Interspersing cheat days throughout a clean eating diet is a popular way to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Keeping track of calories and nutritional value is a workout in itself, not to mention the willpower necessary to stay away from those mouthwatering “bad” foods. When it comes to dieting, cheat days are the perfect relief and a nice reward.
The Argument for Cheat Days You’ve eaten chicken and salad for a week straight and all you can think about is greasy pizza and chocolate cake. You’re feeling a bit sluggish because your caloric intake has been low and your metabolism is starting to slow. You’ve been so good all week and in just one more day, you get to eat whatever you want. Without that day, without knowing you’ll have a respite from maintaining your self-control and willpower, you wouldn’t be able to do it. But your cheat day allows you to push past those cravings. In theory, this indulgence is a healthy deviation from the norm of clean eating. You can only hold out for so long before you give in, right? Many people believe that it’s better to schedule a day or a meal to allow that leeway. Instead of striving for perfection and failing when you inevitably give in to temptation, cheating is designed to allow that indulgence without the guilt. The other important thing about cheat days is that it gives the body a quick metabolic boost, something that’s important for those who count calories. When caloric intake is lowered, the body’s metabolism eventually slows, as it believes it’s being starved and needs to conserve energy. If you’re trying to lose weight, a slowed metabolism will prevent you from shedding pounds. The high caloric intake boosts your metabolism and it satisfies those unavoidable cravings. Plus, having a scheduled day to satisfy those cravings makes you less likely to have an unhealthy snack here, there, then everywhere. A cheat day also works to make sure that leptin levels don’t go down. While scientists are still learning about this hormone, they do know that leptin is the hormone that regulates your energy level.1 The less you eat, the less leptin you have and the more your body believes that it needs to eat (and it isn’t wrong). This makes calorie counting and hunger much more difficult to manage. A large consumption of calories once again raises leptin secretion, satisfying that urgent sense of hunger.
Are Cheat Days Worth the Trouble? It’s a commonly held belief that diets require a lot of willpower. After all, you’re depriving yourself of delicious foods, high in fat or carbs or calories or sugar. Good foods also happen to be “bad” foods, ones that make you fat, make you feel bloated, that you need to avoid in order to be “good.” Cheat days are designed to balance out that good and bad. You’re allowed to let your hair down once in a while and go crazy. Having that balance is positive and healthy in a diet. Unfortunately, cheat days are not as fool proof as they seem.
It’s all in the Name Thinking of food in terms of “good,” “bad,” and “cheating” is a big reason why dieting and binging are difficult. Sondra Kronberg, a registered dietician2 and the executive director of the Eating Disorder Treatment Collaborative explains that “separating foods into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ categories encourages you to associate eating with guilt and shame.” Basically, being “good” when you eat sets you up to believe you deserve a reward. The reward? Food that’s labeled as “bad.” But here’s the catch. Eating “bad” food is associated with guilt and punishment. Though cheat days (or meals) are allowed and acceptable, that doesn’t mean those feelings of shame don’t accompany them every time. Is it possible that’s what keeps the diet cycle going? Not the promise of a healthier life or weight loss, but the emotional merry-go-round of reward, guilt, punishment, and then subsequent reward, over and over again. Another difficulty that comes along with cheating is fundamentally physiological. It’s safe to assume that a cheat meal or day will have a substantial amount of sugar in it. Various baked goods come to mind, but sugar hides in all sorts of food, like chips and pasta. The problem with a sugar binge is that the effect it has on your body can last up to 14 hours. When your blood contains too much sugar, your body overcompensates3 by lowering glucose with insulin, causing your body to believe it needs more sugar to once again compensate. Once that cheat day is over, its effects remain, making it difficult to resume your “good” eating habits.
Should Dieting be So Difficult? A common misconception about eating well is that it’s a chore, devoid of taste, that must be endured in order to look good and be healthy. While the bland route is one way to go, clean eating comes with numerous tasty possibilities. With social media it’s all too easy to find a healthy, alternative recipe for foods that you hid in your napkin as a kid. For example, Brussel sprouts, which are an excellent source of numerous vitamins, low calorie (56 per cup), and have cancer preventative properties, are delicious when roasted with parmesan cheese4. It’s easy, good, and good for you! Or if you’re craving cookies, a simple “healthy cookie recipes” search will turn up an unimaginable amount of results. One such chocolate chip cookie recipe is by Kathi at Deliciously Yum5 and boy do those cookies look mouthwatering. “It really is a lifestyle change instead of a diet,” explains dietitian Natalie Brown.6 Ding ding ding, we have a winner. Diets are viewed as temporary eating changes implemented to reach a goal. Once that goal has been reached, you can revert back to your old ways. If only it were that easy. Maintaining your health and physique are constant lifestyle choices. This is why it’s so important not to cycle back and forth from low calorie “healthy” diets to binging on guilty pleasures and then back again.
Cheating Done Right Weight loss, dieting, and desired lifestyles are different for everyone. What works for one person isn’t guaranteed to work for another. While there isn’t particularly concrete evidence favoring temporary diets and cheat days, if it has been discussed with a physician and works for you, there’s no reason to change your strategy. That being said, there’s a new form of “cheat meals” that’s more concise and controlled than a regular cheat meal. It’s called a refeed.7 It’s a bit of a complicated strategy, which is probably why more people opt for the easy and satisfying binge instead of the carefully controlled refeed. Its intention is more or less the same as a cheat day; it’s supposed to raise your metabolism and leptin levels so your weight loss (or muscle gain) doesn’t plateau. All you need to do is raise your caloric intake 20-50% more than it normally is. Depending on how long you want to raise this intake, the refeed can last from 12 hours (high intake) to a week (low intake). The main difference between cheat days and refeeding? Cheat days don’t have limits as to what you can and can’t eat. That’s what makes it so appealing. Refeeding suggests that you maintain your healthy nutritional resources and only add those desired, less healthy foods here and there.
It All Comes Down to Common Sense It’s too easy for the occasional treat to become an everyday habit. Many people have this problem, especially when it comes to sugar. If you’re the type of person who has trouble reining your cravings back in after a cheat day, it’s likely best to avoid that sort of binge. Instead, find what works best for you. Learn to listen to your body. Eat food that makes your body feel good and periodically add a small portion of whatever you’re craving. Doing so isn’t cheating and it isn’t wrong. By making your eating habits positive and consistent, you’re far more likely to reach your goals.