A surprising number of diet regimens incorporate something called "cheat days" or "cheat meals" into their program. Cheat days typically are a once a week break from the diet, where you can indulge in some of the foods you may have been craving during the week.
In theory, it seems as though cheat days could be very beneficial, particularly as a reward for doing so well during the week. But do the advantages of a cheat day really outweigh the negatives? If you're a diehard believer in having a little diet splurge once a week, you might be surprised to find that science doesn't support the idea of cheat days benefiting the body.
Why are Cheat Days a Problem?
There are a number of different ideas behind why cheat days aren't all they're cracked up to be. Here are the 3 major reasons why you should rethink this weekly habit:
They Support Bad Eating Habits
One of the main reasons people love cheat days so much is also the reason they can be such a problem- and it all comes down to how you view food. Many people fall into the category of emotional eaters and treating food as a reward. In reality, food is a fuel for the body, and while there isn't a problem with enjoying what you eat, there is a problem with letting the mind choose what is wants over what the body needs.
There are plenty of people out there that are able to be strict with their diet during the week solely because they have their eye on their cheat day. It may seem like no big deal if you can eat well during the week but it isn't solving the issue of having an unhealthy relationship with food. Breaking the habit of food being a reward is difficult but worth it in the long run.
It's Easy for a Meal to Turn into a Binge
A common so-called solution for a cheat day is to reduce it down to just one cheat meal. This seems like a great option, especially if you don't overeat for this meal, but it isn't without its flaws. The biggest problem with a cheat meal is that you are still indulging in junk food and giving into cravings. It's probably safe to say that everyone has had a day where the cravings for sweets or other guilty pleasures was so strong they end up binging. Perhaps those three cookies turned into the whole package. Or maybe pizza night turned into eating four or five slices. Others have their cheat meal on Friday but wake up Saturday craving more and end up giving in.
It really comes down to self-control, and self-control is a skill that has to be practiced. To prevent binging it's better to avoid cheat days or cheat meals if you are prone to going overboard and eating to excess.
They Don't Give Time for Your Body to Adapt to a Diet
The human body is capable of some incredible things, but it isn't capable of drastic dietary change in a mere week's time. Those that stick with a typical once a week free-for-all won't see the same results of their diet during the week compared to those that skip cheat days. Sure, your body will still change and you can still lose weight, but it isn't as effective.
Some diets can easily fail with cheat days as well, particularly low-carb or keto diets. If you eat fewer carbs during the week, your body will begin to burn fat for energy, in a state called ketosis. This study suggests that low-carb or keto diets has proven to be effective on obese patients.
However, remaining in a state of ketosis is dependent upon the number of carbs consumed, so a cheat day can easily throw the body right out of this state. Since it'll take a few days to get into ketosis, your body barely has any time to burn fat in this way before the next cheat day.
A better method of maintaining proper nutrition but still getting a bit more to eat is to switch out cheat days with refeed days.
What is a Refeed Day?
Despite the term "refeed day" often being used interchangeably with "cheat day" there is actually a significant difference between the two. Refeed days are a strategy of eating more in one day than you normally would, but without drastically deviating from your diet. While cheat days are often treated as a junk food binge with no regards to nutritional or caloric intake, refeed days are tracked and carefully planned to refuel your body with specific nutrients.
Typical refeed days focus on reducing fat intake and increasing carbohydrate intake, while maintaining a fairly normal protein level. This may seem incredibly basic and hardly strategic, but the science behind refeeding is surprisingly positive - and it all comes down to the hormone called leptin.
Leptin is commonly known as the hormone responsible for controlling satiation. As the body loses fat and carbohydrate intake is reduced, the leptin hormone decreases. This process causes the body to feel less satiated overtime. Ironically this issue is very common in fat-loss diets, and often noticed as the person begins to hit a plateau despite eating the same diet that spurred initial weight loss so effectively.
A refeed day is designed to boost these leptin levels back up through a caloric increase within healthy diet parameters, not on junk food. There are plenty of studies that support the power of leptin, such as this one and this one.
Are There Any Benefits of Cheat Days?There will likely always be the argument that cheat days are beneficial, even when science says otherwise.
Though nearly everyone can agree than binge-eating on junk food isn't a good idea and offers no benefits to physical health, it might take a little more convincing when it comes to possible psychological benefits. Here are a few reasons why keeping cheat days in your regimen may be helpful:
Hitting an 80/20 Diet is More Flexible
Trying to eat a strict diet 100% of the time is nearly impossible. Sadly many people attempt this only to fail, with their failure leading to a complete binge and giving up on their diet. Instead of having a goal of 100% try for 80%/20%. Striving to eat on par with whichever diet you're on at least 80% of the time is far more realistic and comfortable. The other 20% isn't just for cheating, but rather, to cover the times where you don't have access to foods that align with your diet and the occasional cheat meals. After all, a diet shouldn't be treated as a lifestyle. Know that you have made allowances for slip-ups so when you do have a cheat meal you won't feel guilty.
Cheat Meals are Mentally Rewarding
You've probably heard of dopamine before - the chemical released in the brain when we experience pleasure. This chemical is the reason why cheat meals feel so rewarding and the main reason many people refuse to give them up. Limit your indulgence to one meal a week and work towards changing your mindset from a cheat meal being a goal to a cheat meal being a treat for a job well done.
Occasional Cheat Days Won't Ruin Your Success
Similarly to the 80/20 rule, it's important to remember that diet shouldn't completely rule what you eat to the point you feel miserable as this just makes it more likely for you to fall off. A whole cheat day isn't advisable since many days worth of work can be put to waste from a day-long binge on sugar, salts, and fats. However, if you stick to a good diet regimen with few cheat meals you can enjoy a cheat day on occasion. This means if you happen to be going to a party or a day-long event where you really just want to kickback and relax you can. It comes down to personal preference but those with a healthy relationship with food may prefer skipping cheat meals and just having a cheat day when the opportunity strikes them.
Cheat days aren't necessarily the worst thing, even if many people could be better off without them. It is important to keep in mind that in the beginning of a new diet it may be better to skip on these treats until you really develop healthier food habits.
What Should You Do?
Within online fitness forums and communities you'll find that many people aren't oblivious to the negative health effect of cheat days, but rather find that a cheat day is something to look forward to and thereby makes them stick to a healthy diet more strictly. If you fall into this category and are reluctant to give up cheat days, consider reducing an entire cheat day down to just one cheat meal or one cheat item.
If you're ready to give up cheat days and see results from your diet more quickly, you can look into starting a refeed day regimen based on your needs. Remember, having a slice of cake or a hamburger isn't going to destroy your diet efforts. It all comes down to developing healthy eating habits and controlling those cravings by limiting your indulgences.
Zoey is a part-time blogger and a full-time nurse. She is the founder and editor of leanrecipes.com an avenue for sharing her passion about juicing, plant-based diet and living a healthier lifestyle.
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