Why ‘Cheat Days’ Encourage Binge Eating Disorder

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Labelling unhealthy food as ‘cheating’ encourages an unhealthy mental relationship with food and helps develop binge eating disorder.

It may well lead to other EDs such as orthorexia, where you only eat healthy food or avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (AFRID), a restrictive food intake disorder. As well as other disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, the list goes on. But – I want to talk specifically about binging.

Eating Disorders Awareness week was March 1st – 7th, but the conversation shouldn’t stop there.

Cheat Days

When are we going to call ‘Cheat Days’ out for what they are? Glorified binges which lead to binge-eating disorder.

It’s not just me who thinks this, there are many YouTubers who agree

The experts agree too .

When I realised I had aspects of binge-eating disorder, I knew my cheat days had caused it.

Typically, cheat days are planned binges on one day towards the end of the week, which sometimes turn into cheat day weekends. They have become a trend whereby YouTubers challenge themselves to pack as many calories into one/ two days as possible. These influencers consume a huge amount of food, sometimes up to ten times their daily calorie intake to reward themselves for being healthy.

Which begs the question – if their healthy lifestyle is so manageable, why do they feel the need to reward themselves by over-indulging to such a level? I believe it’s because they restrict so much in their everyday life.

In my case, that was true. What I justified as a cheat day quickly turned into weekend binge eating, where I’d allow myself to let loose after being so strict in the week. It caused my weight to fluctuate up and down to the point I’d be fitting in my trousers one week and not the next.

Perhaps one of the most known cases of cheat days causing binge eating is that of YouTube and fitness fanatic Stephanie Buttermore. Someone who regularly uploaded ultimate cheat day videos.

Eight months ago Stephanie stopped the cheat day videos and instead posted a 40-minute long video detailing how restrictive habits with food and over-use of the gym lead to her eating disorder.

She admitted she binged in these cheat day videos to deal with that. Something which she says left her with “extreme hunger” both mentally and physically.

Binge definition

So, what is classed as binge eating? According to BEAT, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, binge eating disorder is defined as “a serious mental illness where people eat very large quantities of food without feeling like they’re in control of what they’re doing. It can affect anyone of any age, gender, ethnicity or background”.

The feeling of no control is what most people constitute as the biggest sign of binge-eating.

Admitting you have a problem

There are people who suggest cheat days don’t lead to binge eating, and they do no harm. However, if that was the case, then why are exercise forums littered with people asking whether or not they should restrict after their cheat day as they feel guilty?  

I always used to feel so bad after cheat days and that’s when I realised I had a problem.

Some people starve themselves in preparation for a cheat day. I admit I did that and, after a while, the restrictive nature of my behaviour meant the amount of food I ate on these specific days got out of control.

This ‘restrict during the week, binge on the weekend’ routine normalises a seriously unhealthy relationship with food. Suggesting these behaviours are part of a diet lifestyle is dangerous and can lead to serious consequences. I tried to convince myself I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I justified my weekend binges by my reduced intake during the week.

Needing a cheat day is not normal. It is not the same as treating yourself.

Treating yourself within your usual diet is normal. Needing a cheat day, where you binge out all day, most likely means you are in a restrict-binge eating disorder that cannot be maintained.

Weight loss myths debunked

So how do you strike a balance and maintain healthy weight loss? The reality is, as long as you keep in a calorie deficit, you can eat what you like and lose weight as long as you’re under your daily allowance of calories.

The average calorie intake for a male in the UK should be 2500 and for a woman is 2000.   What constitutes a healthy deficit depends on individual circumstances. However, you can eat whatever you like as long as you’re in a deficit, so we need to change our vocabulary around food.

Labelling food negatively

Labelling foods as ‘cheating’ implies wrong-doing and something you should feel guilty about. Those feelings of guilt, centred on food, transition to problems with eating disorders. You might feel guilty about your Saturday night takeaway, so you restrict the next day. Meaning you eat under your daily calories in a deficit which is unsafe to justify your burger.

In my case, I’d eat to the point I wouldn’t be able to sleep I felt so full, and then eat very little Monday through to Friday to make up for it. All because we, as a society, negatively label certain foods when we shouldn’t.

There is lots of controversy over Slimming World calling certain food ‘syns’ and their list keeps getting bigger. They promote ‘free foods’ which you can eat all day, but then other foods with a certain amount of ‘syns’ you can’t. Some of them don’t appear to make sense. For example, if you want to eat a banana, it’s a ‘free food’ – have as much as you like. If you decide to mash it – it becomes four syns. They label pasta and rice as free food so you can eat ‘as much as you want’. An avocado is classed as fourteen syns and you are only allowed fifteen syns a day.

Experts and food-bloggers say we should not be labelling food. For example, Weight-loss Beth is a food-blogger with over 150K Instagram followers. She promotes positive dieting. She touches on why planning cheat days is a problem in itself. You tell yourself you have to get all your calories in one day so you over-eat further. 

In my own experience, I’d created this warped view that the only way to keep in shape was to be strict through the week and reward myself at the weekend. I eventually recognised cheat days are only there for people who restrict themselves. Realistically, you can treat yourself every day as long as you stay in a calorie deficit if weight loss is your goal.

You can find out more about eating disorders here.

Words by Ellie Colton

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