Nutrition Perfected NYC
I am a vehement proponent of discipline’s positive role in a proper nutrition and exercise program.  I believe that the ability to stick to your plan and make decisions based on your principles and not your feelings at a given moment is one of the greatest assets a person can have in their journey towards optimal health and performance.  On the other hand, a big risk factor for abandoning a productive nutrition and exercise plan is mental and physical burnout.  After a long period of time adhering to a strict schedule, many people simply want a break.  In addition, in many cases the body is looking for a little rest, as well.  However, the more disciplined a subject is, the more likely they are to resist the urge to take some time off from the gym or eat some more indulgent meals.  In the end, the concept of a cheat day is a good one, but it can be overused.  As with many good ideas, cheat days can become too frequent and too out of control, leading to a regression in health and condition.  Used properly though, a little time off can do both the mind and body a whole lot of good.

I use the term “cheat day” simply because it’s familiar to many readers.  However, an entire day off may not be the best idea.  Personally, I prefer the idea of a cheat meal.  For many subjects, a single meal during which they can eat foods outside the bounds of their normal nutrition plan is enough to give them a mental boost and prepare them for another few weeks of discipline.  It’s also possible to extend this concept to two meals.  However, I think that an entire day of irresponsible eating can stretch the utility of the time off into the category of counterproductivity.  One of the most successful methods of implementing a period of off-time is to plan a nice meal out with your family or friends and treat it like a special occasion.  That way, you experience the feeling of relaxation and bonding with loved ones over food without having to monitor your diet so carefully.  It also puts the cheat meal into the context of “occasional event” and not an everyday occurrence.

How often a cheat meal or day may be appropriate is dependent upon many factors.  One of the most important is the effect that time off has on the individual’s ability to return to the regular plan of action.  For some people, taking one meal or a day off leads to another meal or day off.  That cycle of laxity can continue for days or weeks.  In some cases, it can even cause the end of a successful nutrition and exercise plan.  On the other hand, most people can simply have a nice meal out with a friend or take a relaxed day on vacation and then get right back into their regular, stricter schedule.  If you find yourself in the former category in which the time off puts you on a slippery slope towards inactivity and irresponsible eating, then space out your cheat periods to a frequency of about once a month.  On the other hand, if you find that a little time off proves beneficial to your state of mind and feeling of physical well-being while not compromising your overall discipline, then a frequency of once every two to three weeks may be appropriate.

Time off from a strict nutrition and exercise plan can benefit both the mind and the body.  Continuous adherence to a strict eating plan, especially when losing fat, can eventually weigh heavily on a person’s morale.  This effect is particularly common when first modifying your eating and exercise habits to fit a healthier and more productive lifestyle.  The change in routine can be wearing on the nerves as it can take serious thought and planning to meld your new schedule with your current lifestyle.  It is important to recognize that feelings of doubt and mental fatigue are normal when making big changes.  Do not let your negative feelings take precedence over your pride in the progress you have made towards a healthier life.  A small period of relaxation and time off from disciplined eating and training can allow your mind some time to refresh and motivate you to continue your journey of physical and mental improvement.  Your body can also become worn down from consistent hard training and strict eating.  Taking a day or even a week off from the gym can actually improve results after a period of strenuous, progressive exercise.  In addition, a meal or two containing increased calories and nutrients can provide the body with useful extra fuel for building muscle tissue and replenishing glycogen stores emptied during hard training.

Cheat meals and days can be productive after a period of disciplined training and eating.  However, like most good things, too much can be quite detrimental.  Choose your time off sparingly and make it a special occasion.  Don’t go overboard and try to still eat relatively nutritious foods during your cheat period.  Finally, recognize that your urges for some dietary and physical relaxation are normal and can in fact indicate a physical and mental need for a break.  Don’t feel bad about taking time off.  Instead, enjoy it and use it to motivate yourself for your next productive nutrition and exercise cycle.


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    Rob Bent is the founder and lead nutrition counselor at Nutrition Perfected.  He is a multi-sport athlete and works constantly to maximize sports performance through scientifically-guided nutritional optimization.

    Rob Bent of Nutrition Perfected
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