But, too often, those “cheats” are the only things that stand between us and throwing-our-arms-in-the-air-and-saying-fuck-it. So, for the sake of our future sanity, we needed to know whether that one cookie will really derail our new eating strategy and erase all of its supposed benefits.
Instinctively (and perhaps a bit hopefully) you might think there’s no way a little splurge can cause any serious damage. But, as elimination diets are increasingly espoused as a way to settle stomachs, clear brain fog, and fight all-over inflammation, proponents make the argument that any bad-for-you food would be counterproductive to your health. After all, if sugar, additives, alcohol, or gluten make you sick, why would eating them be anything but bad?
Images modeled by Susan Schell at Parts Models; food styled by Claudia Fica at Apostrophe; manicure by Claire Beaudreault.
“Many people, after having been wheat-free for more than a few weeks, will become ill when they are re-exposed,” says William Davis, MD, author of the upcoming Wheat Belly Total Health, who believes everyone (whether they have Celiac disease, are gluten-sensitive, or neither) benefits from giving up gluten. Dr. Davis says that reintroducing even a little wheat into an otherwise wheat-free diet can lead to everything from gas, bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain to depression, anxiety, and anger. And, symptoms can persist for days to weeks after re-exposure (a.k.a. The Splurge).
“For most people, a ‘splurge’ is an invitation for disaster—not an indulgence,” he says. Elimination-diet purists like Dr. Davis often liken diet “cheats” to giving an alcoholic just one sip of alcohol. Still, this hard-line approach to daily eating is by no means universal.
While Dr. Davis' take is a bit extremist for most mainstream nutrition experts, the fear that a small splurge will turn into a complete fail is nothing new, says Christopher Ochner, PhD, obesity researcher at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. But, as far as he’s concerned, it’s your mindset — not what’s lurking in your cookie — that determines when diets derail.
“People too often engage in the dreaded all-or-nothing thinking,” Dr. Ochner says. “They eat a little bit of a ‘forbidden food,’ and then (consciously or unconsciously) figure that the program is blown at that point — so they might as well enjoy themselves. This often leads to an all-out binge and derailment. In reality, however, the ‘splurge’ (disinhibiting stimulus) would have made very little, if any, difference if you had just carried on as you were, after having the treat.”
That strict mentality also leads some dieters to eating too "healthy" during diet days, further exacerbating cravings and splurges, says nutritionist Jaime Mass, RDN, LDN. By depriving the body of the nutrients it needs, metabolism can stall, and hankerings can progress into all-out binges. A simple indulgent meal is more likely to prevent diet fails than if you go cold turkey, Mass says. “Telling yourself ‘no’ will likely make you want it more and could eventually lead to binge eating.” It’s like the forbidden fruit story all over again.
While no one is arguing that your average cookie is secretly super-healthy and nutritious, whatever it contains won’t undo all of your hard work — whether you’re working to ward off inflammation, reduce blood pressure, or just feel healthier, Mass says.
“If you’re following a nutrition program that is restricting certain high-mercury fish, processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and dairy, while also encouraging consumption of lean protein, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, healthy fats, then eating dairy or having a slice of processed bread is not going to counteract the rest and relaxation you provided to your body during the time you eliminated some of those highly processed foods,” she adds.
However, it’s worth mentioning that eating a bunch of complex carbs (this goes for simple carbs, too) after being on a diet that encourages you to avoid them can cause your body to hold onto water. That’s because your body converts carbs into glycogen and then houses them in your muscles and liver to act as energy reserves. And, for each gram of glycogen your body stores, it also stores three grams of water along with it, according to Mass. If you’re on a seriously low-carb diet, your body will break down that glycogen, releasing water and making you lose water weight. So, if you splurge on bowl of pasta, you’re going to immediately see a change — probably in a few pounds of water, she says. But, it’s not fat, and it’s only temporary.
“It would be nice if nutrition were one-size-fits all, but that’s not how it works,” says Dr. Ochner, who does advocate elimination diets for those with proven food allergies or sensitivities. “Some individuals are all-or-nothing thinkers and find it easier to dwell in extremes (i.e.: completely ‘on’ or completely ‘off’ their diet).”
“Personally, I don't believe in [the idea of] cheating. I believe in a cost-benefit analysis of what I'm eating,” Dr. Ochner says. “No matter how bad it may be for me, if I really enjoy it, and there's no way to do a healthy conversion, I go for it because it's worth it. I never deprive myself if I really want something, but nine times out of 10 there’s a healthy version or alternative that makes me just as happy.” For example, if you’re going Paleo, try satisfying your hankering for a big glass of dairy milk with one of the coconut variety.
For that one-in-10 chance nothing else will do, though, make your splurge a snack or meal — never a full-out “cheat day,” Mass says. Thinking that Saturdays are meant for ignoring [insert your healthy-eating plan of choice here] can foster disordered eating and an unhealthy relationship with food.
“Also, think about the harm you do to your body when you overfeed and stuff yourself non-stop because you gave yourself permission to do so. Your body will always do its best to stay in homeostasis, but it can be extremely difficult to process copious amounts of sugar, calories, fat, and carbohydrates if you’re on a full cheat day,” says Mass.
And, while many elimination diets are founded on nixing foods that really don’t do your body any good, following such rigorous diets isn’t always sustainable (or even desirable). In the end, the cheat isn’t what’s going to make or break your health — it’s the relationship you have with food and your body.