Increasingly, health experts are advising the C-word be banned from our vocabulary, and we say, good riddance. It’s time to ditch the guilt and shame around the foods we love and embrace a balanced, healthy relationship with food.

“If you think you’re going to be eating a hundred percent healthy all the time, then you’re setting yourself up for failure in the long run,” says Rachel Cosgrove, BS, CSCS, owner of Results Fitness in California, and bestselling author of The Female Body Breakthrough (2009) and Drop Two Sizes (2013). “So I usually recommend that clients look at their week, and whatever they have going on that week, they allow themselves some flexibility to splurge.”

But what’s really the big deal about scheduling our coveted cheat days and meals? And how do we break the habits we’ve embedded in eating patterns for years? We turned to the pros for their tips on indulging in your favorites when you crave them—without derailing your fitness results and mental resolve.

Watch Your Language

In recent years, dieticians and trainers have been hopping off the “cheat meal” bandwagon in droves, including bestselling author, celebrity trainer, and co-host of Revenge Body on E! Channel, Harley Pasternak, MSc. “Cheating is such a negative thing,” says Pasternak. “I don’t think we should associate our eating habits with cheating. Who are we cheating? What are we cheating?”

Cosgrove agrees. “When you’re cheating, you’re saying you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing.”

Instead, Cosgrove prefers the term “splurge.” “If you splurge on something, it’s a treat for yourself,” she says—like that new pair of shoes or a weekend getaway. “It’s something indulgent, it’s something you really take the time to enjoy, so there’s no guilt associated with it.”

Getting Rid of Guilt

Guilt, according to research in the last decade, could be the kryptonite to your health and fitness superpowers. In a study published in 2014 in the journal Appetite, participants who associated chocolate cake with feelings of guilt reported less perceived control over their eating and were less successful at maintaining their weight over an 18-month period compared to those who associated the cake with celebration. What’s more, guilt-ridden participants with a weight-loss goal were less successful at losing weight over a three-month period than their jubilant counterparts.

“When you’re feeling guilty about something, that’s never a good thing,” says Cosgrove. By shifting your mindset and reframing your language around indulgent foods, you’ll be better equipped to sustain a healthy diet that brings you closer to your goals, while getting to enjoy your favorite eats with friends and family—minus the guilt.

Beware the Cheat Day

While the rationale behind cheat days isn’t all bro science, these days, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a dietician extolling the benefits of an entire day dedicated to gorging. Depriving (or starving) yourself all week to go on a 24-hour bender has come to be associated with disordered eating.

“You’ll make yourself sick,” says Pasternak. “When you plan all week for that one day, and you have a heavy breakfast, and a heavy lunch, and you don’t even want dinner but you’ve got to, it’s cheat day—that’s bad for the system, it’s bad for your mind.”

For writer Rebecca Reid, cheat days sent her down a slippery slope of disordered eating. “Working towards my cheat day became an obsession,” she writes in a piece for MetroUK. Having battled with bulimia as a teen, for Reid, this felt all too familiar. “Instead of eating and then making myself sick, I was eating and then punishing myself slowly over the course of the week,” she writes. “For my mind, it was a total disaster.”

Rather, these experts agree incorporating indulgent meals throughout the week is a more balanced strategy that won’t leave you feeling deprived.

Have Your Cake—And Actually Eat It, Too

When you do plan to indulge, dig in to whatever it is you’re craving—whether it’s a slice of mom’s famous rum cake, a glass of vino (or two) with your girlfriends, or an entire holiday feast. “You do not want to have a ‘healthy version’ of a dessert,” says Pasternak. “That’s not a free meal—that’s not indulging, that’s not enjoying.”

Cosgrove also cautions not to fall into the pitfall of what she calls a “lazy cheat.” “It’s when you’re too lazy to think of something healthy, or to cook yourself a meal, so you end up eating something you didn’t even want or enjoy,” she explains.

A better strategy? Really think about what you’re craving and plan to enjoy it. “Eating slowly is one of the keys to keeping you in the moment and eating consciously,” says Cosgrove. “You’re not checking out and bingeing—that’s not what this is about. This is about really enjoying the food that you’re eating.”

It’s Not All-or-Nothing

For those who tend to have an all-or-nothing mentality, Cosgrove has a helpful analogy: “If you’re driving in your car and you pop a tire, do you get out of your car and pop all four tires? No, you fix the tire and you get back on the road,” she says.

So go ahead, enjoy a cocktail at your office party, nibble on some freshly baked chocolate chip cookies with your kids, and go all-out at the neighbourhood potluck. By steering clear of this black-and-white thinking, you can nosh on delicious eats and then get right back to eating whole, nutrient-dense foods without skipping a beat.

Just Say No To Guilt

Forget counting holiday calories in your nutrition app. Dig into your fave festive foods with family and friends with our expert tips for staying on track with your goals.

1. Try fermented foods. Incorporate some fermented foods in the morning or before a big meal, advises Maxwell—and no, wine doesn’t count (le sigh). Try sauerkraut or kimchi, kombucha, miso, tempeh, probiotic yogurt, or kefir, all of which will aid digestion and keep your gut happy.

2. Fill up on whole foods. Have your eyes set on the dessert spread? Nosh on some nutritious options during dinner, says Maxwell. Fill up on protein and veggies before diving into dessert, and never eat past the point of discomfort.

3. Knock out a workout. Putting on muscle or trying to hit a new PR? Get a workout in a couple hours before you dig in to put those delicious calories to work building healthy muscle. “A full-body workout would be great here,” says Maxwell. Or go for a hard leg or upper-body sesh, and make sure to use big compound movements to really tax your muscles.

4. Get outside. A little fresh air can speed digestion and help you feel less full. Take a walk with the family, or hit the tobogganing hill or local skating rink.

Marta Ustyanich
Toronto-based freelance writer Marta has been writing about health and fitness for over five years, penning features for Oxygen, Inside Fitness and Inside Fitness Women magazines.