dictated by the idea that thinness is the ultimate goal. It can be hard to sum it up succinctly because, like so many other societal constructs, its tendrils reach into every aspect of our lives, including how doctors diagnose patients and how we are treated by our coworkers and bosses. But, in short: Thin is good, but it is also Good with a capital G. Fat is bad, and also Bad with a capital B. Not only are thin bodies assumed to be healthier and more desirable, they hold some kind of moral high ground as well. Fat people aren’t only unhealthy, they are lazy and stupid. And any problem in their life, be it medical or social, can be traced back to their weight. Of course, many people, and often mainly on the internet, have questioned the framework of diet culture. The growing body positivity movement, however, remains a mostly grassroots effort with a wide variety of beliefs and voices going up against a powerful belief internalized by millions of Americans. 

Which is why, when we see that diets fail, the underlying assumptions about why weight loss is so damned important is never itself questioned. So instead, we have to find ways to work around the ways our bodies are naturally built. Even before someone manages to lose weight, they’re up against a whole lot of human biology that makes it downright miserable. As it turns out, nothing makes you crave food like knowing you can’t have it. In other words, diets can cause a preoccupation, increased cravings, or even increased consumption of the foods labeled “bad.” Rather than wondering if creating forbidden foods is wrongheaded, we have to find a way to hack our natural biology to make it work. One study I found even went as far as saying that we might have to invent drugs to be able to curb cravings. But you don’t have to wait for innovations in medical science to find ways to try to trick your body into sticking to a diet it very much doesn’t want to be on. 

For that, we have cheat days. 

“Cheat days” vary from diet to diet, but the basic idea is that if you tell yourself you can have the forbidden foods one day a week, you’ll be more likely to be very, very good the rest of the week. This framework comes out of programs like Weight Watchers but has been embraced by the dieting community at large, including members of the fitness community. On the face of it, it seems like an okay compromise: No food is off limits, it’s just off-limits most of the time. But poke a little deeper and you can see what it really is: another way we’ve continued to contort our relationship to food to try to trick our bodies and ourselves into staying on diets. 

“Cheat days” also tell us a lot about who, in our diet culture, is entitled to “bad” foods. Of course, no food is bad or good, and what makes food “good” is vague at best, if not downright meaningless. But we’ve all lived long enough to pick up on what, generally, falls under the category of “bad:” food that is high in fat, sugars, or carbohydrates. (Of course, we know from the rise of the paleo diet that some high-fat foods are good, leaving us with a sort of rough understanding that nut butters are okay and hamburgers are sinful.) But regardless of what, exactly, constitutes a “cheat day,” it is clear that you are only allowed to eat those foods if you signal that it’s a rare, bad thing, not a regular part of your diet. You “earn” bad foods by six days of penance. 

In reality, the normalization of cheat days (and it is normalized — check out the over 3.5 million tags on Instagram) just further validates the idea that restrictive eating the rest of the time is normal and healthy. Failure is inherit to diets, it is not an aberration. The longer we concoct ways to “cheat” around the things we are programmed to fail at, the longer diet culture will persist. 

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